Britannia versus Brussels: Stuck in the Middle with EU

Never trust a travel writer
Forgive me for straying from my travel brief but Britain’s role in Europe is far more important than cheap flights and boutique beds – even if tourism will be affected by any decision to leave the EU. Let me nail my colours to the European mast. The EU may be flawed but it’s more than a marriage of convenience. Grab a glass of Euro fizz and get ready to disagree with my musings.
– summary

Following the Brexit negotiations in Brussels, I faced French scorn in our local boulangerie: “You Brits have to play by the club rules or leave; you never show solidarity with Europe.” My tart response was worthy of Basil Fawlty in his tub-thumping heyday: "The British are solidaire with Europe when it counts, during two World Wars and the recent terrorist attacks in Paris." The bakery customers looked sheepish, then burst into smiles and virtually applauded. But no free baguette. Still, it could equally well have gone the full Fawlty Towers, as with those unsuspecting German guests: “So, that's two egg mayonnaise, a prawn Goebbels, a Hermann Goering, and four Colditz salads.”

David Cameron’s EU deal was never going to be game-changing reform and it’s ingenuous to pretend otherwise. Negotiating with 27 countries, all with conflicting agendas, produced concessions that would never appease British Eurosceptics’ unrealistic demands - even if, in terms of the European club, these concessions could be deemed generous. As a member of a club, Britain would never be allowed a fully `pick and mix’ approach to the bloc's rules. That said, the deal has demeaned all parties. The decision to stay in or leave the EU should not hinge on mere migrant counting or the number of years that a Polish plumber is excluded from benefits. At the close of negotiations, the Brussels correspondent on France 24 was already apoplectic at Britain’s blinding audacity and selfishness. Anything more and Polish plumbers would have been despatched to dismantle British bathrooms. French onion-sellers and foie gras producers were probably already storming their way to Calais, a once famous English port that only fell to the dastardly French in 1558.

Cupboard love in chocolate-box Europe

The Continental press often claims that Britain treats Europe like a box of chocolates, picking out the soft centres and leaving the hard nuts for the Continentals to crack. At best, it’s seen as a case of cupboard love: trade not treaties; strictures not solidarity; moralising not migrant-sharing. No one asked Britain to marry into European federalism but some fraternal hugging would still not go amiss.     

To my regret, Britain will never love the EU or even look beyond the caricatures cultivated by a largely hostile national press and an isolationist temperament.  A nexus of deep-seated mistrust verging on visceral antipathy precludes any proper relationship with Europe. Cleverly, Boris Johnson plays the non-xenophobic card by proclaiming his lingering love of Brussels, implying that, like a fickle spouse, it was the EU’s fault for changing, “rather as the vast new Euro palaces of glass and steel now lower over the little cobbled streets in the heart of the Belgian capital.” Leaving aside Boris’ lack of qualms about erecting “palaces of glass and steel” in London’s cobbled streets, the Mayor is suspect on the fidelity front. It all smacks of fake nostalgia and faux European sentiments.

Brussels, once my home, is a boisterous, surreal place, brimming with bonhomie and the best bars in Europe. But to most Brits, Brussels means boring bureaucrats and their single-minded obsession with bludgeoning British sovereignty as if the nation were the great British crisp. We can all bore for Brussels about `threats’ to prawn cocktail crisps and Melton Mowbray pork pies but many such fears are fanned by the Eurosceptic populist press. Remember that `ban’ against British eggs being sold by the dozen? The `news’ was scrambled. For every ten petty Brussels edicts, there is a sensible one: misshapen fruit can now be sold in supermarkets; Scottish wild salmon and Stilton cheese are protected. Britain even won the chocolate battle: a thirty-year war ended in 2003 with Brussels unbanning British chocolate, deemed too milky and made with vegetable fat rather than full cocoa butter. Hmm, I’m still with the Continental chocolate purists on that one.

British chocolate treats © Tante Marie
British chocolate treats © Tante Marie

Of course, the battle against Brussels’ remit goes beyond bittersweet chocolate. Excessive European regulation can, and does, undermine British freedoms across the board. From chocolate to criminal law, “Brussels’ interference” is the kernel of the Eurosceptics’ case against EU membership. But in Europe’s star confectionery club, you can’t have your chocolate and eat it. From the product to the packaging, the laws must be seen to govern all parties, all member countries. Nor would the rules and regulations disappear if Britain, out of the EU, sought to follow either the Swiss or the Norwegian models. The fractious relationship would prevail, but with less power to influence results.

