Brexit and the European Union Forum

It is a new experience to be unfriended and at this date I have just been unfriended by the European Forum Group on Facebook where I listened much and posted often in recent weeks and months. (I leave it for those who know me to guess the proportion of each!) The risk in mailing to the Forum is being branded with xenophobia and my last flight of fancy has landed me in that camp – or so I surmise from the last transaction.

When asked by a contributor from far-flung Spain if I thought that his native country should send all the British there back home – some 200K by his account – my answer was an enthusiastic “Yes”! Having seen clips of the action in famed seaside resorts where English “yuff” desports itself in night-clubs and full-length films about the life-style of retired criminals from the Kray Brothers constituency of British society on the Costa de Crime – not to mention the Irish input – I cannot think the Spanish will miss them very much, unless they prove essential to the sustenance of the housing market.

Aside from that, it is my observation that many of the most articulate and highly-skilled participants on the EU Forum are primarily concerned with the insulting fact that they have been driven to consider taking out permanent resident papers in Britain in order to stay on after the Brexit Referendum is finally triggered.

I am very sorry indeed that Britain has taken this stupid and injurious decision and I still have hopes that it can be arrested in the pre-Article 55 stage – either by Parliament or some alteration in the mind-set of the Tory cabinet (fat chance!) I nevertheless think that the blame for Brexit lies equally with the EU government in Strasbourg as with the ordinary Brits. Why? Because the Brexit vote was very largely if not entirely driven by the fear that Britain was becoming the target for mass migrations from the poorer regions of the Union which, in a climate of “free movement”, the British would have no mechanism to resist.

It is evident from postings on the EU Forum that countries such as Belgium have, in fact, been assiduously deporting an even larger proportion of the migrant populations after the statuary three months than the British did – but that is down to a failure of the British administration. It seems that, if they used the existing clauses of the “free movement” laws they could filter their new arrivals as efficiently as the bureaucratics of the European capital of ivory and chocolate.

British alarmism would be seen for what it is if the rumour of a large-scale influx were simply a rumour, but it is not. It has been a reality for many communities in Britain in the last few decades – especially since European widening – and many such communities are already showing strain. But that is not the core of the issue. The core has to do with the different social and intellectual constitution of the British considered as a European nation.

Unlike the other member-states – Ireland excepted – Britain is an island, “a precious stone, set in this silver sea”, and so on and so forth. As such, it is largely immune to the “no-brainer” factor which effects those other nations – where the next field is another country and the next hill the boundary of a different language group, with much quotidian parleying between the two. Obviously no European is disposed to think that a national territory around the next bend in the road is really a different universe of thought and feeling. But, as with the Irish in another time, the British think differently. So differently, in fact, that the very word “Europe” means “over there” and “across the water” rather than signifying the land-mass to which they themselves belong. This is patently so in older writing, as when a biography of RL Stevenson says that he “moved to Europe in 1857”.

Were not “European holidays” the ambition of many British families a generation ago – and holidays on the continent are still in common parlance. Even when it is a question of travelling back from American, the British are inclined to say “back to England” rather than “back to Europe”. For them, at any time, “the continent” is a sufficient expression of all the countries to the East of the English Channel. This is tantamount to a geo-cultural difference unknown to other Europeans. But Britain has another difference which marks it out from European countries. Although it has an enormously mixed ethnic population – or, at least, an enormous diversity of ethnic populations in its towns and cities, the chief ingredients here are members of former Empire and latterly Commonwealth countries, chiefly from the Asian sub-continent but also from compass bearings points known as the Far East and others from the Caribbean. This means that its defining form of multi-culturalism was already arrived at before the advent of the European Union.

It also means that, for British people, those reaching their shore from France, Germany, Italy and even Poland are essentially familiar and un-foreign in the deepest sense. In fact, many of the contributors to the EU Forum freely concede this – the English don’t treat them as any differently from themselves but dread the arrival of mythical hordes from the homeland of Count Dracula and beyond. Students of literature are taught to regard that myth as the objective correlative of British xenophobia – but it is also a marker for a more or less permanent way of feeling which anyone in government would be very rash to ignore.

“Foreign” is a strange word – very different from the American term “alien”, for instance – and where foreign-ness begins is not entirely a “given” of the English language. The founding European-Union nations are, for instance, much less foreign that the massive population of Algerians in France remain today – in spite of all the pretentions of France’s “egalitarian republic”.

