There’s always a temptation for Eurosceptics to say, “I don’t hate Europe, I just dislike the European Union.” Conservative MEP Dan Hannan (made famous in the US by Glenn Beck) does it all the time. Whenever he’s interviewed, Hannan will say something like, “I speak fluent French, Spanish, and Ukrainian; I married an Albanian chicken farmer; I holiday regularly in Latvia; and I never say no to a plate of paella.” Tony Benn (an old fashioned socialist Eurosceptic) will tell anyone who’ll listen that he’s a “passionate European”. Both men insist that it’s the undemocratic structures of the EU that have alienated them from the enterprise, not the culture of the continent itself. In reality, the two phenomena are inseparable. The EU is undemocratic because it is a European construct. The British are not European, and that’s why we don’t like it.
Of course, like Britain itself, I am a little bit European. I am of Dutch, French, and Irish extraction. My language and thought owes much to the continent. I prefer European movies to Anglo-Saxon cinema (I’ve spent a happy week rediscovering Fassbinder and Visconti), and then there’s the delights of German beer, Italian opera, Russian literature, and whatever it is that the Swiss do. I once spent a happy Christmas in Vienna, watching Bellini at the State Opera – directly behind a huge man with steel-tipped shoes that he tap-tap-tapped on the marble floor.
But there is a fundamental difference between the Brits and the Europeans. I sensed it during a televised discussion I took part in this week. Most of the continental speakers made the same, idealistic point: that it would have been wise to sign the latest European treaty because it was good for Europe. I reiterated that I don’t care about Europe – whatever you define it as – I care about what is good for my own country. Diplomacy is supposed to be governed by self-interest: economic negotiations especially so. Interestingly, the only two guests who agreed with me were from the outskirts of the continent: Finland and Bulgaria.
The point of democracy is to represent the people who elect you. The MP for Woking is duty bound to represent the interests of Woking and Woking alone – not Andalusia or the mountain folk of Carpathia. Yet there is an attitude within the Eurozone that a noble goal beyond the process of democracy calls us to sacrifice sovereignty and material wealth for a higher cause: the blessed United States of Europe. The MP for Woking should, say the true believers, sacrifice his constituents’ interests for the benefit of a wider ideological project. This is what my opponents seemed to be saying. “It is bad for me,” I’d argue. “Ah,” they’d reply, “But it is good for Europe.”
These contrasting attitudes towards political representation are the product of two different cultures. In Britain we’ve made a fetish of the individual; we loathe anything collective and worship eccentricity. Since the 16th century (arguably before), we’ve jealously guarded our sovereignty – going so far as to rewrite the Bible and build a national church so that we can dispense with Popes. That everyone deserves to be tried by their peers, or that a man is innocent until proven guilty, has dominated English law far longer than the imported notion of “universal human rights”. If the American legal and political systems seem close to our own then that is because the American Revolution was fundamentally a civil war between Britons. Consider that the intellectual father of British Toryism, Edmund Burke, actually supported the revolutionaries.
The single aim of foreign policy from the late 16th century on was to engage in European affairs only in so far as it protected our interests elsewhere. Our eye was on the globe, where our commercial interests have lain ever since. Railways through Africa, banks in Hong Kong, dams across the Amazon – this empire of goods made us rich in the 19th century. With the rise of India and China, it is in the developing world that our future lies. As an old sun sets in the West, a new one rises in the East. This is not, as the Europeans think, a doomsday scenario. It is a challenge.
But Europe’s instinct is to protect. It believes that by clubbing together, it can create a trading superpower to challenge America and defend itself against the globalized greed of the emerging nations. Combine that narcissism with a history of collectivism of the statist kind and you have a recipe for something very unEnglish. The guiding principle of Western European history in the last 300 years has been centralization. The French Revolution abolished local governments, created a national conscript army, and terrified the continent with its dreams of egalite. The Italian Risorgimento crafted an artificial Italy out of a patchwork of republics and monarchies. The Prussian state first cultivated a German Empire and then the domination of Mitteleuropa. The result of all of this is a culture that leans towards bureaucratic authoritarianism. The idea that the problems of an entire continent can be solved around a boardroom table appeals to the European mind. Of course, it contradicts the English belief that diversity is strength. One might argue that this is reflected in our rather more successful experiment in multiculturalism. The British obsess about how obsessed we are with immigration but, in fact, where is the British electoral equivalent of the French Front Nationale or the Hungarian Jobbik?
The British Labour Party is arguing that David Cameron could have negotiated harder, gained bigger concessions, and signed the new treaty. But Cameron’s use of the veto was inevitable. It was inevitable because the French and Germans didn’t want to negotiate, and the offer they put on the table would have led inexorably to the crippling of our finance sector and the stagnation of our economy. But it was also inevitable because Britain is not a culturally European country. The single market suited our passion for free trade, but we have no interest in joining a centralized, bureaucratic unitary state. And we not interested in serving the interests of some future utopia – a metric land of milk and honey. It is enough for us to govern ourselves, and to do so as lightly as possible.