The European Dis-Union

The EU is not all it's cracked up to be

Looking objectively at a distance of 20,000 km from the land of my birth I have always found it hard to believe that the EU will survive; that it will be more than an anomaly in a restless history of self-serving tribes. And now that that distance is compounded both by forty-nine years of delicious exile and the seamless adoption of a New Zealand identity, it becomes increasingly apparent to me that my scepticism about the EU was well founded.

Last week's elections for the European Parliament offer yet more proof. With a turnout estimated at just 43 per cent, it was the lowest since European elections began thirty years ago.

When I was an Englishman the very idea of chummy unity with other states of Europe was distasteful. I had, after all, spent many days and nights in air raid shelters as a boy while Hitler’s Luftwaffe dropped its hardware upon me, my family and our neighbours. It was impossible to erase the image of my father, red-eyed and face creased with fatigue returning to our suburban home after nights fighting fires in London’s docklands. A British-German brotherhood was unthinkable.

As for the French, didn’t an antipathy towards their cross-Channel neighbours reside in the genes of all English folk (although this was a uniquely English approach; the Scots were always ready to march in step with the French!). Why was that? Was it because the French loathed the English for winning at Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt? Perversely, the English have invariably liked everything about the French – the wines, the spirits, the cheeses – except the French themselves. (It’s an attitude that’s reciprocated; why else would Sarkozy not invite the Queen to the D-Day commemorations?).

In the days of my youth, to an Englishman, Italians were, perhaps, lovable but irrelevant; the Spanish were onion-eaters of little account since their Armada failed; the Dutch ate tulip bulbs and wore clogs; Luxembourg was a radio station and none of the other European states had any image whatsoever.

In light of those dyed-in-the-wool attitudes – which I have largely sloughed off but which, I know, remain in some of my English contemporaries – it has been, to me, perfectly understandable that Britain has played an arm’s length game with Brussels, being especially resistant to joining the common currency. Perhaps, at the heart of British reluctance is the same suspicion that I harbour, that the twenty-seven member EU will not hold up.

Personal experiences support my view: dining out in Florence with friends one evening I noticed how contemptuous and dismissive of us was our waiter. The service was surly; his gaze distant; he would not engage us. I was puzzled until, having finally taken our order he said ‘Danke!’ with the heaviest irony. I chased after him and said, in my frightful Italian, "Non Tedesci; siamo da la Nuova Zelanda."  (‘We are not German, we’re from New Zealand’) At which his attitude changed diametrically. He admitted he had thought us German and happily added that he loathed Germans.

At a money changer’s near the Ponte Vecchio we were appalled at the ill-mannered imperiousness with which young German tourists barked at the Italian teller. Considering that the Nazis had, within living memory, destroyed every bridge over the Arno River except the Ponte Vecchio they were hardly conciliatory!

At Echternach where a tranquil river separates Luxembourg from Germany a Luxembourgoise hotelier spoke to me with undisguised hate for her neighbours: "Their tanks invaded us in the war," she spat, "and now they invade us for our cheap cigarettes at the weekends!"

The European Union comprises takers and givers. It is, surely, only a matter of time before those who believe themselves to be more givers than takers will seethe with resentment and seek to reduce their favours.

In the small town of Barga in northern Tuscany a school, a municipal office building and the ancient cathedral all bear notices to the effect that their reconstruction and earthquake-proofing has been paid for by the European Union. How long will it be before visitors from other states will say, ‘Hey: we’re paying for this. What do we get out of it?’ For there’s no doubt in my mind that the Union will only survive as long as its members believe there’s a benefit to them in staying.

In this climate of restlessness, the British, if Gordon Brown or his successors ever allow it to have its referendum, will vote ‘No’ to the bulk of the European administration’s strictures. The fact that a xenophobic far-right British National Party representative has been voted in is further evidence of that.

And in the cosy shires of perfidious Albion (and here in Albany, New Zealand) Euro-sceptics nod sagely, nudge one another and say ‘It won’t last. Told you so.’