The Incontinent of Europe

November 9, 2011 4:22 am Published by Leave your thoughts

“England has saved herself by her exertions,” William Pitt the Younger once declared, “and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example”. As William Hague is something of an expert on Pitt, it surprises me that the Foreign Secretary has evidently yet to point out this superior remark to his leader. That David Cameron sees himself as saviour of Britain by exertion and Europe by example is surely the least part of his self-image.

As a political issue, the management of Europe is never as straightforward as it is deemed to be by those, each as passionate as the other, who espouse or decry the Union. The calamitous G20 summit in Cannes – planned as a great pre-election showcase for Nicolas Sarkozy who is far from assured of winning a second term – left the French president impatient, frustrated and (perhaps worst of all, given his electorate) graceless.

Much (but not all) of the source of Sarkozy’s malheur was the so-called Greek tragedy, wherein the charming and urbane prime minister, George Papandreou, eventually decided (wisely, you might think) to hand on the reins of a bolting crisis for that part of the euro that was once called the drachma.

Meanwhile, the basso buffo of contemporary Europe, Silvio Berlusconi, has said he will go, but (at the time of writing) clings to the wreckage of the Italian economy, having spent the past few years fiddling (evidently with under-age prostitutes) while the Via XX Settembre HQ of the Ministry of Economy and Finance burned.

A week or two earlier, Cameron suffered the humiliation – I don’t think the term is too strong – of a rebuff from very nearly 80 of his own backbenchers over the offer of a referendum on Europe to the British electorate. Cameron, his coalition allies and the Labour opposition are against such a referendum precisely because they all fear that the electorate would vote to opt out of the European Union. It sticks in many a craw, not just those of little Englanders, that Cameron was passionately advocating a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty just two years ago when leader of the opposition.

Referendums on European Union issues have proved treacherous. The new European Constitution, signed into being in Rome in 2004, had to be abandoned once it had been repudiated by Dutch and French voters. The ratification of the Lisbon Treaty was delayed for a year because of an initial rejection of it at a referendum in the Republic of Ireland. And it was Papandreou’s unexpected proposal of a referendum on Europe’s package of measures to tackle the Greek deficit that threw his fellow Eurozone leaders into panic and brought his own premiership to an end. Just as Israel’s allies could not disguise their feelings when the Palestinians elected Hamas, it seems that in Europe too democracy is fine (even in its Greek cradle) so long as it produces the result you want.

On Europe as on so many issues, Cameron is an opportunist rather than an ideologue – what Harold Wilson called a pragmatist. While this is seen by some as a usefully light-footed approach to the “art of the possible” nature of government, the PM does find himself surrounded by ministers and backbenchers who, when push comes to shove, have no intention of trimming on the matter of Europe.

Just as the name of Calais would, she averred, be found inscribed upon the heart of Queen Mary, so the names of Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg might well be found slashed onto the pericardium of the Conservative Party ‘ if, that is, the party actually ran to a heart. Most Tory Prime Ministers since the War – Churchill, Macmillan, Heath, Major, Cameron – have been rather more communitaire than large sections of their party and have found this dichotomy to be a running sore, never healed.

The only Tory PM close to anti-European Union backbench opinion was Margaret “no, no, no” Thatcher who summarised her view in the notorious Bruges speech of 1988: “To try to suppress nationhood and concentrate power at the centre of a European conglomerate would be highly damaging and would jeopardise the objectives we seek to achieve”. Her speechwriter (Sir Ronald Millar?) will have chosen the word “conglomerate” to allow his boss to express her scorn. A mere four years later, non-smoker Thatcher was hired at a reputed million dollars a year as “international political consultant” to tobacco giant Philip Morris which, with its beverage-to-processed cheeses portfolio, is nothing if not a conglomerate. But irony is the abiding humour under which European affairs are conducted.