Putting the Great back into Great Britain

For now, resurgent British nationalism chimes as loudly as the bells of Big Ben. For leavers, it’s a clarion call to march onto the moral high ground, even if it’s really a murky morass. Here’s tub-thumping minister, Michael Gove, putting the great back into Great Britain: “In Britain we set up the first free parliament, we ensured no one could be arbitrarily detained, we forced our rulers to recognise they ruled by consent not by right, we led the world in abolishing slavery, we established free education for all, national insurance, the NHS and a national broadcaster respected across the world.” It’s a rallying cry to take up arms in defence of a job lot of Britishness, from the BBC and Strictly Come Dancing to St George and your friendly GP, fair play and parliamentary democracy.

All this would make a wonderful obituary of Britain, but Britain hasn’t died. Britain is thriving within Europe. All those quintessential British values remain, beloved by many and enshrined in myriad institutions. Nor should patriotism be the preserve of the stompers-off-and-leavers. You can be patriotically British and still remain in Europe. Even the Queen tacitly agrees, and who would question her patriotism, her Britishness or her international credentials. The Queen’s European credentials are curiously relevant to offsetting the flag-waving patriotism of the Europhobes. Born of anti-German sentiment in 1917, the House of Windsor is built on solid German foundations but has morphed into a cuddly, corgi-loving family, as English as cricket and the Changing of the Guard. The former Saxe-Coburg-Gotha dynasty feels cosily non-Teutonic, despite the Queen marrying a melting-pot prince with Greek, Danish and German heritage, a Euro-prince educated in Paris, Germany and Scotland. This rewriting of royal history has repercussions for both British identity and the nation’s sense of its place in the world. If the national figurehead is no royal mongrel but spun as blue-bloodedly British, then Europe is always `other,’ and the British are always outsiders, a brave warrior nation battling for independence and individualism against suffocating European conformity.     

Monster Euroland versus Magical Britannia

Nostalgia harnessed to national pride and political protest is a tempting but toxic mix. Matthew Goodwin, an academic specialising in Britain’s role with Europe, finds that “more affluent, educated and ethnically secure places in Britain” tend to be more pro-European, with Eurosceptic constituencies more “blue-collar, grey-haired, financially struggling and lacking qualifications.” But in terms of individuals this bald generalisation doesn’t begin to explain the polarisation of views.

The desire for withdrawal from Europe centres on conflicting visions of nationhood. Not all who wish to leave are deluded Little Englanders in denial about Britain’s diminished place in the world. Even so, many still harbour a longing for the days when Britannia ruled the waves: it’s there in the flotsam of memory and in the mythology of proud British battles that trip off the tongue. It’s a seductive vision of a seafaring nation going it alone, with nothing but pragmatism and patriotism to put wind in her sails. By 1815, Britain became the first global power in modern history, using its military and economic muscle to protect free trade and open markets. Eurosceptics still see Britain as the potential hub of an intercontinental trading network. Diminished glory out is better than decent prosperity in.  And if it all collapses on the Continent, let’s be the proverbial good losers and pull up the drawbridge.

Fears of a European superstate fuel many to vote for leaving, even if Britain has won exemption from the euro, from an integrated economy, from the full federalist project and “an ever closer union.” But this debate goes far deeper than reason, into murky areas where national identity is forged. The oft-cited “erosion of democracy” has as much to do with bolshie resentment towards Brussels (“we’re more than a star on someone else’s flag”) as it does with the desire to forge our own destiny. It feels liberating to cock a snoop at bossy Brussels and stride off into the sunset, with all guns blazing.

