Denis MacShane / Nov 2023
There are now only three stories about Europe in British journalism. First, why has Brexit gone so badly wrong? Second, why won’t political leaders discuss the issue? Third, are European politics lurching to the hard nationalist, anti-immigrant right?
The omertà on what a bad bargain Britain struck with Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Rupert Murdoch when we voted to break links with Europe is now clear to most. But so far the BBC and the mainstream press prefer just avoid discussing this.
Politically, Sir Keir Starmer and Sir Ed Davey join with Rishi Sunak in refusing to discuss a better, closer relationship with Europe.
Meanwhile there is a steady stream of press pontificators from universities and think-tanks led by Professor Matt Goodwin and monolingual experts from Policy Exchange telling us Europe is lurching to the right, the European economy is going downhill, and the whole idea of European partnership put in place since 1950 is about to implode.
The latter point is a London obsession. The recent election result in Poland where the rightist anti-EU, anti-immigrant PiS party was booted out or Germany, Spain and Portugal, big EU nations, led by social democrats and the very possible arrival of a Labour government in Britain suggests that a total takeover of Europe by a new nationalist hard right is unlikely.
In the meantime Europe is changing faster than at any time in its history. Two new books discuss this phenomenon. “This is Europe. They Way We live Now” by Ben Judah published by Picador is 500 turnable pages about the stories of today’s Europeans constantly on the move. It is foreign reporting far removed from the worthy, sturdy, wordy works of establishment foreign correspondents and professors.
It moves from Ireland to Istanbul, two dozen life stories, told in vivid sharp words. We learn of the star school student in Romania who gets a European scholarship to go an Atlantic college in Italy. It will lift her out of impoverished misery. But she the money does not extend to buying the air fare. To raise it she finds someone who gives her money in exchange for posing naked on the Internet.
Or the fear that European lorry drivers have in England where lorry park robberies are the worst in Europe. Or the African migrants desperate to get to France and willing to walk over the freezing snow and glaciers of winter-time Italian Alps. Some don’t make it and their bodies are found when the ice melts in the spring.
This not about the EU but gives the lie to the idea of a super-state Europe. On the contrary Europe remains a hotch-potch of nations and the EU has little if any authority or power to enforce reform, end trafficking, and relentless exploitation of workers especially the undocumented ones who will never turn back as long as there is no hope in the countries where they were born.
Professor Dermot Hodson’s “Circle of Stars” (Yale University Press) is a fast-paced narrative of the European Union since the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. It is a more conventional what happened next history. Unusually for a book written for a British audience he deftly weaves almost every leader from all EU member states so the reader gets an idea of the ensemble politics of making the EU work.
He mispresents the EU’s 12 yellow stars on a blue background quoting a 1996 EU statement that the stars represent “the union of the peoples of Europe.” Romantic but wrong. The 12 golden stars on blue was simply a pretty design done by a finance officer in the Council of Europe in the 1950s. It was nicked by the European Commission as an EU logo. Anti-Europeans, notably German Lutherans and Northern Irish protestant supremacists politicians, have denigrated the design as a Catholic plot by the Arch-priests of the Treaty of Rome to impose the Bible’s description of Mary with “on her head a crown of twelve stars.”
If there is anyone left alive after the mountains of words about Europe -ever since the Labour government in 1950 decided to reject European partnership based on a common rule book, a policy the current Labour leader seems content to go along with - who wants a fair, non-partisan, well written warts-and-all narrative of what the EU has done and become in the last 30 years, this book does the job.
These two books are British and Irish authorship at their best. The hopes of Brexit advocates that the 2016 plebiscite when 37 per cent of registered voters agreed to leave the EU would settle the matter once and for all have proved forlorn. The Europe question still lies on the table of public opinion and elected politicians. It has yet to be answered.