Study in the tower where Montaigne wrote.Wikicommons/Codex. Some rights reserved.I wonder if I’m alone in feeling that the Brexit isn’t really about the pros and cons of EU membership. I argue about these with Brexiters, but it seems to me that their songsheet is a different one. Whatever they say, they’d rather not be Europeans.
I feel I should know what it means to be a European. My parents met when my father was an officer in the British army, in 1944, and my mother was a young widow marooned with two small children in a Normandy village. When we all lived in London during the 1950s, my half-sisters went to French school.
I need to recall what a tight and insular and un-European place 1950s Britain was. Fog really did hide the other side of the Channel if you didn’t brave the vomit-strewn ferries pitching between charmless Dover and ugly Boulogne. There was something stunted and foreshortened about a country that had recently won its greatest war.
Memories of non-European Britain flood back via the work of the Hungarian expatriate, George Mikes. He wrote his 1946 best-seller How to Be an Alien, without which no well-to-do loo, least of all our own, was complete. Mikes (The name is pronounced Mick-esh) had come to Britain around the time of the Munich crisis in 1938, and he stayed on. Mikes grudgingly pays homage to British insularity, in cooking, sex, waiting in queues, and bizarre dress sense. He has a sense that such arrangements shouldn’t work, or be in the least appealing, but he also feels that they are deeply satisfactory. ‘The English have no soul,’ he says. ‘They have understatement instead.’ But the English have the habit of overstatement, too, as Mikes realizes. This consists of ‘someone remarking ‘I say…’ and then keeping silent for three days on end.’
Some degree of separation has never gone away from English culture. This comes through via the habit of unacknowledged self-totemization. (We must exclude Scots, Welsh and Irish living in England from this observation, as Mikes did.) Just a year ago, I would have said that the Mikes world was long gone. I now know that it survives, stubbornly and toxically. We may want to be European – many of us, I sense, do – but we find it’s hard. Meanwhile we have poor arguments to match those of the Europe-haters.
The Eurosceptics I respect most are the fundamentalists who believe that no aspect of British democracy should be sullied by any foreign entanglement. They’re wrong - because the world isn’t like that. But they are at least consistent. They don’t really care if we end up poor and miserable. I admire this degree of perverseness.
But I see us Brits sleepwalking into isolation. I recently revisited the work of Tony Judt, Belgium-born, Jewish and the most accomplished writer in English about Europe.
Judt in Vienna. Flickr/ Nick. Some rights reserved.Judt felt that we should square up to Europe, and stop wasting everyone’s time. What struck me most is how little he actually liked the EU. He agreed that it wasn’t democratic, and he felt that it would never finally allow Europeans to shed or transcend their loyalties to nation-states. The best thing he could say about the EU was that it wasn’t, and couldn’t become, a superstate. But it could, and did sometimes enable Europeans to do good things together.
I was in Paris, working at a first job and paid in cash to get round work permits, on the day in 1971 that it became apparent that we would finally join the Common Market. Spreading the air freight paper Times on a café table, I was self-interestedly concerned with how, ultimately, it would be possible to work throughout Europe without a permit.
I did feel suddenly released, inhabiting a larger world. However, I’ve always been aware how few people shared my views. Why is Nick Clegg (glam Spanish wife, Tiggerish Europhilia) ridiculed? So many British Europhiles are überwonks and they haven’t proved effective in spreading the message. Children studying politics for A levels get to choose between the British and US Constitution. No-one now will admit to having read the Treaty of Nice, as I once did.
When I think about Brits and the EU, I’m reminded of the Punch joke about the man who goes into a bookshop. ‘Can I have a copy of the French Constitution?’ he asks. ‘Sorry, sir we don’t stock periodicals,’ he’s told.
Down among the Eurocrats I have been, perhaps naively, surprised by the total absence of passion – as if the argument about what Europe should be like was done and dusted. Myself, I got bored with the antiquated neospeak of bureaucratic Brussels. Either the Brussels mind was too complex for me, or, I suspected, it was too simply a product of habit and complacency. You could describe ‘Europe’ as an ‘end of history’ bureaucratic utopia, but I could see that the utopia was botched.
On the margins of Europe, I came across a different scene. Here were places and people requiring a fix that only something as big as Europe would ever bring. I recall the observation of a German Commissioner in Brussels. ‘Hier is Amerika,’ he began, and then in halting, but fluent English. ‘And here is Russia. And in this space in between, we have nothing.’ The achievement of merely keeping post-Communist Europe together hasn’t been insignificant. If Europeans have proved capable of such adaptation, admittedly with many failures, surely they can deal with mass immigration from the Middle East. Surely Europeans will prove able to contain the tides of bigotry sweeping the continent? But I’d like to feel that, with our history, Brits would be there to help them.
Tony Judt died in Manhattan in 2010. Among his last monologues is the shrewd observation that what he called ‘social democracy’ was Europe’s great contribution to world civilization. He suggested that it would require vigorous defence. But he thought, too, that it could provide a marker for a European Century. We shouldn’t be afraid of expressing our fear, he suggested. The fear of insecurity was legitimate. It was what caused people and societies to stick together. As we’re monotonously told about the ‘fear card’ by Brexiters we should remember this.
Reconstruction of Montaigne's library in the tower. Wikicommons/ Mcleclat. Some rights reserved.We can still dream of a European Century. Believing in Europe comes down, most of all, to readopting the language of tolerance, or what we Brits (Continentals use the word differently, in a pejorative sense to mean the cult of markets) call liberalism. The real heart of Europe lies in the practice of pluralism – a quality abandoned for a large part of the past century, and then rediscovered. It can survive any number of European crises – so long as we want it to endure.
The world is dividing into those who do believe in what we’ve come to call liberal democracy, and those who don’t. We should be allied with fellow European supporters of freedoms. And of course, though it has to be said again and again, we can best do this as Europeans.
My greatest European regret has been the way the word ‘sceptic’ is comprehensively misused in Britain. Montaigne, the ultimate European, thought that everyone should try scepticism. We should all wish to be sceptical Europeans. In the end we Brits may decide we are Europeans this summer. But I am far from sure that we will do.