World's Largest Peace Bell © Visit Trentino
World's Largest Peace Bell © Visit Trentino

Riding the populist bandwagon, Boris Johnson articulates this as “a moment to be brave, to reach out – not to hug the skirts of Nurse in Brussels, and refer all decisions to someone else.” Far braver would be to stay in and have the occasional strop with Nurse without throwing the nuclear toys out of the pram. Britain’s role in Europe, quietly endorsed by Germany, Scandinavia and Eastern bloc members, is to act as the standard-bearer for the sensible party, where pragmatism prevails over philosophy, free trade trumps federalism, and some sovereignty is celebrated. At times, Britain playing “the bad boy of Europe” acts as a brake on foolhardy schemes. What’s more, within the EU, only Britain has shoulders broad enough to bear the weight of scapegoating. In a redrawn Europe devoid of British influence, disintegration is a likely scenario: the Franco-German axis would come under huge strain, with a failing France and resurgent Germany causing the Euro edifice to come tumbling down.

Fearful Fortress Britain

Sadly, some in the leave camp are fuelled by little more than knee-jerk antipathy to a mythologised `Monster Euroland.’ In Monster Euroland, “migrants are flooding our shores,” “foreigners take our jobs” and “they never vote for us in the Eurovision Song Contest anyway.” To be fair, all but the most xenophobic citizens are still articulating anxiety about the future of `their’ nation, and their uncertain place in it. I admit to a flickering of shameful sentiments myself: while renewing my British passport, I was disconcerted by the babble of tongues and array of multilingual notices explaining how to fill out the form. A wave of righteous indignation flooded over me: “If this lot can’t even speak basic English, they don’t deserve a British passport; they can’t all be refugees from war-torn Syria.”    

Deep-seated fears about immigration reflect a sense of political voicelessness and disengagement in Britain and beyond. Since 2014, nearly two million immigrants have flooded into Europe and the borderless Schengen zone is struggling and rapidly reintroducing borders. Even if immigration from the rest of the EU has been good for Britain's economy, the issue is emotive and divisive. But Brexit and Fortress Britain are not the answer. While there is a sound case for controlling immigration, populist forces within UKIP and the tabloid press play to the gallery and exploit prejudices. What’s more, as the price of being given access to the free market, a post-Brexit Britain might well have to agree to allow free movement of EU migrants. European disarray has exacerbated the crisis but if ever there were an issue crying out for a coordinated European response, it is immigration.

Dunkirk spirit © Lisa Gerard-Sharp
Dunkirk spirit © Lisa Gerard-Sharp

“It’s the economy, stupid”

If immigration is the most emotive rallying call to the troops, the economy will be the final battleground and is the most winnable front for the “staying in” camp. The economic case for leaving the EU has yet to be made. Eurosceptics peddle patriotic pipedreams along the lines of grand vistas of opportunity, Climb Every Mountain dreams and schemes.  The UK's contribution to the EU budget is nothing compared with the benefits to business of being in the single market. The bloc is Britain’s main trading partner, worth more than £400bn a year, around 52% of the total trade in goods and services. There is no coherent plan regarding Britain’s role outside the EU, beyond a faith that it will all come right in the end. What’s more, Britain’s growth forecasts are based, in part, on continued high levels of net migration. According to a report from the pro-EU Centre for European Reform, “The idea that the UK would be freer outside the EU is based on a series of misconceptions, that a medium-sized, open economy could hold sway in an increasingly fractured trading system dominated by the US, the EU and China; that the EU makes it harder for Britain to penetrate emerging markets; and that foreign capital would be more attracted to Britain's economy if it were no longer part of the single market."

But listen to Boris bigging up Britain as if he were presenting a product to investors in Dragon’s Den: “We are the European, if not the world, leaders in so many sectors of the 21st-century economy; not just financial services, but business services, the media, biosciences, universities, the arts, technology of all kinds; and we still have a dizzyingly fertile manufacturing sector.” What’s more, in campaigning against the corporatocracy, Boris Johnson seems to have forgotten that he is also Mayor of London and the public face of the City of London, a constituency pleading to stay in Europe. Whatever the public thinks of bankers, protection of this sector is fundamental to British prosperity.

Sovereignty, what sovereignty?

