At a recent dinner party in Budapest I heard an anecdote offered by a charming and sophisticated Continental man. Not a Hungarian, he had just that day been approached in a metro station here by a British holidaymaker asking how to buy a transport ticket. The charming and sophisticated European (of noble blood forsooth) asked how this fellow would vote on the EU referendum. “Out!” cried the Englishman stoutly, explaining in a sentence he was fed up with the European Union interfering in British life. He might have been wearing Union Jack underpants, we don’t know. As this point, the Continental related to me with an ironic smile, clearly pleased with himself, that he then calmly but politely told the loud simple Brit to sort the ticket out for himself.
What’s intriguing here is that this anecdote was volunteered proudly, by our European of distinguished ancestry, without the slightest thought it might reflect badly on him. He assumed only the naively jingoistic British oik could look a fool. I’ve seen this curious twin pair of thoughts before. (1) That because an Englishman was visiting Hungary he was supposed to be grateful to the EU and feel affection for its institutions (as if no-one ever left Britain until 1973). (2) That you should always be careful expressing your political views in a Continental country, especially if asking for help: watch your words! These two thoughts belong together because many West (not East) Europeans I meet see the EU as somehow beyond politics. Criticising it becomes a kind of blasphemy.
When I ask West Europeans why Benelux, France, Germany, and Italy didn’t just join the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in 1970, their eyes cloud with puzzlement, as if I’m missing the point. But it’s about being together they explain patiently, trying to get it into my thick British skull, it’s about fifty years of peace! (Why couldn’t we be together in EFTA?)
When I point out that peace was guaranteed by NATO, that the EU is an effect of NATO, not a cause, the French and the Germans (sometimes Italians, rarely Spanish) begin shaking their heads, as if to stop my heartless, cynical weasel words taking root in their hurt-filled minds. By that point I’m clearly intruding on private grief, desecrating something intimate and holy. We’ve moved beyond discussion of a corrupt tariff cartel that churns out thousands of stupid laws, this is a gathering round a hearth, a locus of civilisation, a seat for the European soul.
The same idea that Britain (obviously) benefits from this brilliant thing and is deeply stupid (yet strangely at the same time selfish?) to leave it can be found among East Europeans, but with a different, less sentimental tone.
One otherwise hard-headed Hungarian businesswoman cheerfully told me this was the cosmic consciousness alternately exploring union and separateness. A cultured Hungarian man (a tri-lingual lawyer) was in deep despair, struggling not to take my defence of the previous day’s vote personally. He made a commonly voiced claim that exit would both hurt poorer Britons yet that Hungary desperately needed the EU because all their investment capital is foreign. The Easterners, always one eye on the Russians, are franker about the practical trade-off of getting money to cede some sovereignty. (Since they haven’t had much sovereignty or money for a while, you can see their point.)
While the Easterners watch the till and the door, the great nations further west, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, world powers in their own right, rich in food and the good things of life, see things differently. The vision of statecraft still deep in those peoples sets them apart from Dutchmen, Danes, and the Swiss as much as from the English. Their vision is a grand vision of big forests, big armies, rolling acres of fertile sun-blessed farmland, flags, great monasteries, a close involvement with the fate of the whole continent, above all a memory of Rome.
It’s tempting to insinuate that these (we could call them) hyper-Continental countries all nurture ambitions to dominate Europe, but this isn’t really fair. It’s just that – like Russians and Turks – the French and Germans naturally think big. Half a century of sneers about Britons being parochial xenophobes still pining for our lost empire should have alerted us nonetheless: people often accuse others of what’s inside them.
It’s the hyper-Continental euro-village who are inward-looking and provincial. When I visit remote towns I occasionally meet a Frenchman or a German, but it’s much more English-speakers who wander the world out of curiosity, looking for opportunities, just as 500 years ago before English became widely spoken. It’s the euro-villagers who built a tariff wall to close out imports in 1957, a century after David Ricardo proved tariffs reduce wealth on both sides.
Likewise the EU is about French and German imperial nostalgia, not British. However beautiful and rich, theirs are the inward-looking cultures, not Britain’s. The Spanish had a big empire, but those two didn’t. The EU is an after-echo of France losing the Seven Years’ War in the 1750s because Frenchmen wouldn’t resettle in sufficient numbers to their colonies. It also nostalgically recalls Napoleon’s rule over Europe, metric weights and measures being a treasured relic of that brief empire. All across Europe, container cranes are poignantly labelled in strange fractions of a metre: anything but admit that containerisation started in the US, and that (like aviation and shipping) its international unit is the foot.
When long-suffering English and Welsh voters finally spoke this Thursday, they didn’t just smash up somebody’s train set or spill some gravy, they wounded an emotional identity. A lot of people from Hampstead to Hamburg cherish that euro-badge because wearing it makes them feel clever, compassionate, modern, cool. “Transcending nationalism” is the perfect post-imperial T-shirt for people who want to be historic without reading too much history.
Answering a question from one hyper-Continental – a West European here in Eastern Europe – I asked him how Swiss or Danish nationalism threaten anyone? The problem isn’t nationalism as such, I went on, but repeated attempts by the French or the Germans to unify Europe.
Horrified, but forcing a smile, he changed the subject.©
Mark Griffith keeps a weblog at http://www.otherlanguages.org