Andy Milne considers the questions of the UK’s continuing involvement in the European Union.
Even as late as the 1970s children starting school in the Channel Islands still spoke French and had to learn English. Not only is a version of French still spoken in Jersey and Guernsey, but London is apparently the sixth largest French speaking city in Europe. Links with the continent die hard.
The EU referendum on 23 June is not about leaving Europe, far from it. Britain will continue to be an integral part of this tangled comity of nations, whatever the result of the vote.
Britain has always been involved in the Continent, its history a steel hawser, not a thread, through European history. The vote is about how we are governed and should be seen against a wider, richer, historical canvas – a sort of Bayeux Tapestry de nos jours.
Dial back two millennia and even before it became a province of the Roman Empire, Britain was in trouble for aiding the Gauls. Expeditionary forces so maddened Julius Caesar he staged an unsuccessful invasion. It wouldn’t be the last time the British courted military disaster whilst helping out the French in their long succession of existential crises.
The Hundred Years War, the Entente Cordiale and the Concert of Europe bear testimony to British involvement with Europe. Parisian intellectuals suggest the reason we speak such excruciating French is the fault of the Norman Conquest. The British are still stuck with the short vowels and mispronunciation William the Conqueror bequeathed us. We’re European all right. The Royal Family originates in Germany. Our very currency was once defined as £-s-d – the ‘d’ meaning penny stands for ‘denarius,’ the smallest Roman coin. Strange to think the most fervent nationalist has been jingling the precursor to the ill-fated Euro in his pocket for over 2,000 years. It might not be worth much but it’s still change you can believe in.
Ever closer union is the drumbeat of the EU and will lead to an incremental federal state along American lines. If fired by a vision of peace and concord, such a United States of Europe could be a powerful force for good in the world. We hear too little of this noble vision. Imagine a free country stretching from the frozen wastes of Lapland to the burning frontiers of Iran, Iraq and Syria.
People point to America and Switzerland as glowing examples of fully functional federal states. However, several points need to be born in mind. The American Republic works up to a point because its citizens see themselves as American first and Virginians, Texans and Minnesotans, second. Linguistically the country is united by one language – an admittedly eccentric approximation of English.
More importantly Americans are fired by a common vision of liberty and opportunity. Interestingly Switzerland boasts an equally puissant espousal of personal freedom – untraceable bank accounts, instant referenda and a citizen’s militia. Switzerland has never sought to join the EU precisely because such a surrender of sovereignty threatens her much prized neutrality and personal freedom.
ANCIENT AND MODERN
Can an emerging Federal Europe be viewed as an effective functional state along Swiss or American lines? How will the inherited back story of new members like Turkey and Serbia serve concepts of personal liberty, free speech and freedom of religion long embraced by the world’s oldest democracy? Britain’s freedoms date back 600 years and are hard won. Magna Carta established the principle that the government cannot imprison you without the agreement of a judge and jury. The English Civil War reserved to parliament the right to approve taxation. The Reform Act of 1832 advanced the concept of one man one vote – women would have to wait another 100 years. Like the railway such liberties need consistent PPM, planned preventative maintenance.
By contrast the European Union is a comparatively recent creation. The Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957. Denmark, the UK and Ireland joined in 1973. Ever-closer union jumped up a gear following the creation of the European Union at Maastricht in 1992. This led in turn to the ill-fated Euro – more disastrous than denarius. The Treaty of Lisbon in 2007 introduced qualified majority voting – meaning one country or indeed several, can be out voted by the rest.
Unlike Switzerland and America, the European Union has no central elected executive. Its governing bodies are staffed by civil servants licensed by their respective governments. These are not mature institutions arrived at by evolved democratic consensus. Static, structured and square, they lack the flexibility necessary for solving the riddles of the unexpected.
No society is static. The British were here long before the first Roman trireme crunched onto Walmer Beach. The English only arrived in the 5th century, migrating across the North Sea from what is now Germany and Denmark in a succession of ill-caulked leaky boats. Many drowned on the way. The Anglo-Saxons set up huge unsanitary camps and refused to adapt to local culture and customs.
Later migrant waves saw Vikings and Norsemen arriving from Scandinavia. Often better traders and tradesmen, they were able to do jobs the locals thought beneath them. Immigration is nothing new. This country depends on a steady feed of talented folk from the Commonwealth and Europe to fuel one of the most powerful economies in the world. It’s a society on which the sun never sets. British employers in farming, construction and retail want hassle-free access to motivated workers. Visas and permits are viewed with suspicion.