Anti-Union sentiment is widely encountered across the member nations. A primary engine of that sentiment is undoubtedly an admixture of xenophobia and racism. If nationalist parties throughout the world have one instinct in common, it is suspicion of and hence hatred for their nation’s equivalent of Johnny Foreigner. This is clearly true of English nationalist parties of varying degree of disreputability. Interestingly, it seems very much less true of Scotland where, although contempt for the English often runs white hot, attitudes to continental Europe are considerably more benign. This may well be a product of the “auld alliance” with France that has held sway in varying degrees for upwards of seven centuries.

Suspicion and hatred can readily be traced back to ignorance. As one who feels perfectly comfortable in the company of any race or nationality, I generally account myself a citizen of the world rather than of England, Britain, the UK or Europe. (Conduct, class and creed are altogether a different consideration). But an instinctive scepticism about Europe, if deplorable, is entirely comprehensible. Such multi-national comfort is perhaps relatively rare.

My own instincts favour continuing to be a part of the European Union. Those instincts suggest that withdrawal would prove a disaster for Britain’s trading position and for those hard-won rights and entitlements that are underwritten by European law. The menaces being made by the Tory half of the coalition against the European Court of Human Rights, for instance, make me even surer that I want us to stay in the Union.

The anti-Europeans have never, to my knowledge, made any coherent economic case for the UK’s departure from Europe, probably because there is no such case. Relying on horror stories about bureaucratic foibles reported in the Daily Mail is not a credible substitute. The most honourable living anti-European, Tony Benn, has (it seems to me) moderated his opposition in recent years or at least found other, more compelling campaigns.

But the anti-Europeans are not alone in failing to make a case that resonates intellectually. I have waited some fifty years to hear an argument that I can fillet and reproduce on behalf of the case for a European role for Britain. I have still to hear it. It is as though the pro-Europeans believe that, to coin a phrase, mere “common sense” makes the case for being in Europe.

Perhaps it is a prejudice about the supremely pro-European British politician of the modern era, Roy Jenkins, that leaves me feeling that communitaire means in its essence no more than the favouring of Dante and Schiller over Norman Mailer and Jacqueline Suzann, Velasquez and Van Gogh over Andrew Wyeth and Roy Lichtenstein, Dvorak and Sibelius over Edward MacDowell and Nico Muhly, Gewürztraminer and Pont-l’Évêque over Jack Daniels and Chicken McNuggets (you see how brutal are the terms of battle). The suspicion remains that the pull of the Old World commands a sentimental clout that “civilised” people cannot resist. Robert Hughes’ unbeatable description of the “cultural epiphany” that Europe represented for 19th-century Americans catches it exactly: “six weeks of vomiting at sea, and then – Chartres”.

Jenkins’ well-attested penchant for claret was, I assume, not the sole motor for his rise to the Presidency of the European Commission, a role he played from 1977 to 1981. During his tenure, the articles that led to the creation of the Eurozone were put in place. But also during his time in Brussels, Jenkins began to float an alternative to both the Labour Party (his ancestral home) and the Liberals, with whom he had not previously been known to flirt. His Dimbleby Lecture of 1979, entitled (disingenuously, one might think) ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’, laid down the ground on which was built the new Social Democrat Party, subsequently set up with three other refugees from Labour: David Owen, Shirley Williams and William Rodgers. The most significant mission to unite the so-called Gang of Four was a commitment to the European ideal.

The SDP survived as a separate political entity only for seven years before merging with the Liberal Party (which is why that party is now known as the Liberal Democrats). It would be hard to argue that anything of the SDP’s much-vaunted “breaking the mould” still may be detected in Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems. Doubtless the Liberals would function as the Euroconscience of the present coalition government even if the SDP blip had never come about.

Meanwhile, those of us who sense – I cannot in conscience put it stronger – that Europe is where the UK ought to be still await Clegg, Cameron or some other European advocate making a case that we can understand and carry triumphantly against the xenophobes, Little Englanders and sceptics. It’s not a big ask.

This article was first published on Common Sense, blog belonging to W Stephen Gilbert, an author who has had a long and varied career in television, film, theatre, books, newspapers and magazines


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