Can Europe Make It?

A very English take on Denmark

“Here’s also why Brexit happened. Europe is a mystery. Europeans come from a faraway land. Australia is nearer.”

Alessio Colonnelli
12 December 2018

Screenshot. Danish for kids. YouTube.

To understand what the English are about, read Matthew Engel reporting on his trip to Denmark this week in the New Statesman (30/11, print issue). It’s great; but most importantly, it’s honest. He could not avoid mentioning the Brits’ obsessions about Scandinavia – hygge (cosiness), smorgasbord and a few more (yes, and Hamlet, of course). The three benchmarks of Danishness for the Brits. It made me chuckle. Good writing indeed.

However, parts of it saddened me too. Engel explained things about Denmark, which could’ve been applied to any other European country. Obvious things that I always thought didn’t need mentioning. But Engel was right in bringing them up – they need to be explained when addressing a varied British readership.

Engel wasn’t being sloppy. In fact, the 67-year-old didn’t get certain things himself, before travelling there; he admitted realising them only now. Let’s look at three key passages.

First, Engel said that “the Scandinavians certainly don’t see themselves as part of some amorphous Euromass.” Well, who does? The Spaniards think of themselves as distant. The Italians too, almost cast away on a leg-peninsula that tickles Africa with its toes. Ukrainians feel Russia is breathing down their necks and would only be too pleased to be part of a so-called Euromass. The list could go on and on. But maybe, as seen from England, we do all look the same.

Secondly, Ben Rosamond, a British professor of politics at the University of Copenhagen, was asked about Danish society. Rosamond sees hygge as being about “companionship and bonds”, but also as an exercise of “Danishness” with a “dark side” to it “because if you can’t get in, it’s a bit of an issue. This is a society where the entry barriers are quite high.”

The similar remark was made by an English expat whom Engel also talked to. The article puts emphasis on this exclusionary feature of Danish society (hygge), implying that Britain is luckily free from it. But as a non-Briton very familiar with Britain, this makes me think otherwise.

What about the English class system, then? A system whose negative repercussions are felt not only by foreigners living in the UK, even long-term residents, but by many ordinary Brits as well. Think of those excluded from the right circles, those not on the grapevine when it comes to non-advertised jobs. Think of the Oxbridge connection. (Engel studied at Oxford.)

Thirdly, Engel mentions how well the Danes speak English, especially younger people. He said that in the rest of northern Europe this is pretty much the same, “though Denmark may be the most extreme case. I had always assumed this was to do with the brilliance of their educational system and/or a national awareness that the English – or American – language was for them the key that unlocked the world.” He continues in the same vein; he’s grasped something new. “Somewhere in Denmark, I realised something. What do children do before they can read? They watch TV. What do they watch? Cartoons. Where do most cartoons come from? The US. In larger countries … foreign programmes get dubbed but that’s not financially viable in smaller markets. Even if there are subtitles, the kids can’t read them. So what happens? They become naturally bilingual, which can then be reinforced in school.”

Again, by implication Engel must’ve always believed countries like Italy, Spain and others – where people on the whole still struggle with English – have school systems that don’t function. Second-class nations. (English and Danish are Germanic languages, i.e. similar to one another, just as other Nordic tongues are. This was never mentioned.) As for the cartoons, Engel is certainly right, but – as I mentioned earlier – it strikes me as odd that he’s only thought of this now. He writes this passage robotically, in logical short steps, to make sure you understand his ground-breaking pattern of thinking.

One final consideration, arising from this compelling read. English: Europeans want to learn the American version. There’s hardly any interest in British received pronunciation or spelling. (I don’t follow this major trend, but my personal taste here doesn’t count. And anyway, I shall be loyal to British English till I die. With the occasional US concession, of course.)

So, maybe I’m exaggerating, but I couldn’t help thinking of this as I read Engel’s gripping account (no sarcasm intended): here’s also why Brexit happened. Europe is a mystery. Europeans come from a faraway land. Australia is nearer.

In the collective British imagination, Europe is light years away from home. You can tell that by the amount of stuff Engel had to explain or came to realise himself. And he’s doing a whole series for the NS, from each one of the remaining EU27. I can see why, and the need for it.

(Written by Alessio Colonnelli on 4 December 2018.)

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