Eurosceptic David Davis talks up the referendum as a way to “give us back our heritage, give us back our future, give us back control of our own country." This is misplaced patriotism, mindless regression, a Little Englander version of our national past and an isolationist view of our national future. Our heritage is barely threatened while the future is ours to lose. Boris is on stronger ground by focusing purely on the erosion of British democracy: “We have given so much to the world, in ideas and culture, but the most valuable British export and the one for which we are most famous is the one that is now increasingly in question: parliamentary democracy – the way the people express their power.” The democratic deficit with the EU is an undisputed fact but the price to remedy it risks the dismantling of the United Kingdom and the disintegration of the EU. Britain has relinquished some parliamentary powers as the price of belonging to the world’s most successful trading bloc but this has to be weighed against the greater good in terms of peace and prosperity. Is a notional loss of sovereignty sufficient for Britain to storm out of the West’s greatest concert of nations? As David Cameron says, if leaving is merely “an illusion of sovereignty without power,” the choice is loaded in favour of staying. Thus Britain’s true choice is between sovereignty without power and influence outside Europe, or power and influence with diminished sovereignty inside Europe.  

Here’s Boris Johnson off on an anti-federalist flight of fancy: “The fundamental problem remains: that the EU has an ideal that we do not share. They want to create a truly federal union, when most British people do not.” Boris was presumably snoozing when Britain’s “special status” was agreed, including the opt out from both the euro and “ever closer union.” And what price sovereignty if we lose Scotland? Boris must be ready to countenance the break up of the United Kingdom, given the Scots’ determination to seek a referendum on independence should Britain vote to leave the EU. Whatever one thinks of Scottish independence, the Scots `get’ Europe in a way that is alien to many English citizens. It’s a cultural bonding that goes beyond economic interests and nose-thumbing at Westminster.  To the smaller nation, being part of a European club represents security rather than an encroachment on sovereignty, probably rendered even sweeter were the `yoke’ from Britain removed.

More than a marriage of convenience
Lisa's Euro wedding © Damian Bailey Photography
Lisa's Euro wedding © Damian Bailey Photography

Columnist Matthew Parris makes a strong case for staying in on the basis of security, not self-interest:  “We might give a thought to the impact British withdrawal would have on the West. Not just “What’s in it for us?” but “What would our departure do to Europe and the world.” Through the EU, once warring European states are bound together by bureaucracy. It’s not a sexy solution to war but dull, domesticated togetherness still beats romantic self-determination. It is this tedium of treaties, rules and regulations that weaves disparate nations into a safer whole, with red tape a reasonable price for peace. As academic Ian Morris says, “For the first time in history, huge numbers of people – 500 million so far – have come together to form a bigger society without anyone using force to make them do so.” Even Boris Johnson admits that the EU has done a good job on this front: “We should remember that this federalist vision is not an ignoble idea. It was born of the highest motives – to keep the peace in Europe.” David Cameron is clear: “Pulling up drawbridges would be disastrous.”

Drawbridge Britain or in bed with Brussels

Here’s Boris Johnson floundering over Britain’s future lack of influence outside the EU: “Whatever happens, Britain needs to be supportive of its friends and allies – but on the lines originally proposed by Winston Churchill: interested, associated, but not absorbed; with Europe – but not comprised. We have spent 500 years trying to stop continental European powers uniting against us. There is no reason (if everyone is sensible) why that should happen now, and every reason for friendliness.”

What a fudge and folly. In the same breath, Boris admits that the European project has kept the peace for so long. It may be unromantic, but the EU remains a radical political experiment that keeps us safer in than out. Britain’s allies, from America onwards, unreservedly want Britain to remain within Europe, as do all the UK’s European partners. Former Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls also supports the geostrategic juggling act of reforming the EU from within. “Necessary EU changes will not come quickly enough for Britain’s referendum but that is all the more reason why Britain must retain its influence in Europe to fight and win these arguments in the years to come.” Without influence in Brussels and Berlin, Britain becomes an isolated, maverick state, side-lined by Washington and the West, including its erstwhile European partners. Britain’s position on transnational issues risks being swept aside, whether on trade and travel or security and the environment.

Splendid isolation is a fantasy since Continental commitment is inevitable. As historian Niall Ferguson argues, it is a delusion to believe in “a largely imaginary `Anglosphere,’ to believe we can somehow exit Europe, pull up an imaginary drawbridge and resuscitate a 19th-century ideal of parliamentary sovereignty… All we have to choose today is the form of our commitment. We can declare fog in the Channel – continent cut off” by voting for Brexit. But the idea that we can thereby separate ourselves from Europe is an illusion. For the future of Europe without us would be one of escalating instability.” Eurosceptics please take note.

