A Vision of Europe
a short talk delivered on Radio Three’s The Verb
Josef Goebbels, facing the imminent collapse of the Third Reich, declared that, by the year 2000, there would be a European state stretching from Russia to the English Channel. To judge by much of the comment on this side of the Channel, one might suppose that the movement towards a united Europe remained a pet Nazi project. Meanwhile, the results of the recent French and Dutch referenda suggest that our own scepticism has now been exported to the European mainland.
So what has gone wrong? Is the current disaffection with Europe merely the healthy response of people who refuse to be culturally, economically and politically cowed by the Big Brother, Grand Frere and Gross Bruder of Brussels? Or is it a rejection less of the European ideal than of the complacent politicians and bureaucrats who ride roughshod over the democratic process even as they denounce their fellow- citizens for failing to engage with it?
‘ Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!’ declared the American politician, Daniel Webster, in 1830, and his rallying cry should be echoed by every European leader today. When the European project was first mooted, it was merely as a Common Market, one to which the British, who were famously derided as ‘a nation of shopkeepers’, were happy to sign up. For all the complaints about wine lakes and butter mountains, the economic benefits remain undimmed, but they are only a small part of what a united Europe must mean.
No country – any more than any man – is an island, even if in Britain’s case, our geographical isolation tends to obscure that metaphorical truth. Our borders may have been more secure than those of our continental neighbours, but history shows us to have been open constantly to outside influence. Our language – the essence of our national identity – owes its richness to a succession of European invaders.
The United Kingdom, as its name implies, is itself a union of four separate nations, each with its own distinct cultural traditions, and it is as misguided to suggest that a European constitution will impose a bland uniformity on the countries and cities of Europe as to suggest that the Act of Union turned Dundee into a simulacrum of Durham or Deny. A strong united Europe will rather protect its people from any recurrence of the nationalism that has blighted our continent for centuries. It will also curb any threat of violence in regions where nationalist aspirations remain strong, such as the Basque country and Northern Ireland.
Moreover, with people the world over feeling disenchanted with political institutions and impotent in the face of economic change, it makes sense to reduce the role of the nation state, allowing citizens a far greater say in local government while an international body represents us on the world stage. Full membership of the European Union is the only way that we can survive in the era of globalisation, where the nation state is no longer the primary economic power. Diehard defenders of the British constitution should note that we are one of the few nations not to enjoy the protection of a written constitution. We are not free citizens but subjects who owe our allegiance to a monarch. Whatever the virtues of a particular monarch, this relationship must come under ever-increasing strain in a world where monarchy is rapidly becoming a rarefied form of celebrity. As citizens of a united Europe, we will at least have a series of clearly defined rights.
As a novelist and one who has just written a book exploring several of the key events of the mid-twentieth century, I am well aware of the extent to which I share a cultural identity with mainland Europe. Proust’s madeleine, Botticelli’s Venus and Wagner’s Ring are as much a part of my heritage as the art of my own country. Since the Middle Ages, writers, artists and scholars have moved with ease between the various courts and capitals of Europe: Erasmus and Holbein to London; Leonardo da Vinci to Blois; Voltaire to Berlin. Now this cultural cross-fertilisation will be open to all,
It’s hard for the British to enter wholeheartedly into the European project given our peculiarly intense relationship with Empire. That, however, was a militaristic enterprise in which we exported our values overseas rather than a mutually beneficial partnership. How much healthier it is to exchange an empire on which the sun never sets for a union which includes both the land of the midnight sun and that of the Mediterranean suntan! Moreover, at a time when European rivalries are most volubly expressed on the football pitch, it’s as well to remember that the manager of our national side is a Swede.
There remains the final and paramount reason for our embracing the European Union, which is that it constitutes a bulwark against the greatest danger facing the world: fundamentalism. The threat from Islamic fundamentalism may be better known, but that from American fundamentalism is equally grave and far more invidious. Britain, like the rest of Europe, has been shaped by two great philosophical systems: Judaeo-Christianity and the Enlightenment. In America, outside of the political and intellectual elite – an elite, incidentally, which is far more remote from the average citizen than its counterpart in London, Paris or Brussels – the latter has been comprehensively ignored. This is the America that was founded by a group of Puritan fanatics; the America where more and more state legislatures are voting to teach creationism in schools; the America that is determined to use its political and economic might to impose its values on the rest of the world.
It is precisely because our joint cultural, intellectual and, yes, religious heritage is far more important that any national boundary that we must become enthusiastic citizens of Europe. United, we can preserve our continent as a beacon of light against the forces of fundamentalism gathering to both East and West. We need have no fear for our own distinctive identities: we can still be bulldogs, poodles or dachshunds but, together, we need never be lapdogs.