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‘I’m not foreign’: Britons and European Integration in 2016

Them and us, from Ben Nevis to Benidorm

Picture the scene: Stockholm airport, sometime in the early 1990s. A guy just off a flight from London – one of my oldest friends, as it happens – goes through customs just after a much older man, obviously very well-to-do, and obviously very confused. Looking at the signs above their heads that directed travellers to the correct queue, the older man turned to my friend and said, exasperated: ‘And where am I supposed to go? I’m not Swedish. And I’m not bloody foreign.’

I’ve laughed about that for nearly twenty-five years. But it does show how many Britons, older and younger, feel even today about the EU and Europe and general. They may like it, they may dislike it (and as a rule of thumb, the young like it more than the old), but they almost all tend to think of it as elsewhere, not something of which they are a part.

There are many reasons for this, of course. Britain was one of the so-called ‘winners’ of World War II, and felt less pressing need to co-operate with its neighbours in the early years of the integration process than the founding EU members. When the UK finally joined the European Economic Community in 1973, it was as the result of economic pressure, and instructions from Washington – not out of commitment to the European project. Since then, what we now call the EU has always been presented domestically as at best a useful tool for economic strength, and at worst as a ravening beast out to destroy British sovereignty and ways of life. This hardly makes for an inspiring context in which British people could reshape their views and understanding of life in other European countries.

This has created an elite-level feedback loop of disengagement, lack of interest, and lack of awareness about what happens in our partner countries and at EU level. To hear or read the UK media, of both right and left, you would often think Europe was still in the 1800s – a world of great power politics, in which the UK was pre-eminent, and in which states were hermetically sealed from each other if they were strong enough. The real world of globalisation, international law, and the conscious moulding of the EU so that it is now part of its member states as much as they are part of it has passed most allegedly competent analysts by, at least as far as their reporting goes. And of course the drip-feed of Europhobia in the popular press has been going on for so long that it is now at the heart of most people’s ‘common sense’ understandings of European integration.

In this context, it’s hardly surprising that most Britons know very little about other European countries or the EU itself. According to The Guardian newspaper (26/9/14), 61% of British people only speak English, so they can only converse with other Europeans if those people speak the language of Shakespeare (or more likely, of Madonna); with welcome recent exceptions for Nordic thrillers and detective series, very little popular culture from other EU countries has major exposure in the UK, so most Brits have no idea what is going on in other European countries.

The web-based EU news and analysis service, EU Observer, reported on 26/9/14 that 2 million Brits have migrated to other EU states, balancing out the numbers of people from our partner countries who have made lives in Blighty, but there are two important factors to note about this. First, many such Brits consider themselves, and are considered by mainstream media, as ‘expats’ rather than migrants. Second, many (most?) Brits living in other EU countries isolate themselves in little Britains on the Costa del Sol or northern France, so their exposure to the reality of life in their host country is limited. Check out the free newspapers for the UK community in Normandy, and you’ll get a clear idea of what I mean – they are full of news and advice about how to navigate the strange French system or way of life, with a tone that is either bemused or de haut en bas. The popular TV comedy, Benidorm, is similar; it’s actually very funny, but the only regular Spanish character is a two-dimensional ageing Lothario, and the central conceit of the series – Brits on holiday in the sun – actually shows how many British people regularly travel to the same place on holiday for several years and yet never learn anything about the country they’re visiting. It’s all rather depressing.

Connecting Britons and the Rest of Europe, or Every Lidl Helps

So can British people be connected to the European integration process, and if so, how? In future blogs I intend to explore what I call the vertical and horizontal dimensions of this: respectively, from the British citizen to the EU institutions, and between British citizens and their fellow humans in the rest of the EU-28 (and beyond). And yes, I do think the horizontal dimension is important: there’s nothing like pillow talk to learn a new language… In this blog, though, I want to show how pro-European elites in the UK think this might be done, by analysing the leaflet they have recently sent to every household in the country to try to persuade the citizens of the UK to vote to remain in the EU in the upcoming referendum.

This publication – a four-sided pamphlet made up to look like a newspaper – would amuse Napoleon Bonaparte, who famously said that ‘England is a nation of shopkeepers’. Those featured in it are a celebrity (businesswoman and TV celebrity Karren Brady), a former top-ranking police officer (Sir Hugh Orde), and a couple of everyday folk. They’re all white, all ostensibly heterosexual, and none of them have much knowledge of the EU, but presumably drafts were focus-grouped to death and this wasn’t considered a problem.

Almost the whole focus of this pamphlet is on economics, trade, and the lower prices that the clichéd hard-working families (by now a wearying trope in UK political discourse) pay for goods and services as part of the EU, not least thanks to the arrival of two German supermarket chains. The emphasis is thus squarely on the economic benefits of EU membership. Regional variations are included in a small way (for instance, my copy of the leaflet talks about ‘jobs in the South-East’ and features a local businessman’s brief thoughts on the benefits of EU membership), which brings the reader’s attention helpfully to how ‘Europe’ can provide advantages in her or his area. That said, ‘Europe’ remains in this publication a place the UK trades with, or a place to which Britons can travel, not a continental project of which we have been part for over 40 years.

There is one exception to the narrow economic focus: predictably, this is ‘security’. The European Arrest Warrant and police co-operation across borders are presented as two key examples of how the EU has made citizens safer. There’s nothing wrong with saying this, and it’s great that there is at least some indication that the EU isn’t all about trade. But this is limited, and much less eye-catching than the devotion of almost the whole last page to bashing UKIP-peddled Euro-lies. The latter is sadly necessary, and long overdue; but will it be a light in the darkness or snuffed out by a gale of Euroscepticism in the media?
So, according to the best efforts of pro-Europeans in the UK, the way to connect Britons to the rest of the EU and continent is through the pocket, playing the fear card, and a scattering of overdue attacks on Eurosceptic factoids. It’s not much, but it’s a start, and sometimes a Lidl can go a long way. Let’s hope we live in one of those moments.

Download the article in PDF here

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