Britain is said to have 300K European residents – being those born in continental countries and not those born in Britain of continental extraction. How little foreign these seems to Britons in their daily lives is a measure of the fact that they belong to an international bourgeois culture for which language difference is a trivial matter and rarely more than a point of dinner-table conversation. Educated Europeans do not feel prejudice against them in Britain, though they may be mortally offended by their sudden recategorisation of “alien” or “non-resident” under a threatened Brexit scenario. Many, many Polish people who have recently arrived to run the service industries of Britain feel much the same way, though without the same long-standing Cold War credentials. But when the doors are opened to points east of the Adriatic, the impression of European “foreignness” changes and that is where the average Little Englander gets his dander up and begins to sound unpleasant.

There is no doubt in my mind that Britain – and Ireland too – are rightly members of the European Union in spite of the fiscal exception which has long been made for sterling as the currency of the larger island. (The short-lived history of the “punt” has long receded from most memories.) This has always been an anomaly in this scheme of things European and it is arguable on that basis that Britain never really was a full member – many Europeans will tell you so – but simply a trading partner. What that will mean if the European currency plunges into disarray and ultimate disunion with the mooted collapse of the Italian economy is a question for the future. The Economist considers it quite likely. Similarly, the British disdain for the European Court – as in the case of prison convicts and votes – clearly indicates an unwillingness to abandon the British statutes in favour of a legal dispensations made for all Europeans in a court in Strasbourg.

The main failing here is obviously the reluctance or inability of the British to see themselves as European in the generous sense intended by the European idealists. The trouble with this is that the British are virtually untouched by the brand of idealism involved as not needing it to salve their historical conscience. While German children learn the horrors of nationalism, British children only learn about the success of the British army – with their American allies – in restoring civilisation to Fascist Europe. Clearly an appeal to Britain’s part in European history of this self-satisfied hue is hardly likely to wash with their continental neighbours, most of whom are now part of the generation for which the idea of separate nationhood is a kind of ideological anathema – but the fact is that, as victors of World War II, the British enjoyed the dubious luxury of assuming that they were always on the right side … a view which hardly survives the most cursory examination of the history of the British Empire.

Which leads on inevitably to the case of Ireland. Ireland has always rejoiced in the European Union, which it joined in the same year as Britain, not least because it represents a larger and more friendly union that the little one in “these islands” from which they parted under force of arms in the Independence period of 1919-1921. Anything that enhances the separation from Britain – without of course reducing the liberalities for Irish visitors and workers in Britain arising from our “historic relationship” as enshrined in the 1949 Government of Ireland Act (UK) – is salve to the Irish soul. Likewise, of course, EU membership turne Ireland into a profitable platform for inward American investment seeking access to the European market.

Yet Ireland is a country as yet relatively untested by the experience of multiculturalism and a country which, in fact, has based its political identity on the idea of a single ethnic and religious identity – though that identity has naturally been diluted by the advancing wave of egalitarianism, liberalism and plain good sense. It has long been acknowledged, for instance, that more Mandarin Chinese is spoken in the homes of Ireland today than Gaelic and as many as 250,000 British people are among the influx of ‘other nations’ to take up residence there in recent decades. (I find that figure astonishing given that the total population is a modest 5 million.)

As far as public opinion and the media goes, the Irish response to the Syrian crisis has been better than the British one which has been conspicuously marred by the atmosphere of livid xenophobia which surrounds the predicament of those trapped in the erstwhile “Calais Jungle”. But now we hear that the Irish government is maintaining its refugees and asylum seekers – Middle Eastern or African – in a type of gulag-style incarceration known as “direct support” which goes hand-in-hand with the refusal to extend the right to work to our visitors for ruinous periods of time. It is a terrible reflection Ireland, considered as a soi-disant model of hospitality, that some of those visitors have resorted to hunger-strike in order to vent their distress and indignation at that kind of racist treatment.

In fact, the Irish stood shoulder to shoulder with the British is adopting the let-out clause supplied with the last European expansion which gave them two-years’ fruther entitlement to exclude new Europeans – though Ireland wisely relented in January 2011 and accepted the wider European time-table. Ireland nevertheless remains outside of the Schengen agreement, showing a continuing resistance to the idea of free movement without passport checks or other indications of whereabouts within the European Union.

