We underestimate the importance of Europe’s different political cultures. They shape attitudes to the European Union. For many years I’ve visited a small Spanish village just below the snow-line in the Sierra Nevada. Opposite the gates of the cemetery is a rock wall with a faded, but visible, cluster of white painted crosses. Everyone knows which are the local Republican, Communist, and pro-Franco families. Despite EU-funded changes, a swimming pool, a new road, a reliable water supply, pick-up trucks instead of mules, historical memory is strong.
Even with O’ level Latin, diligent inspection of El Pais detects passion, honour, intransigence and vitriol at the heart of Spanish political speeches. Former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s response to ETA’s goodbye swansong amounted to “we defeated you, stop talking rubbish, good riddance”. In the midst of the Catalan crisis not a single reconciliatory word came from the Spanish government, nor from King Felipe, wagging his finger at the separatists.
Likewise Eastern Europe has its own particularities. It is easy to take the high ground on refugee questions, to pour moral opprobrium on the Hungarian, Czech, Polish – (and now the new Frankenstein populist Italian governments). It is merited. But some consideration needs to be given to their historical memories too. The experience of the foreigner, Ottoman, Russian, or Nazi, has been dismemberment, occupation, fear and resistance. A kind of survivor nationalist trauma has infected the bloodstream emerging in a xenophobic way in the circumstances of the 21st. century.
Historical memory blends imperceptibly into historical myth - and sometimes into historical amnesia. This is well illustrated in the UK. My guess would be that the majority of the British population can trace their ancestry during the last three hundred years to people born outside the UK. Immigration has been constitutive and positive for Britain, varying in intensity and place of origin from Huguenots to Irish Catholics sleeping rough on the Liverpool docks, from Windrush to Poles. Attitudes to immigration have changed. What remained consistent is intolerance and hostility prior to integration, followed by acceptance, except during the heyday of Empire when doors were open and welcome official. If you want to know the exact contemporary state of play look at Dame Louise Casey’s carefully researched review of integration published in December 2016.
But what singles Britain out from her European neighbours is not so much the 20 miles of sea from the coast to the Continent, crossed by generations of immigrants, but the failure of invaders to do the same. The UK has not been occupied since 1066. It does not share that profound European historical experience. Britain had its civil war before civil wars could literally destroy a country (Sherman had a good try in the Confederate South of the USA and consider those States political tradition).
Britain’s experience of surviving catastrophic defeat at Dunkirk, seven days in May 1940, became the source of a resonant national myth. Resonant because like all prevailing myths it contains a significant kernel of truth. In its own vision Britain became the plucky little island that single handed held out against the global menace of fascism while countries east and west of the Maginot line fell before the Nazi blitzkrieg. A national weakness for the posh, eccentric celebrity with a clear message and the gift of the gab developed along with a belief that with ball of string and amateur know-how, Britain can go it alone. This popular narrative was immensely reinforced by the clever work of the Ministry of Information during the Second World War. Ball-of-string Britain was fighting Hitler’s inhuman mechanised military juggernaut. David versus Goliath. Davis versus Barnier. In the words of Prime Minister John Major in 1993: “Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers”. A quarter of a century on and the green suburbs have yet to be conquered.
There may be Brexiteers who believe that BREXIT is necessary to destroy dependency on the Welfare State, create an economic crisis and forcibly generate, or restore, the innovative potential contained in our national myth. But it is the myth itself that drives the grey BREXIT vote: We didn’t let them in when they came with tanks and doodle-bugs so why should we let them in when they come in the back of lorries and on Eurostar? We can stand proudly alone and anyone who thinks different is a traitor.
Well, we were very lucky that Japan finally brought the USA into the war and that Hitler’s military misjudgment opened an eastern front and brought in Soviet military power on the allied side. The world has changed. Britain’s undoubted capacity for innovation and research needs the vast EU market and its skill-sets, the bright entrepreneurial immigrants, and the manual labour, to do well just as it has for the past fifty years. Nostalgia is a poor substitute for economic policy.
The European Union must also acknowledge reality. It is time to admit that the differences in political cultures, historical experience, economic stability and social cohesion of its 28 different states cannot be managed merely in terms of “margins of appreciation”, the official term for allowing a small amount of wriggle-room for each national culture while retaining the EU’s core, human rights, values. As the rise of popular and governmental anti-EU sentiment demonstrates, the differences now require something like a two-tier EU to be accommodated. Ironically this requires the innovative, empirical and pragmatic British tradition subverting the principled deductive ways of thinking in the EU Commission.
Short of a further shock to the system, the metastasis of populism into more EU member states for example, such a crise de conscience is most unlikely to happen. Both Britain and Europe are indeed in crisis. Meanwhile Mr. Putin is laughing along with his cyber-warriors.