Europe, nationalism and who we are

EU mapThe debate is hotting up. Or at least, the Prime Minister is. Will Britain vote to leave the European Union at the forthcoming referendum? Are we choosing between two lousy options, as Yanis Varoufakis argues?

I for one am much less enthusiastic about the EU since it has turned itself into an agency of neo-liberal economics, squeezing its poorer countries into ever deeper poverty. However if that’s a reason for Britain leaving the EU, it is an even stronger reason for Liverpool leaving Britain. But – oh, we’re British, aren’t we?

Who decided that? This post reflects on our sense of who we are in the light of the Europe question.

Most of the debate is translated into economicspeke: will Britain be ‘better off’ in or out? If this was the real issue the referendum should be scrapped and the decision handed over to economists. But it isn’t, and anyway they wouldn’t know either.

Politicians talk about the sovereignty of Britain and appeal to our sense of Britishness. Prime Minister David Cameron proposes to ‘“put beyond doubt” the sovereignty of parliament’.

So are we self-evidently British, or European? Neither. All such identities are political inventions. Nations get defined by victorious armies at the ends of wars. Populations today get told to think of themselves as English, or Scottish, or British, or Spanish, or Basque, depending on which politician hopes to benefit from which identity. In the same way, when the USSR was dismantled, it was Yeltsin’s way of gaining power at the expense of Gorbachev.

Time and time again our emotions get manipulated by politicians. Our sense of who we are matters to us, but can easily be distorted.

My own national identity varies according to preference. I was born and brought up in Somerset and have a Somerset surname. It’s where I come from. I can identify myself as Somerset. But no, I don’t particularly want Somerset to be an independent state. Genetically I’m one thirty-second Somerset – or, if you insist, English. The rest of me is half Greek and half Welsh. I don’t have the slightest desire to live in a state full of people who are half Greek and half Welsh. Especially if they were all like me.

Most of the time we go along with the identities we are given. Sometimes it leads to disaster. When at the end of the First World War the Ottoman Empire was dismantled, Ataturk turned Turkey into a modern nation state, which it had never been before. Armenians and Greeks had lived there for thousands of years before the Turks arrived; but from then on, Turkey had to be for Turks. The Armenians mostly got killed, and the Greeks were driven out. Similarly with the breakup of Yugoslavia. Why should people have to die over decisions to change national boundaries?

The European Union is supposed to have had its roots in the determination to prevent conflict by making us cooperate more. Just as Somerset no longer competes against Gloucestershire, the British should no longer compete against the Germans and Italians. We would be Europeans alongside them. We would learn to think of ourselves as Europeans. The original message has now been forgotten by those who say we need to be in Europe in order to compete successfully against outsiders, Japan or the USA.

Being British gives me a wider identity than being Somerset. Being European gives me a wider one still. If that’s a good thing, why can’t I be a citizen of the world, and not compete against anyone?

This is where my Christian convictions kick in. The whole world is the brainchild of a single god who designed it so that we can live together in harmony.

Many social theorists and politicians believe it can’t be done – we are necessarily in conflict. If human life on Earth is just the accidental result of impersonal laws of nature pushing subatomic particles round the universe, there is no reason to suppose we can ever do better than we are doing now.

I’d like to think we can. I wish we could all be citizens of the world. I wish there was no discrimination against, or in favour of, anybody because of their nationality.

We still need a sense of identity: where is home, who are the people who know us and share their lives with us. For most people this is local: family, a few streets, the village. Between this identity and being a citizen of the world, there can be any number of intermediate identities: local councils, regions, nation states, international structures. They are needed because decisions are best made at a variety of different levels. The people who decide on transatlantic trade agreements don’t also have to decide on the speed limit on the road outside your house.

Nevertheless these intermediate entities are all artificial constructs. There is nothing self-evident, or natural, about them.

This is true of both Britain and the European Union. Both have been created to serve the purposes of governments and politicians. Both are constantly being adapted, for better or worse.

When it comes to what matters, I identify myself in two ways. I belong with my family, my friends and neighbours: the people who I care for and who care for me. And I am a citizen of the world by virtue of being a child of God. In principle, although I can’t do it in practice, I desire the well-being of everyone.

If being in the European Union is about clubbing together to seize the biggest possible share of the world’s wealth at the expense of non-Europeans, I don’t want any part in it. On the other hand, if it’s a step on the way to breaking down national barriers and celebrating our common humanity, it’s a sign of hope.

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3 Responses to Europe, nationalism and who we are

  1. Dafydd bates says:

    As you know, Jonathan, I have a great affection for the Welsh language and what goes along with it for me. It’s not an intellectual thing, but an affective one; I’m most at ease amongst Welsh-speakers, even though I didn’t learn the language till my late teens. Genetically I’m very much a mixed bag, never much conscious ‘Englishness’ in my parents but a sort of residual affection for Ireland and Wales. Politically, I get angry at what I see as a studied disregard, or worse, of Welshness and social and political policies designed ultimately to bury it.

    Having got that off my chest, I can say that the idea of a world community appeals greatly to me. Whether being ‘European’ is a stage on the way to that I don’t know one way or the other. I voted in the referendum on the Common Market against joining it because I didn’t think it was up to me to assist the capitalist class in the task of rationalising their system economically. It is much clearer now than it was then that the capitalist push in our time is in the direction of globalism; the sovereign nation-state once protected capitalist economic development; today it frustrates it. What is true is that the European Union is a capitalist bloc. Its treatment of Greece, in the last few years, and of Ireland too, is what could be expected if that characterisation is true. As such it gets no loyalty or approval from me; nor does the UK which is the fag-end of an English empire. My own vote in the forth-coming referendum is likely to be a short-term tactical move. Considerations upper-most in my own mind will be that at present Wales derives some real economic support from the EU and the minority status of the Welsh language affords it more protection in an EU context than it would ever get from England. It is depressing not to be able to see how to get closer to what I would really like.

  2. Pluralist says:

    If we leave the EU we will only show how fragile is the construction called the United Kingdom. It could shatter.

  3. Steve says:

    The EU might save my job in the steel industry by imposing anti-dumping duties on the Chinese. David Cameron has made it clear that he will do nothing that might inconvenience his new Chinese friends.

    Please vote to stay in!

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