In what sense if the Irish case different from that of other countries in the Union? Obviously we are not in the same position as the new Europeans who see only a net gain in access to the richer economies – paradoxically including Ireland. The Irish age of migration is, to that extent, over and we are now net recipients of migrants rather than a migrant-producing country (except in times of temporary depression). But there is another sense in which Ireland does not share in the new European ideology which is based so largely on the identification of nationalism as the most pernicious force in the history of the continent. To the country, Ireland is a country in which Nationalism still enjoys the character of a moral force which is believed to enhance the well-being of its population, as well as being the key element in their sense of self-esteem.

Because England was the dominant nationality in the British Union for so long, it tended to exude a kind of silent nationalism which was both universally present and invisible. The British simply didn’t know they were nationalistic and, when they met with overt signs of it, they called in Jingoism and Blimpism and condemned it as an impolite excess of feeling. Bad taste, in other words. How the Irish fared under the aegis of “good taste” is a long and painful story that goes back to the days of Thomas Carlyle and beyond. (The “white chimpanzees” of Charles Kingsley are a sufficient indication.) And it was Irish nationalism which shifted the burden of this depressing form of colonial condescension from the shoulders of the majority of Irish men and women in the revolutionary period.

So why should they abandon it now? Because the Germans are “our gallant allies”? Because nationalism is spiritually redundant? Because we fear a new European war if the Lisbon Treaty is rescinded? Because we are standing on our shore with open arms to welcome the “huddled masses” from sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere in this new Migration Age? Hardly. The Irish have embraced the European Union because it built their infra-structure and permitted them to invite American corporations to transform our employment ambient with hi-tech companies of one kind or another – inveigled and pampered by the IDA and then the “double Irish”. No trace of European idealism there.

This is not an open-and-shut matter but it seems to me that the skilled and articulate Europeans now living in Britain and yearning to remain there are actually quite short on sympathy for the other Europeans whose arrival is apt to bring the tar-brush out of the British cupboard. In their present predicament, they have one of two choices: either to claim that they are fit residents and fully entitled to British papers on the basis of their contribution, or else to assert that all Europeans are entitled to live in any part of Europe that they wish. The majority – as well as the high-minded management – of the EU Forum have opted for the second position, insisting that Britain is in breach of the principle and practice of “free movement” agreements in Europe to which it earlier signed up.

Certainly it seems that the British public wants to revoke that agreement. That is the obvious sense of Brexit – much as we may hate it. And if we hate it, we are just as certainly inclined to blame the British for it. In reality, however, the blame must be shared with European governments who invented and installed a border protocol which refers, in its high-minded essence, to the idea of a well-educated European people moving to live in other countries than those of their birth and formation at the whim of ambition, desire for travel or romantic association (i.e., love and marriage).

A conspicuous number of those no pleading for the reversal of Brexit or the issuing of British papers are, for instance, the divorced partners of British servicemen – meaning Army personnel – who married during foreign posting and naturally brought their beloveds home. These now find themselves athwart the strictures which apply to all foreign “marrieds” and “divorced” in Britain for whom the right to remain in the place of their husband’s national origins are no longer automatic – nor, indeed, automatically allowed in the first place. This sort of migrant ruling is inherently obnoxious and has lead to very murky histories in many cases – but the correct form of appeal should not be to pan-European rights of movement but to actual residence histories in the “guest” nation.

That, in all sobriety, is my position. I am a nationalist though not a entirely typical specimen of the breed Irish version of that ideological position. I consider that “good” nationality is a more effective way of governing a society than the hyper-liberal appeal to globalism as the new social reality. Hence I think that the idea of a host country and its guests who integrate in their own time and their own way is a just and creative version of migration theory for our times. I do not think that a diktat to the effect that all members of the union enjoy an equal right with to inhabitants to reside in any of the constituent territories is the right way to govern the European Union, which now stands in imminent danger of shipwreck on that very rock – because in this matter where Britain has led, other countries will soon follow.

And what will then become of the high-minded idealism which preaches that Europe – whether viewed as a continent or archipelago – is ultimately all one country much as the USA is? No it isn’t. Non. Nein. Nao. Nie. Nada. No. Ni hea. It is a pragmatic union, a treaty, a combination of countries each with their own calculus of loss and gain for whom bargaining about governance and fiscal ordinance is still the central reality. Denial of this is at the root of all the trouble.

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