Issue 185: 2019 01 17: On the Edge

17 January 2019

Fighting on the Edge

Viewing the EU.

By J R Thomas

We are never told how Moriarty viewed Holmes.  Did the Professor actually see himself as the epitome of evil, but Sherlock as representing all that was right and good in the world?  Or, did he see himself as a redistributor of wealth to those who knew best how to use it, and Holmes as a clog on inevitable progress?  There was no meeting of minds; like theirs our inability to understand each others’ perspectives is a great inhibitor of harmony.  The danger is that in our deaf struggles we all will fall.

Currently nothing seems so shrouded in the mutual fog of loathing and distrust as our faltering progress towards exiting the European Union on 29th March.  Each day the mystification of Brexiteers as to why Remainers want to remain part of the evil Brussels empire is outstripped only by the utter perplexity of Remainers that Leavers want to throw aside the progressive inevitability of ever more closely embracing Europe federalisation.

In his new book, a slender but carefully crafted essay, “Something of His Art”, Horatio Clare follows the footsteps of the young Johann Sebastian Bach from Arnstadt to Lubeck.  High in the Teutonic forests, Clare diverts his thoughts from baroque music and Upper Saxony to modern Germany, and in particular to Berlin, the freethinking, freewheeling capital which somehow has evolved from the rigid HQ of the Prussian empire .  “There is just so much extra space here, and a feeling of freedom in it” he says.  He continues that innovation is a hallmark of the modern Germany, at least in and around Berlin, innovation in the very widest sense, an ability to say and do and think which is not trammelled, regulated, overlooked by the state or society, in the way that Britain has become obsessed with approval and regulation.  This stands on its head traditional perceptions of Brits and Germans, but Clare is surely right.  Yet does anybody in the UK see Germany as maybe a more open minded liberal and progressive country than Britain?  We know that the British seem to have become obsessively interested in finding out what the rules are, and sticking to them, polishing and gold-plating and improving them.  This don’t-move-until-you-have-read-and-understood-in-full approach to obeying controls and reporting, which traditionally we attributed to our German cousins, has become all our very own.

It is clearly one of the major motivations of the Leave camp, both among voters and movers and shakers, that by levering the sticky fingers of Brussels off our economy we will dispense with much interfering and reporting and regulating, and our industry and creativity will blossom and flourish.  But will we?  Will it?  Increasingly one senses nervousness, even among Leave sympathetic commentators, that it will result in nothing of the sort.  We will simply keep all the EU rules and add some more with a distinctly British tone to them.  The flourishing of the bay trees, the economic and social benefits which justify the upheaval and turmoil, will never come about.  The wild and wacky Germans will just pull away from us even faster.

That may also be at the root of why so many Remainers want to stay; not many voters who elected to remain in the comfortable embrace of Brussels did so because they identify themselves as Europeans, but because they think Britain is vulnerable alone.  Better to be in the club, part of a harmonised market, protected against the vulgar aggression of vicious competition, than a nervous new virgin, stumbling along without the Zimmer frame of the Commission, a fading rose so decayed that without the careful gardening of Mr Junker she will surely whither to naught.

That is not to decry the higher motives for remaining in a Europe of fraternity and ever closer kinship.  Two great wars have done immense harm to the West, and in 1945 left practically all European peoples vowing that there must never be another conflict, whatever it took.  But there are few Leavers who want to leave because they think the possibility of war might be rather jolly.  Neither side wants less economic growth, or greater trade barriers, or even a more controlled society.  It is even true surely that few from either group want unlimited  movement of peoples, certainly from outwith European borders, or at any rate believe that is practical in these times.  Generally Leavers probably would like less government, but that is not to say most Remainers want more.  (Note the strange positioning of the Scottish Nationalists, and indeed those of Catalonia, who would like less rule from London or Madrid, but more from Brussels, but we won’t venture onto those wild shores.)

Our revered editor oft reminds his team there is no merit in looking back, in endlessly examining how we got here.  The point now must be to work out where we go next.  But we must permit ourselves the slightest sigh of regret that Mr Cameron made such a feeble attempt to batter the Commission into a more reformist approach to the many tensions growing in the EU, of which the British urge to go is but a modest symbol.  And, trying to be positive and forward looking, we can heave another sigh that there is still no EU reforming urge, that the Commission clings to its bizarre Panglossian view about how wonderful it all is. An energetic programme of reform, or even a rebirth of the European ideal which embraced a spirit of radicalism and openness as to change, would do a great deal to rebuild citizens’ loyalty and enthusiasm about the European ideal.  The truth is that in many matters there is less disagreement than might be thought.

Yet here we are, teetering on a ridge, unbalanced on a very sharp point.  Neither side comprehends the concerns of the other.  It feels like the 1530’s all over again, as two very similar branches of the same religion, divided in only one thing, at least at the outset, could not agree who was head of the church in England.  Both had the same rituals, the same God, the same structure.  But nothing divided the population so much and so violently for many generations, a division which has taken four hundred years to heal. That fight was not about different Gods; this one is very little about Europe.  Most British people feel themselves to be British (as opposed to European) but are not reluctant to form alliances and friendships, to join beneficial groups, to promote peace and harmony.  The European ideal is at heart beautiful, drawn from the highest and finest of motives.   But the present management, by its arrogant unwillingness to listen to the grumbles and concerns of those who want to go more slowly or with less pain or with more thought, is busy eroding its foundations.

The electorate’s anger, the people’s fury, is fundamentally about the failure of the political class which promised so much but has delivered so little.  Voters are disappointed with the world, not just the EU.  In particular voters who have suffered from economic changes and the consequent changes in status and standing have become dangerously marginalised from political society. The anger of those falling behind has seized on ready symbols of failing political systems and the European experiment has placed itself right in the front line.  If the EU wants to survive it has to change, to embrace its citizens, and to understand their dreams.  Or down the waterfall it will go.


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