Monday, 31 March 2014

Europe: pub landlords and a desperate dearth of carrots

Can you make people love Europe? The question immediately generates two more: Which people? What Europe? There are many answers and therefore no real, safe, surefire, mathematical solution to this riddle. 

But if your aim is for people to develop an intense dislike for it, coupled with episodes of catatonic ennui about the whole matter, then congratulations to both the pro and anti-EU camps for collaborating so effectively towards this goal. 

Two pieces I read recently,  about the somewhat mirroring challenges of the EU and Scottish independence referendums, highlight the dilemmas at play. 

Ruth Wishart argues, in my view very persuasively, in The Observer that the faltering Better Together campaign needs to find some carrots to go with the sticks. Threatening people with the uncertainty of some unspecified horrific apocalypse if they ever leave only works so far and is never as attractive as showing them that it is really in their interest to stay because the future can be bright and exciting inside the Union. As one person commented on the thread below the piece :"A campaign slogan of 'you're too wee, too poor and too stupid to cope' never had much going for it in the empathy stake."

Which gets me to Chris Huhne's Guardian piece,  full of interesting polling data but so strident in tone it made my teeth hurt. I share Huhne's premise, summed up in the title: Ukip are the party 'of a better yesterday', of undeliverable promises based on a rose tinted narrative of a past that will never return and was actually not so great in the first place. But sneering at 'insecurity and nostalgia' won't do the second part of the trick: offer a vision of a better tomorrow inside the EU for the people who feel left behind.

To get through to potential UKIP voters I think it is essential to turn a common saying upside down.  Play the man by all means: Nigel Farage is a big boy, he can take and is well overdue some ribbing, some not-so-gentle reminding of the intellectual dishonesty of his party and its elected representatives. Just think of their rhetorical despairing of the EU budget while drinking deeply from its trough, their colour-by-number manifestos, their purporting to stand up for everyday folks against big business provided they are not women and/or low paid workers or in fact anyone who doesn't run a pub whilst chain-smoking, basically. Play the man, as I say, but never, ever kick his potential electorate like a ball - too poor and dumb and uneducated to know what's good for them. This is not just horribly patronising but self-defeating too.

Sticks only work so far, particularly with the safety and familiarity of the idea of the nation state pulling the other way, the comforting illusion that your leaders can get back to being 'in charge' as if the world and all its challenges and structures weren't  global anyway. You need the carrot of a vision of Europe that is worth partaking in. It's tricky because there are many different, often contrasting reasons why Europe has created real value for businesses, more freedom and a better quality of life for its citizens and - at times, though not so much recently - a sense of purpose.

Here, for what it is worth, is why I grew to love Europe, warts and all, idiotic bureaucracy and some disastrous decisions notwithstanding. It starts with my father.

As a small boy, who had to flee the industrial town of Leghorn at the height of the war to seek refuge in the Sienna countryside, my father saw the dusty tanks of the defeated German troops file past his village one way and jubilant (and often marauding) Allies contingents come up the other way. The need to stop European countries ever going to war with each other is as ingrained in him as the love of sweets, which American soldiers apparently lavished on him on accounts of his unbelievably cuteness.

When I left Genoa University in 1989 to finish my studies in Edinburgh, safe in the knowledge that by 1992 my degree would be recognised throughout the then EEC, I didn't need complex graphs and charts to explain to me why a single market of goods, people, capitals and services, work in progress though it was and- incredibly - still is, was a good idea.

And after a few short years of undrinkable coffee and dodgy salad cream I noticed with relish that Italy had followed me up there: not in the shape of hordes of unwashed immigrant zombies but in the ready availability of every conceivable culinary ingredient, brand of clothing, and even the odd, wildly optimistic given the as yet un-integrated weather, Vespa scooter. Brits, not just the posh, well travelled ones, could have a little taste of the Mediterranean life.

In those first few years if I was ever nostalgic for  'home' I really had to conjure it up, Proustian style, at the bottom of a coffee cup. Flights were punishingly expensive and I could barely afford to fly back once or twice a year - casual mini-breaks in Rome or Madrid really would have seemed the stuff of science fiction. But they didn't come up with better planes, you see, just a better market for the industry to evolve in through genuine competition.

I am proud of the fact that we Europeans, a collection of peoples who have exchanged ideas and  knowledge, created art and beaten the shit out of each other for millennia can calmly establish, through the rules of access to the Single Market, and with not a cannon in sight, that we want our products safe, of a high standard and not made through slave labour or at the expense of ecological disaster.

Later on in life I, and any of my British neighbors who may wish to, will be free (as things stand) to retire back in Italy, safe in the knowledge that the local health service will look after me, despite my not ever having paid a penny towards it.

Finally, as a woman, I can think of fewer worse fates than having Farage and his braying chums in charge or able to influence any policies at all, at home or internationally, as my chances of becoming a chain-smoking pub landlord, unconcerned with maternity leave, anti-trafficking laws and all that - what do they call it? - red tape, are vanishingly small.


  1. Unlike you I can't even read Huhne's animadversions. It's just too painful to think who is writing them. I've always, since late childhood felt European, but, as you say, this core confidence is regularly and seriously undermined by dangerous clowns like Farage - and he's probably not the worst of them.