After the Italians, Spanish and Greeks – let’s stop stereotyping the British

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


Filed under Musings, Politics and Current Affairs

4 responses to “After the Italians, Spanish and Greeks – let’s stop stereotyping the British

  1. Alex

    I think the major problem is that the procedures associated with Europe (the political entity, not the continent) tend to be a form of horse trading that isn’t common within British politics (and Britain was particularly unimpressed about Ireland having a 2nd referendum after they voted no the first time to the last treaty. It seems that every time a vote goes no, the answer is to take more power away from the people – France and the Netherlands were never given a referendum on the revised constitution). Within all the noise about this particular veto, the basic facts are:
    1) Cameron went in saying he would only sign if certain conditions were included
    2) Without those, Britain would have definitely had a referendum had Cameron signed. This would have taken time.

    To the conjecture (everyone likes their conjecture, I don’t see why I shouldn’t have mine!):
    This seems to have been a Sarkozy-Cameron disagreement. Had Sarkozy given Cameron what he wanted, Cameron would have signed and this would all be a moot point.
    Recently, Germany-France have disagreed, life goes on, Germany-Greece have disagreed, life goes on. France-Britain disagree and Britain is the bad guy and it is the end of the world.
    There has been a lot of sound and a lot noise and not a lot of light, but Cameron may well have done the right thing by Britain (that is his primary responsibility, not Europe). No matter what the rights or wrongs of the City are, or Britain’s reliance on it, no British PM should, in the current economic situation, give another body a blank check to impose taxes on an industry that takes about 10% of the GDP.

  2. Mark Cordasco

    While this jerk Beppe loves and supports his English friends his fellow Italians are every day in the uk insulted maltreated and caricutured as cowardly inept fools. His British friends in the press like nothing better than to bash Italy and all things italian you Beppe are a Coward and a traitor to your motherland. i hope you joke on your obe and when you decided to get a pair of Balls you can tell the public back home in Italy how this trash treat us.

  3. Mark Cordasco

    Costa Concordia cowardly Italian?
    Herald of Free Enterprise 200 people died because a inept drunken cowardly British crew who jumped on the Lifeboats and let there fellow Britons drown. World War Two Battle of Singapore 130 000 British surrendered to 30 000 Japanese, They blamed the Australians for that Disaster. Dunkirk 60 000 British pows they blamed the French. Burma longest retreat In British military History they blamed the Indian soldiers. Tobruk 50 000 British prisoners they blamed the South Africans. Over one million Italians died in Two World wars. Look up Ariete armoured Division and Folgore Parachute Davison better still make the journey to El Alamein and visit the Italian Military Cemetery those boys fought against over 50 nationalities at that battle with mostly crap weapons they weren’t cowards then and the Italians are not cowards now if you wish to believe dodgy newspapers and so called veterans more fool you.


      Mark you are right on target. Many British have an obnoxious obsession to villify the Italian military. When Italy loses a battle such as Caporetto they use it as an example of Italian military incompetence when the Italians win military victories such as the Battle of the Piave which cost the Austrians 150,000 casualties in June 1918 and the annihilation of the Austro-Hungarian Army at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto they come up with the reason that it was because of British and French military assistance.
      They love to point out the Italian defeat by the Ethiopians ant Adowa in 1896 and yet omit their own defeat at the hands of the Zulus in 1879 at Isandalwana and by the Mahdists in Sudan at Khartoum. Fortunately many new books on the Italian Armed Forces are being publishes in both England and the United States which are exposing these stereotypes.

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