Sunday, October 30, 2016

Britain. After 55 years seeking a role again.

My hotel here in Dhaka is in the diplomatic district of the city. Across the road construction work is underway on a large new building which the boards outside reveal to be the “Franco German Embassy”. No doubt the rabid haters of all things European will feel that this initiative confirms their worst fears. For if two nations which spent the first half of the twentieth century fighting one another can now be sufficiently close that they share an Embassy can the first “European Embassy” be far behind? Along with, of course, the “European Super State” about which they so noisily complain. In the long term probably not, I would think, and that’s something to cheer on not to jeer about.


The new Embassy is an overtly political symbol – though there will be sound economic reasons as well. The costs of the construction and operation of the Embassy will be shared – not least the costs of security. High these days anywhere, but particularly so in Bangladesh. But the symbolism is the real reason. If the French and the Germans share an Embassy that can only be on the foundation of also sharing a foreign policy and the reality is that that policy is not just theirs, but Europe’s as a whole.


When you have a broad-based coalition of 28 sovereign states there can’t be major differences of approach to international relations. The EU is not just an economic union, it is a political one as well. And you cannot have such a union if its member states disagree strongly with one another about external affairs. That there is common interest across Europe is fairly self-evident – even, I would argue, including the United Kingdom. Britain’s foolish and deadly adventure in Iraq, which was not supported by any of our European partners, was a blip in pan-European unity. But more than a decade later there is a greater spirit of cooperation across the EU’s 28 member states and only insular and petty nationalism could block the inevitability of “ever closer union”.


There is nationalism in pockets across Europe and that has led to the rise of parties of the extremes of Right and (in some cases) Left.  There is no room for complacency about this – history teaches us that in times of difficulty the extremes can prosper. The disadvantaged in America who will vote for the simplistic, banal nationalism of Donald Trump are not far removed from those who believed the snake oil of Britain’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and of the others who ran a disreputable and xenophobic campaign during the EU Referendum earlier this year. Nationalism does not just require the crude and maudlin portrayal of national symbols – the flag, sentimental anthems, the currency, reverence for institutions like the monarchy, nostalgia and reliving past glories –it also requires scapegoats. These are, of course, people and institutions that are external to the core of the nation and its history and who can be blamed for its ills. For Trump it’s Muslims and Mexicans (etc.). For UKIP and its fellow travellers it is the European Union, as an entity, and its officials as individuals – and, of course, foreigners in general and immigrants in particular. And for Hitler it was the Jews. Any study of the malevolence of Nationalism is also a study of bigotry, prejudice, intolerance and chauvinism. Patriotism is the veneer which barely disguises Nationalism. That patriotism is the “last refuge of a scoundrel”, as Samuel Johnson put it, we have evidence in abundance in Britain in 2016.


The opposite of Nationalism is Internationalism. That principle lay at the heart of Churchill’s call in 1946 “… to re-create the European Family… and provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom. We must build a kind of United States of Europe.” That is precisely what the European Union has done and is doing. This does not mean a Federal Europe and certainly not a “Super State” – except perhaps in the very long term. But it does mean closer union and also to a post-NATO European Defence Force as guarantor of the “peace and safety”. That the United Kingdom has chosen to be outside of this progress is distressing – the wrong decision, made for the wrong reasons at the wrong time. Churchill did not see Britain as being part of his united Europe – but that was a different Britain. In 1946 we were still Imperial Britain, a “Great Power” and the United States’ closest ally. None of that now applies. And when in 1962 Dean Acheson said “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role” he was pointing to this emerging reality. 

The answer to the question of what Britian’s ideal post-Imperial role would be was arguably clear just before Acheson said what he said. In 1961 The UK applied to be a member of the then “European Economic Community”. At the time Macmillan acknowledged that the EEC was more than “just” an economic entity. He said:


“This is a political as well as an economic issue. Although the Treaty of Rome is concerned with economic matters it has an important political objective, namely, to promote unity and stability in Europe which is so essential a factor in the struggle for freedom and progress throughout the world”


By applying for EEC membership the UK’s post-Imperial role was effectively being prescribed. It was to be, along with Germany and France, one of the leaders in a United Europe. This may well be why General de Gaulle initially rebuffed the application! But in a few years time, and post de Gaulle, the UK took its rightful place (many would say) among the leaders of the new Europe.


In a parallel world the new Embassy in Dhaka would be the “British Franco German Embassy” – a reflection of the progress made in European cooperation and of the tripartite drivers of it. Fanciful? No more so than the reality of the “Franco German Embassy” surely.  


But now what? It took fifteen years for Britain to realise that to be part of the new Europe – indeed to be a key player in building it – was the right thing to do. Fifty-five years later, with much of the hard work of unification having been done and (especially) with democratic intuitions having been successfully introduced, we have decided to walk away. To what? Well nobody knows – least of all the Government wrestling with the enormity of what we’ve done.  The clock cannot be rolled back to 1946, or indeed to 1961. This is a Club which once you’ve left you can’t rejoin.


There is no Bliss in this new dawn to be alive, and for the young especially it is very hell. It was the meagre, stale, forbidding ways which got us here and the false and nationalistic “attraction” of a country in romance with its past. Sadly Reason failed to assert her rights. She was lost to the forces that would not go forward in her name.


At 9:46 am , Blogger Unknown said...

Sharing a 'Euro' embassy and all it stands for makes perfect sense and makes me feel no less British if that was a concern to me.

At 6:38 pm , Blogger Unknown said...

Britain’s foolish and deadly adventure in Iraq, which was not supported by any of our European partners, was a blip in pan-European unity.

Sorry but this is obviously untrue, as even a cursory understanding of the period would suggest.

From what I recall, 8 out of the then 15 EU member states supported the war.
Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Netherland , Denmark (I think), plus the eastern European states (Poland I remember being strong on this point).

There was no reason for European unity on this subject as it was a foreign policy issue, well beyond the scope of the EU at the time.

For the record, the UK tried to secure a common EU position but the French were the ones who (for internal political reasons) scuppered this.


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