One of the quips that are going around in Italian newspapers at the moment when they discuss the UK breakup with the EU is ‘Fog on the English Channel. The Continent is cut off’ to demonstrate the way the United Kingdom sees Europe.
Well, I have been ranting against the anglophones writing about the false stereotypes of the Italians being lazy and using German money to have siestas and holidays and avoid taxes. Well now I am doing the reverse. Stereotyping the British (OK let’s say English as I am not sure how the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish feels about it) as people who are disdainful of the continental Europeans and are totally up themselves again is as wrong as all the trite stuff about the Spanish, Greeks and Italians.
As I said before, behind every stereotype there is a grain of truth. Yes there are some Italians that don’t pay taxes, and sponge off the system and there are some English that hate and feel superior to continental Europeans and think that the sun shine out of their arses (and most seems to write in the comments sections of the UK’s newspapers online versions). But are these the main characteristics of both populations? I think not.
One article that confirm this for me was written by Beppe Severgnini (in Italian). Severgnini knows England well. He was the London correspondent for a major Italian newspaper. He also worked for the Economist writing in English about Italian affairs. He still comments on the BBC and he even got an OBE in 2001.
In this article titled: “But the English really don’t mind Europe” he outlines that while there is a very vocal europhobic minority in the UK, most recognise the benefits of being part of the UE. I don’t agree totally with everything he says, but I agree with most of it. So I translated it here.
If the European constitution was a bobsleigh race, a very crowded bobsleigh, almost a bus the English would be those who control the breaks. An vital role undoubtedly. The problem is that our friends on the other side of the Channel don’t break only after the finish. They break every time when the rest is pushing at the start, and this understandingly pisses off the rest of the crew.
The tendency to make a melodrama, something that Italy has exported everywhere else with success – should not make us think that the European Union is finished as we know it. But there is no doubt that in that Brussel’s dawn on that Friday the 9th of December something important has happened. With his veto, David Cameron did what many of his predecessors just threatened. If Europe wants to run, the UK wants to get of, and to remain in the sporting metaphor we could remind her of this: Jumping off a bobsleigh at full speed there is the risk of getting hurt. The European structure tends to proceed after shocks. The second world war, the crisis of the 70’s, the end of communism. Only then Europe finds the courage of going forward (the community of coal and steel, the common market and the expansion). It is happening now. Faced with the frightening debt crisis and the clear inadequacy of the Euro, the EU has decided to create new rules and create a non deficit union. London, as we know said no.
If I had to say synthesize my puzzlement at this in three words, I’d say: what a shame. This is my feeling of someone who has been regularly in the UK since 1972, when Eastbourne and Brighton seemed to come out of a Graham Greene novel, and since then – also thanks to her entering the EU in 1973 – I have seen her becoming more open, more exciting and more sure of itself. I know the British too well to underestimate them. I know they are capable or reinventing themselves, to surprise themselves and us. That is why I hope they will reconsider. At this point I hope that they will really have a referendum on Europe. Not only for a union with no debt – which paradoxically thanks to them will become reality much more quickly – but to the UK’s membership of the Union itself. Because it is now time to get out of the great ambiguity: In or out. Not even Andy Capp after three pints of beer would choose to sit on the edge of the bobsleigh.
If the ‘big divorce’ that some of the British press is discussing should eventuate, as I said before it would be a great shame. Non only because acrimonious divorces tend to be more common than those who are amicable, but also because both parties lose out.
While Paris and Berlin may not be happy, London is the real capital of Europe. It’s the city which is more lively, soft, deep, open crazy and cosmopolitan of the westernmost section of the massive Eurasian landmass.
The United Kingdom is linguistically, democratically, culturally, artistically, journalistically, financially (take note of the order of these adverbs) our periscope on the world. Being insular is only a stereotype and a geographic feature. The UK never did insulate itself, except in some moments of history, such as the Napoleonic wars of just after the Second World War. It was left to books and jokes made by the British themselves to spread the myth of the “British isolationism” proud to have their diversity confirmed even if it didn’t exist. In reality, this diversity is no different from differences of any other European culture that makes Europe much more interesting than places such as the USA midwest.
The British are not non-Europeans. They are the most Europeans of all. They love to look out as they suffer from claustrophobia. The wariness towards Europe is not because it is too big, but because it can be is too small and restraining (ie regulations from Brussels). A statesmen (and David Cameron still has to show he is one) has the responsibility that here is strength in numbers, and when you choose to stay together, knowing that you can get lot in return you may have to give up somethings. The young British PM should lead the nation, not to follow the instincts of a relative and temporary majority. Perhaps he may find, even if the so much feared referendum on the EU was going to be held, that the British would be much more far sighted than most imagine.
Forget the ‘little Englanders’ afraid of innovations. They seem to be many because they are very vocal, but I am convinced at the end that they are a minority. Some minor upper class people from the country, a slice of the Petite bourgeoisie with their newspapers, many good pensioners in love with their garden hedges. As Will Hutton wrote some years ago the rest know that they are equipped for the global market. The Capital (London), the capital (City trading), the airports, the jobs (from soldier to consultant), the culture, the music, the sport and the language are already international.
Many British, especially the younger generations used to travel and exchange know that today’s Europe is both a necessity and an opportunity. It is also a risk of course. But believing to become a local version of New York or Hong Kong is much more of a risk. Because behind New York you have America. Behind Hong Kong you have China. Behind London there is Surrey, or the whole of Europe. Time to choose where to turn.
You can follow Beppe Severgnini on twitter @beppesevergnini