Saturday, 12 January 2013

A house divided: can Europe save a troublesome island from self-sought isolation?

Are you looking forward to watching the film Lincoln as much as I am?

Lincoln: Europe would do well to heed his words

A remarkable figure in world history, the 16th US President he had quite a way with words. Do you remember ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand’? He was thinking about his own nation, about to be riven by a bitter civil war. In it he led the ‘North’ (really the northern and western states) against the deep south that was trying to secede from a Union he was determined to preserve. 

Curiously, though, they were not the first to threaten secession. Even before the United States were twenty years old, there were secessionist rumblings in the States of the North East. Wealthy traders saw their livings and privileges threatened by the more radical southerners, with their greater commitment to republican and democratic principles (yes, even though they held slaves...) and their anti-monarchist and anti-British sentiments.

Though their privileges set the New England elite against more modest layers in society, the classes were united in their dislike of ‘aliens’ arriving on their shores with strange and possibly dangerous ideas.

These days the ‘house divided’ is no longer American but European. Once more the early hostility is coming from the North, and again it is fuelled by both wealthy businessmen concerned with their bottom line and by a more popular, xenopobic current that feels threatened by anything foreign. But in Europe it isn’t multiple states moving towards the exit, but just one: Britain.

It is led by a government devoid of ideas and unable to develop a set of policies that make sense even in their own terms; it is, for instance, poised to lead the country into an unprecedented triple-dip recession (three recessions with no sustained growth in between). That clueless government is positioning itself as the spokesman for the anti-European current in society.

Certainly, it speaks for the wealthy frightened of having to help the less fortunate states of the south of the Eurozone: leading Conservative ministers come from that milieu. They are, on the other hand, finding it difficult to represent the wider circles from the middle or working classes worried about immigration. The result is that they’re being increasingly outflanked to the right by UKIP, the UK Independence Party. This makes ministers speak ever more stridently against Europe, though they don’t seem to be wining back any support.

Despite the name, UKIP is not a group specifically concerned with independence, but a traditional party of the far right: recently it has been speaking out against gay marriage and, though it claims to be concerned about uncontrolled population growth, it focuses on immigration (adding about 100,000 a year) as opposed to the birth rate (700,000).

Meanwhile the government stance is provoking increasingly hard responses from other EU nations. Leaders are warning David Cameron that they would far rather see Britain stay in the Union, but if it comes to it, they will not go overboard to hang on to us, or not at the price of making radical changes to Treaty arrangements with which the other 26 members can live, just to accommodate him.

Even Angela Merkel, seen by Cameron as his closest ally, and who’d indicated that she was willing to see Treaty renegotiation, is now backing off the idea. To make matters worse, the US, through the person of Philip Gordon at the State Department, has warned Britain that pulling out of the EU would weaken our position in the world.

As it naturally would. This is no longer a world in which a middling-size nation can expect to be heard. The US, China and India already pack a far more powerful punch than Britain, and soon they’ll be joined by Brazil and Russia. Europe as a whole can hold its own in such company, but an island on the fringe of the continent won’t long last as a major economy, whatever UKIP claims. As Philip Gordon made clear, hoping that the US will bale it out is a pipe dream.

Meanwhile, the anti-European rhetoric keeps ratcheting up. There is opposition, for example, to the European Arrest Warrant as being an unwarranted incursion into our affairs. However, when Jeremy Forrest, who despite being a maths teacher clearly preferred to think with his genitals rather than his brain, cleared off to France with a fifteen year-old girl from his school, it was a European Arrest Warrant that got him swiftly back to Britain to face trial.

But the anti-European vitriol overwhelms such reasonable considerations, making Europe a house divided. Fortunately, unlike the US, no-one on the Continent is going to use force to keep Britain inside the Union if it ultimately shows itself no smarter than Mr Forrest, and absconds like he did. No, the other EU nations will wave us sadly goodbye, and turn back to strengthening a house once more united.

While Britain will be stuck on the sidelines trying to persuade others to take us as seriously as we take ourselves.

Ah, for a European Lincoln to save us from our own worst instincts. Sadly, there seems little prospect of finding one soon. Instead we just have to make do with what I suspect will be a fine film about the original instead. 

Lets hope that the story of a giant will help console us for the petty manoeuvrings of the pygmies who surround us today.

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