“The EU would never have us back!” is often the reaction of despairing europhiles in this country when the subject of rejoining comes up.
But would they? Let’s find out. East Anglia Bylines is about to launch an ambitious new project aimed at providing a platform for just that conversation. But it’s taking an entirely new stance. We will include important voices from Europe, and it will be a conversation.
What is the UK’s place in Europe if not in the EU? What does Europe really think of the UK? How much goodwill does the UK still have left? Would the EU at its every level – diplomatic, political, and the popular sentiment in the street – welcome this country’s return?
From the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna and the Bayerischer Bahnhof in Leipzig, from the Marché Provencal in Antibes and the Charles Bridge in Prague, we want to bring the views and the voices of Europe. We want to know what Europeans think about Brexit, if anything. There is no reason why they should think anything of it at all, of course. Brexit and our haughty and antagonistic relationship with Europe has been a home-grown British disaster, often touching the lives of our European neighbours peripherally or not at all.
There may be every justification why Europe should think of Britain as ‘perfidious Albion’. But in spite of everything, Britain still has a role to play in the EU, as yet unfulfilled. In all the argument over Brexit, the great uncertainty is not how Britain could re-apply for EU membership but whether, after all the hubris and the xenophobia and the bad faith, the EU would ever contemplate offering a chair once more to such a troublesome partner.
So over the coming weeks and months we’ll be asking leading voices in both Europe and the UK, in politics, diplomacy, science, business, technology, the arts and other spheres, to tell us their views and explain what’s needed on both sides. But we also want to hear from Europe’s citizens, the people in the street. The impression of some in Britain seems to be that from the moment of waking in the morning, Europe obsesses over how they can find a way to do down Britain. So let’s see how that assumption is challenged by reality.
Leaving paranoia aside, European countries could be forgiven for being wary. So do they still see a role for us to play? Does there remain an affection for the UK? Who knows, perhaps there may even still be a shred of respect. Let’s find out.
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The opening article in the ‘Our place in Europe?’ series is due next Tuesday, when retired senior diplomat Simon Pease explains how, before we can talk about better relations, we need to learn to trust each other again.