Why the UK never felt 'at home' in the EU

Progressives of whatever Brexit persuasion should beware of adopting UK or EU identities wholesale - both are built on historical amnesia.

Paul Keenlyside
2 October 2017

Image: London Brexit protest, March 2017. Wikicommons, Creative Commons License.

One passage of Theresa May’s ‘Florence’ speech to raise eyebrows was her claim that the UK never felt “totally at home” in the EU. “Perhaps,” she reflected to an audience of British journalists, “because of our history and geography, the EU never felt to us like an integral part of our national story in the way it does to so many elsewhere in Europe.”

Prominent Brits from Simon Schama to J.K Rowling to Lord Adonis bristled at the suggestion, pointing to the narrow margin for Leave and the fact that for many Britons, the EU is an integral part of their story.    

Theresa May’s observation was certainly awkward, delivered while visiting an EU Member State without having made much of an effort to get to know the locals. But was it, on the whole, incorrect?

In 2013 the UK came bottom of an EU Commission survey asking EU citizens whether they felt “you are a citizen of the EU”. By 2017, the UK had climbed to third bottom (ahead of Greece). Ireland, Germany and Denmark shared the top spots. The question posed by the Commission mixes fact and feeling (UK citizens are EU citizens as a matter of fact). On pure feeling alone, polling over the last decade reveals a far lower percentage of UK citizens identifying as European.

So Theresa May was probably right. But why is it that an EU identity is less attractive to UK citizens than to others in Europe? It is impossible to give an exhaustive account, but a partial explanation lies in diverging relationships with the past.

EU policies designed to foster a sense of ‘European historical memory’ have traditionally focused on shared European ‘heritage’, the achievements of post-WWII integration and democracy as a departure from twentieth century totalitarianisms. The German Vergangenheitsbewältigung – a coming to terms with the past – has been credited as a key source of EU identity formation.

As noted by Androulla Vassilliou, former EU Commissioner for Culture, “in the European Union today, we locate the core of our founding story in the spectacular recovery that Western Europe fashioned for itself after the "year zero" of 1945.” That is why although the EU’s 2007 50th Anniversary celebrations encompassed BeethovenEuropean Art and European Poetry (events commemorated by the Commission document “EU Diplomacy at Work), little was said about the way Europe shaped the world outside its borders post-1492. History, it would seem, is a reserved competence of the Member States.

And that is the attraction of the EU as dehistoricised entity; it gives citizens the opportunity to cherry pick and aggregate the best bits - the inventors, philosophers, scientists and artists - without the historical baggage. It allows EU citizens to remember the history they’ve come to terms with – and to forget the acts of unimaginable barbarism undertaken by Western European countries in almost every corner of the world that have underwritten so much of its culturalscientific and industrial patrimony.

In the UK though, 59% maintain the Empire was “something to be proud of” (the ‘don’t knows’ on 23% outnumbering the ‘ashamed’ on 19%). So there is arguably less of a need to ‘Euro-wash’ an historical identity with which many are in fact quite comfortable. In 2005, Gordon Brown used a trip to a former East African colony to observe that “the days for Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over...we should celebrate much of our past rather than apologise for it,” sentiments later echoed by David Cameron and former Education Secretary Michael Gove. This trend is also reflected in academia, where defenders of the British Empire have been making a steady come back.

The British public aren’t exactly relaxed about the facts of empire – they just tend to be unaware of them. As noted by Indian politician and author Shashi Tharoor, British commentators suffer from a form of historical amnesia that simply ignores the plundering, that celebrates abolitionists while skipping over the centuries long domination of the slave trade on which global Britain was founded. As such, the EU’s 1945 as ‘year zero’ has less traction in the UK. Brits are happy to start from 1066 and read selectively.

Much has been written about the damaging effects of hubris and exceptionalism driving UK diplomacy post-Brexit. But it is worth noting that the ‘year zero’ approach of the EU, while creditable to the extent it reduces the likelihood of European countries fighting one another, is also deeply problematic in that it masks the extent to which modern European imperialism exists as part of a living tradition.

Take trade as an example. From the Raw Materials Initiative, to Economic Partnership Agreements, the EU continues to pursue trade policies in the Global South that guarantee European firms access to cheap raw materials, guarantee European firms access to markets, hinder regional economic integration, and stymie poorer country efforts to pursue ‘industrial strategies’ to grow downstream industries and service sectors. In effect, this continues the model of ‘free trade imperialism’ established by the European powers in the nineteenth century.

Ironically, the above has much in common with Liam Fox’s trade strategy post-Brexit, mockingly dubbed ‘Empire 2.0’ by Whitehall officials. But whereas project Global Britain has attracted derision and accusations of neo-colonialism, it is remarkable how, on issues from trade to development to climate change, the EU remains able to position itself as a ‘global leader’, a ‘responsible global actor’ looking to ‘project its values’, when closer analysis suggests otherwise.  

So what is the conclusion? First, that identification with a legal and political structure – whether the UK or the EU – is rarely a good idea. Identification with a state is not equivalent to identification with a culture or value system, is likely to obscure a whole manner of evils, and is vulnerable to challenge by the nationalist right deploying the same logic and historical dishonesty. Second, progressives on both sides of the Channel must not allow the tribalism of Brexit to distract from issues of substance - workers' rights, environmental protection, trade justice and so on - and should focus on building the movements and coalitions needed to win power.

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