For many of us, a return to the EU has become an aching need. But who exactly would the new member be? If we don’t know ourselves, how can the EU judge us?
We had such strong readership response to the first two articles in our series on Our place in Europe that it seemed worthwhile to pause to consider what we’ve learned. In “The UK never understood the EU. Our MPs ensure we still don’t“, we suggested the steps diplomats will be looking for as a means to rebuild trust between the two parties. Before trust is restored, there can be no negotiations.
Then last week in “UK can’t “re-join” the EU. We have to start from scratch” we explained the legal steps necessary to become members again, and just how far we have to go. Both were intended to make clear to readers how challenging it will be, and that there is no quick and easy way back. Once we realise where we are, we can begin to take steps towards our goal. But to begin under misapprehensions will only bring more frustration.
Which way to optimism, please?
Readers were enthusiastic about both articles, but it was clear the task ahead of us came as a shock to many. Some asked for a glimmer of optimism – some hope to hold on to. So that’s where this article began. A look at the politics and how we can make them work towards a new membership of the EU.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
Because it’s clear that just to address the everyday stuff of political battle is to ignore some serious questions we need to ask ourselves as a nation, and provide answers to, before we can hope to make a coherent bid to become EU members. Who do we think we are? And what do we want from the EU?
Who on earth are we? Can someone tell the EU?
What drives us? What defines us? By ‘us’ here we should probably talk specifically about the English, since Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have much clearer identities. But for ease of reference let’s talk about the ‘British’.
What is it the British want to be? For many, it seems, it’s still the search for unicorns, something their leaders know is impossible to deliver but are scared to tell them. Harking back to past glories is too often the only vision we seem to have. An alternative can’t be pursued because it doesn’t exist. Instead, we are sometimes left with a national delusion, still celebrated in our culture and history, in which foreigners all wish they had been born British, and instead are all conniving thieves or simple-minded children grateful for our patronage.
The war seems in our DNA. But Europe wants to forget it
Is it the war which gave us our identity, or at least our identity in our own eyes? Did that backs-to-the-wall, facing down the blitz and Dunkirk spirit make us who we are, or at least provide us with a comfortable template of who we once were? If this is our vision of ourselves, it’s no wonder there is such a difference in understanding between the EU and the UK. Under this vision, we define ourselves by the war. The rest of Europe wants to forget it.
It has seemed for as long as this writer can recall that the only way of rebooting the country would be for us to suffer some huge, humiliating and existential disaster, such as the rest of Europe suffered between 1939 and 1945: the sight of invaders’ tanks rumbling through English streets. A humiliation that we can’t escape, a humiliation so complete we have no choice but to drop whatever pretensions we had and accept that we are beaten. Something that would eradicate our past as a model for our future, and leave us no option but to move on and re-invent ourselves. Just as Europe has had to. But at the time I couldn’t imagine what that humiliation might be.
Then along came Brexit.
Ladies and gentlemen, may we present our existential threat?
So we have our almost existential threat. But it’s for us to confront and overcome. We can’t know who we are until we do it, and we can’t expect the EU to know either. And we can’t join the EU until they really do know us and can be confident of us as partners. That’s what diplomacy is for. Then joining the EU again would be to place ourselves under examination, an uncomfortable experience. We will be judged on our acceptance of European norms, of communauté: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, human rights, pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality. But read through that list and you can’t help feeling a little uneasy at how far we need to scramble back even to meet the basic requirements of what our European neighbours would see as a civilised society.
The optimism is in our own hands
That’s how far we have fallen.
The fundamental question we wanted to answer in this series is: “Would they ever have us back?” Simplistic, of course, but it gets to the point. And this article doesn’t provide the optimism we wanted. But it’s clear we have to sort ourselves out before we can seriously ask the EU to consider us as members again. So for optimism, we have to look to ourselves and realise it’s in our own hands.
Our scheduled article, on British expatriates in Europe, has been held over so we could address the reader responses from Jacob Öberg’s observations on EU law. This series on Britain and the EU, ‘Our place in Europe’, will continue next Friday, and every Friday thereafter. But at the moment, we are uncertain as to what will be our next chapter, since our schedules are presently being ransacked to find 800 words about optimism.