Sunday, 2 February 2014

Grenoble thoughts: why on earth does Britain want to leave the EU?

So yesterday David Cameron announced that, if we do him the great honour of re-electing him in 2015, there would be a referendum in 2017 on whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union. 

It seems there’s a growing consensus that the British electorate, guided by such fonts of enlightenment as UKIP and the Daily Mail, needs to be allowed to vote to leave the Union.

UKIP, for those blissful enough never to have heard of the United Kingdom Independence Party, recently had to expel some character who’d won a Council seat on the party’s behalf, for saying that the lousy weather we’ve been enduring in Britain is all down to divine punishment for legalising gay marriage.

Since then, the leader of the party has decided to write off the Party’s 2010 election manifesto as ‘total drivel’. What he hasn’t explained is why the Party adopted a load of drivel for its policies just four years ago. Or why anyone should have any confidence that the next set of policies won’t also be drivel.

As for the Daily Mail, the measure of its reliability is perhaps best summed up by two stories it had to withdraw last year: that 878,000 people claiming invalidity benefit had abandoned their claims rather than face a further medical exam, a story without a trace of truth, but which contributed wonderfully to the atmosphere of claimant-hatred the Mail likes to whip up.

The second was that a Portsmouth school refused to serve water to pupils on a hot day, because it was Ramadan. Again, entirely false. Again, why would that matter if the aim of the exercise is just to ratchet up Islamophobia?

The Mail wasn
t always as anti-European as it is today. For a time, it was really rather keen on the German government, but that was back in the 30s when it won itself the reputation of being the paper that backed Hitler.

These are the currents in British society that are moulding the debate on Europe today. Voices are raised against them. The Guardian and the Independent run articles making clear that much of the worst propaganda is false, that most immigrants from the EU, for example, come to Britain to work: a smaller proportion of them claim benefits, or are involved in crime, than of the native population.

But these are quality papers and their circulation is limited. They don’t have the voice or the reach of the Mail or the stridency of UKIP.

What’s odd is why there is such hostility to Europe in Britain. For instance, it became clear last week that the only protection we have against illegal snooping by our security services is provided by the European Convention on Human Rights. And yet the legislation incorporating that convention into British law is a constant target of diatribes in the press and, sadly, of criticism by large numbers of voters too.

Somehow, UKIP and the Daily Mail have managed to turn ‘human rights’ into a toxic notion. For humans. Many of them with far fewer rights than they need.

What’s worst about all this is that for so many people in Britain, Europe isn’t even a foreign place. Somewhere between a million and a million and a half Brits live and work in other EU countries. And vastly more travel regularly to those countries on shorter visits, for holidays or business reasons.

That was brought home to me powerfully when I arrived at Grenoble airport yesterday, the very day the news of Cameron
’s referendum pledge broke. It’s what I would probably call a regional airport. But, according to someone working there it’s a seasonal airport too. Jobs in the winter only, she told us. For all the people who want to go skiing in the French Alps.

So I took a look at the Departures board.

We want to get out of Europe. So why do we go there so much?
The only non-British destination was Copenhagen. And, quite honestly, the way they speak English there, the Danes might as well be British anyway. After all, after The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen, we’re already completely converted to their TV series.

Looks like rather a lot of Brits are already living as though, despite the Channel, they really belong to Europe.

So why are we so keen to get out?

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