One of the singular achievements of the EU is the Schengen agreement. To anyone who remembers the red and white barriers across country lanes of yester-year, being able to walk across a frontier is freedom indeed.
However, it is in dealing with international terror that the EU falters. Intelligent anti-terror footwork means being able to examine and exclude undesirables. This is not possible under EU rules. Unless an individual can be proved to be an imminent threat, he or she cannot be stopped at a frontier. Thus Europe’s migrant crisis masks a real and present danger as the black flagged battalions of our enemies gleefully point out. It is foolhardy to ignore this threat.
AUF WIEDERSEHEN PET
Perhaps the merging of Europe’s armed forces may help. It’s already happening. As of last year, the Dutch army’s 43rd Mechanised Brigade is now part of the German Army’s 1st Armoured Division. Similar mergers with the Czechs are apparently planned. Merged armies worked well enough during the last war. The Free French, Poland’s Anders Army, the Dutch and Norwegians joined with the British to face a common evil.
However, it will be a challenge. Odd to imagine the Royal Gibraltar Regiment teaming up with the south Cadiz chapter of the Guardia Civil. How would a future taskforce to the Falkland Islands be constituted and approved? Will Poland’s hussars be absorbed by the 1st Armoured Division? Germany’s Defence Minister Ursula von der Leye has said unequivocally, ‘The European Army is our long-term goal…’
Imagine the old Durham Light Infantry bidding us ‘Auf Wiedersehen pet.’ Or as they say in the Channel Isles: Till next time – à la prochaine.
THE POLITICS OF DISSENT
The referendum should not be seen in left-right terms or decided by emotional response. Neither should vacuous arguments about being out of pocket feature in the debate. Denarius or not, Britain is the world’s fifth largest economy, London its financial and commercial capital. A confident UK will continue to flourish fired by the dynamism and ingenuity of its many peoples.
However, the deeper issue is the phenomena of popular revolt.
The trend of modern political and economic thinking is away from big institutions and corporations. Amazon, Starbucks,Google, HSBC, the BBC – it’s a growing list of humungous organisations people are unhappy with. Big business is not on the side of the consumer. In contrast look at the success of small to medium businesses – many of them struggling against witless straight-banana bureaucracy. These little firms form the cockpit of innovation and development.
EGGS AND WAFFLES
Establishment politicians fail to articulate a vision of a better world preferring to scaremonger. This is singularly unimpressive. Witness David Cameron’s mauling on live TV by a student. Soraya Bouazzaoui was succinct in her appraisal of Mr Cameron’s career-diminishing performance. ‘You’re not answering the question,’ she said. Then went on. ‘I’m an English literature student. I know waffling when I see it.’ Cameron had been questioned over Turkey’s speeded up admission to the EU. Previously he had argued for Turkey to join as soon as possible. Now he blithely assures us there is no prospect of this. Can his wider observations be trusted?
Voters are fed up with the distant and unresponsive political class. Political correctness has all but enfeebled the ancient right to free speech – that is the ability to rubbish a government, a religion or a dogma. This populist revolts sees the bizarre emergence of Donald Trump as US presidential candidate – on the basis that he is not one of them, despite his vast personal wealth. In Rome, the rebellious Five Star party’s mayoral candidate, Virginia Raggi, tops the polls. Win or lose, Signora Raggi is giving the establishment a run for its last denarius.
Most voters want to see their representatives emerge from within their social context and not from a professional political class. This goes right back to the dawn of democracy when Greek city states elected people to hire soldiers to watch over them. Over-mighty officers could be fired. That is the principle of a democracy. It is a compact between the people and the state.
The late Tony Benn, leading socialist of his generation and friend of Bob Crowe, defined five checks for the exercise of political power: ’What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you use it? To whom are you accountable? How do we get rid of you?’
A Westminster MP can answer all five questions. An EU commissioner cannot adequately respond to any one of them. Leave or remain, the decision rests on how we see the long-term future of the country. It is not a question of finance or caprice.
The real question before voters on 23 June is whether to strengthen Europe as a concert of self-governing sovereign states or merge all 28 nations, together with Turkey and the Balkans, into a federation run from Brussels. Certainly Europe should remain united – a strong network of free and fair democracies – unified by defence treaties and free trade. However, the central strength of a free Europe is the ability of its nations to remove their governments in elections conducted by secret ballot. Should we retain this basic prerogative? That is our choice on 23 June 2016.