British but (a bit) European?
Sussex and the World show © Julia Claxton
Sussex and the World show © Julia Claxton

Come the referendum on Britannia versus Brussels, British national identity is the joker in the pack. Despite a melting-pot heritage, the British play up their singularity and psychic distance from Europe. The British feel less European than any other European nation, with surveys showing that around 65 percent deny feeling European in any way. From Tony Blair to Nick Clegg and David Cameron, pro-European British leaders have not brought their citizens any closer to the Continent. To most, America is shorthand for a shared language and culture but Europe means a curious confabulation of Brussels bureaucracy and happy holidayland.

We play down our historical debt to Europe and shared heritage, from Greek democracy to Roman rule and the Norman Conquest, with its legacy of castles, cathedrals, centralisation and a new layer of language. In between, the Germanic Anglo-Saxon legacy was nothing less than the English language. Before that, the Roman Conquest brought the first written records in English history, along with cities, roads, rules and a rich language. Arguably, the Roman invasion forged Britishness, meaning that a disparate set of tribal peoples then defined themselves against the Romans. Thus the Celtic Welsh could claim to be true heirs to the Ancient Britons while the Scots could be proud of being unconquered. And, in Boudicca, the English gained a warrior heart and a sense of battling against the tide of European history. According to Roman historian Mike Ibeji, Rome's major legacy lay in the fact that every ensuing generation of British inhabitant – “be they Saxon, Norman, Renaissance English or Victorian - were striving to be Roman. Each was trying to regain the glory of that long-lost age when Britannia was part of a grand civilisation, which shaped the whole of Europe and was one unified island.” Either we were once European or British isolationism is partly the Romans’ fault. 

As an island race, the British are still cocooned in their own world rather than fully part of the Continent. Despite multiculturalism, British singularity is not a myth, even if it’s burnished in the telling. Winston Churchill celebrated Britain as an island race with both roots and routes:  steadfast in adversity, at once anchored in the land yet commanding the seas. This bipolar concept of a common culture forged through mobility and mingling has served Britain well. From the monarchy to parliamentary democracy and the welfare state, emblematic institutions can be championed, but these are already enshrined in the fabric of the nation. Traditionalism is wonderful but triumphalism less so. To safeguard our magnificent heritage we don’t need to wrap ourselves in the Union Jack and stomp off into the sunset. Triumphalism can lapse into a nostalgic vision of a nation raiding the dressing up box of British history, an outmoded Anglocentricity celebrated with Pimms, strawberries and cream and the chimes of Big Ben. You can cherish such emblems and still value Britain’s role in Europe.

Champagne on British Pullman © Belmond
Champagne on British Pullman © Belmond

Britain now needs to shape decisions on its own Continent – for the sake of us all. Becoming slightly more European doesn’t mean relinquishing Britishness. Our island story should be bold enough to embrace Boudicca and Brussels, fair play and fraternity¸ sovereignty and consensus-building, tradition, tolerance and tea. Being British already allows for multiple identities so why not add one more: proudly European. Perhaps even the Eurosceptics could manage being pigheadedly British but grudgingly European. In return, if Britain votes to remain in Europe, I’ll happily celebrate with Sussex sparkling wine or Scotch whisky rather than French Champagne or Belgian beer.

© Lisa Gerard-Sharp

Copyright © Lisa Gerard-Sharp. All rights reserved.
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  1. Jasper Gerard27/02/16

    Excellent tour de force - and bang on. Brave to say that in the shop if you hadn't yet been given your baguette...

  2. Layla Bianchi28/02/16

    Great article, Lisa. A balanced account of Britannia's and the EU's "deeds and misdeeds" where your point of view is summarised in your words: "For the future of Europe without us would be one of the escalating instability" . We, on the Continent, need Great Britain in the European Union, an institution which has so far proved to be a mixed bag. Every country still retains its own recipe for European cohesion but the resulting dish doesn't have the right taste. We need to reformulate a better mix, but with Britain on board.

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