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View from Brussels: Don’t mention the war - on second thoughts, do

The Second World War - replete with tales of derring-do and technological achievements - is close to many British men’s, especially engineers’, hearts. Was it British victory that made the idea of European Union so hard to accept?

Why did Brexit happen?

The EU was basically a peace project.  It is hard to get people to understand that. Maybe because the British have, dare I say it, an immature attitude towards the Second World War. If the British had retained the sense of tragedy that they learned after the First World War, maybe we wouldn’t have had Brexit today.

When I read the febrile coverage about Brexit, I feel a twinge at not being at the centre of where it is all at. Fear of Missing Out has always a dominant motivation in all my actions. But where is it all happening? In reality, inside the heads of the main political figures around the Downing Street cabinet table, almost all of whom this outsider feels it hard to have any respect for. Wonder what Barnier, Schultz and Juncker must be thinking?  In a way, I would love to be sitting in the Commission press room, watching the Brexit negotiations unfold.

On the other hand, you have go back to original causes, to real Middle England. 

I have an extremely pessimistic feeling about the outcome. There was an interview with the head of Standard Chartered, a man with an extremely sophisticated intelligence network and who gets paid handsomely to be in touch with developments relevant to his business. He has a worst-case scenario, the assumption that London will lose passporting rights to sell financial products and that a significant proportion of business - and jobs - will migrate to Frankfurt.

The latest story, heavily spun, is that May has achieved a “breakthrough”, as of Friday morning, and talks can move on to the next stage. Elsewhere, the news is negative. Applications from EU students to UK universities is down - so effectively a brain drain. One reads how America is losing interest in the UK diplomatic relationship, as one of the UK’s main roles was to hold the door open for American interests inside the EU.  Defence and tax arrangements are changing inside the EU; the big powers, feeling released now from the continuous veto from Britain over anything that threatens what you might call the Globalist, or Atlanticist, perspective, are moving fast. Tax havens, many of them in former British colonies, were a continuous sore point for the French. Now there is a crackdown, a statement of intent, following the embarrassing revelations in the Luxleaks and Panama papers: a long blacklist from the commission. 

Of course, there is a veto on tax issues and none of the tax havens on this particular  list were inside the EU, but it is a shot across the bows against the likes of Ireland, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.  A theoretical veto is one thing; in reality, arms get twisted. How long will they be able to hold out without the UK sheltering them under its wing? Someone ought to write an article about how, by leaving, the UK betrayed all its friends and dependents in the EU, leaving small states now at the mercy of France and Germany.

One French left-wing journalist with very close contacts in the Commission is unsympathetic to tax competition. He writes in his very influential blog that small nation states stand up for their sovereignty vis-a-vis big bad Brussels, only to sell each other out, prostituting themselves to big business with the lowest tax offer and so allowing many tech giants – some of the most powerful corporate entities in our world – to avoid paying any taxes at all. Isn’t that an attack on our sovereignty, or sovereignties? What do the Brexiteers have to say about that? Of course, many of them seem to have a fantasy about being a kind of low-tax, minimum social-rights competitor to the East Asian dragons. Wonder if they cleared those proposals with the Brexit working class who voted for them? A lot of deceit and propaganda all around, I think.

I had coffee with a small businessman in a small town in Middle England the other day. He has a contract to provide his personal consulting services in a rehabilitation programme run by the local authority. He hates the EU.

Why? He gave two examples. He is annoyed that the British follow all the rules and the southern Europeans don’t. He waved his hand at the kitchen area. They have to have different chopping boards, in different colours, one for meat and one for fish, for health and safety reasons. EU red tape. Do you think they care about those rules down at the beach-side tavern in Portugal or Greece? He scoffed at the implausibility.

And then there was the paperwork required to reapply for his own job with the local authority every year, for a programme he had written and designed and which he had operated successfully for many years. The requirements for placing the programme tender in the European Journal so that consultants in other countries could apply.  What a waste of time, for the notional possibility that a consulting firm in Romania might get his job. Didn’t competition keep him, and the whole bureaucracy, on its toes? Competition in the public sector was a British concept – exported. And now reimported? “No,” he said.

I found it hard to argue against him. Maybe he was right. Such righteousness, based on concrete examples, perhaps from their own examples, but also dug out and emphasised by the tabloid press, motivated millions to vote for out. I did not mention how Continentals are happier with layered identities, European and national and local, because of their Catholic backgrounds and/or historic experience of being part of the Habsburg and Holy Roman Empires. I knew he would just say, “We are British, aren’t we?” He did not think the freedom not to show a passport was any compensation whatsoever and he missed the old, dinky, multi-coloured national currencies.

I did propose that the growing homogeneity (which I also regret) came from American pop culture and the internet, which made ideas travel at the speed of a cable connection, not some fictional German Reich restored and relocated to Brussels. He did not have an answer to that, but his original view stood and I don’t think I had a one in a million chance of budging him. 

The pro-Europeans in Britain never had a big idea that could compete with “stand your ground” English nationalism. No really charismatic or articulate people fronted the Remainer side, if I remember correctly. Even with those handicaps, statistics show that the educated and the young voted overwhelmingly to remain.

Continental Europe’s self-confidence was broken by two world wars in a generation. Being bombed and being forced to collaborate is a humiliation, but Britain was not tested to the same extent. The Blitz was much less considerable than the bombing inflicted on Germany. Most Brits probably know the Americans supplied the material and money for the Allied victory, but how many are willing to admit the Russians provided 90 per cent of the fighting effort against the Germans (not to excuse in any way Stalinism and tyranny after the war). El Alamein was a quaint sideshow compared to Stalingrad and Kursk. 

The experience of collaboration made Europeans “weak” to many British minds, but the occupation of the Channel Islands show that people of British stock were willing to collaborate, too.  Failure can weaken your self-confidence, but you can also call it a kind of maturity, an awareness of tragedy, of common humanity, of human limitations.  The British never had that. That is why they voted for Brexit.

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