Britain in Europe: between self-interested cynicism and narrow-minded nationalism?

Posted in: Brexit, European politics, UK politics

Dr Theodoros Papadopoulos, Lecturer, Department of Social & Policy Sciences

As part of a module I used to teach called ‘Policy and Power’, I used video extracts from the well-known 1980s series Yes Minister to spark discussion in the class. One of my favourite ones was a dialogue between Sir Humphrey and Minister Hacker on UK policy towards what was then called the European Economic Community. It went like this:

Sir Humphrey: Minister, Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last five hundred years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians. Divide and rule, you see. Why should we change now, when it's worked so well?

Hacker: That's all ancient history, surely?

Sir Humphrey: Yes, and current policy. We 'had' to break the whole thing [the EEC] up, so we had to get inside. We tried to break it up from the outside, but that wouldn't work. Now that we're inside we can make a complete pig's breakfast of the whole thing: set the Germans against the French, the French against the Italians, the Italians against the Dutch... The Foreign Office is terribly pleased; it's just like old times.

Hacker: But surely we're all committed to the European ideal?

Sir Humphrey: [chuckles] Really, Minister.

Hacker: If not, why are we pushing for an increase in the membership?

Sir Humphrey: Well, for the same reason. It's just like the United Nations, in fact; the more members it has, the more arguments it can stir up, the more futile and impotent it becomes.

Hacker: What appalling cynicism.

Sir Humphrey: Yes... We call it diplomacy, Minister.

Yes, Minister, Episode Five: The Writing on the Wall[1]

Following the end of the video extract, I would always eagerly await the reactions of the students in the class, which often included a good number of international students. Many of the British students would laugh at the cynicism of Sir Humphrey but would recognise in it familiar themes of British foreign policy, at least in the distant past. The rest of the class, comprising international students and a sizeable minority of British students, would listen to this extract in quiet disbelief; some would almost find it embarrassing.

What became a familiar pattern over the years, however, was that for both groups of students this type of strategic engagement with Europe would be perceived as very old-fashioned. Like my generation, students saw themselves more as part of ‘Europe’ than outside it; being a European for them, as for me, was just one more page in their ‘identity book’. They saw themselves as British/French/German/Italian and European. Like my generation, they had not witnessed a war between the main Western European countries. Instead, they had experienced holidays in nice sunny Southern Europe, made friendships with other Europeans due to the Erasmus academic exchange programmes, and perceived Europe not as a threatening or an alien place, but as part of their future: a safe, prosperous place where they could travel freely; where they could study and work; and where their political, economic and social rights were guaranteed. So convinced were they of these benefits that some of them even planned to seek jobs and build their careers in other member states. It was a Europe that set an example of how to make the world a better place, and offered a vision of hope and good life, where cynicism and nationalism had little place.

That was the feeling until about 2010, when the financial crisis was already underway. Greece’s troubles were starting to be front-page news – and UKIP began to be taken seriously following the 2009 European Parliament election, where they elected 13 MEPs. Scepticism became more evident in the class, although interestingly my students were not sceptical about Europe per se, but rather the particular version of Europe that seemed to have emerged. Over the last few years we have all seen how Greek democracy was (and is)  treated by the institutions of the EU, ECD and IMF; how precarious and underpaid are the few new jobs created by our weak European economies, especially for young people; how cynically and xenophobically most European Union countries reacted to the refugees from the war-torn Middle East; and how banks and financial institutions seem to be getting away with everything while our future, with agreements like TTIP, is negotiated behind closed doors. Very few were really surprised when cynicism and nationalism came back with a vengeance.

In June 2016, my students and I will be faced with a referendum that puts to the test not only our long-held beliefs about Europe, but our experience of Europe today. As a British citizen – of Greek descent, but who is also not afraid to call himself an engaged European citizen – I find profoundly problematic how poor the quality of the debate over the referendum has been so far, how little vision the ‘stay in’ campaign has, and how sadly lacking has been the promotion of both what we Europeans have all shared for so many years and what we can achieve in the future as Europeans. To defend Europe on the grounds that it makes better economic sense for us to remain, or on the grounds that whatever happens we, in Britain, can always opt out and will always have our special deal, is to negate our and the next generations’ voices calling for a different Europe, a Europe of hope, socio-economic security and justice. This referendum and its implications goes beyond winning the ‘in or out’ argument; it is about a vision for another Europe that is still possible. We should not – and cannot afford to – let it die crashed between self-interested cynicism and narrow-minded nationalism.


Posted in: Brexit, European politics, UK politics


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