Notes on the European Union: Where does Great Britain fit in?

IAP Blog

Blog Post 18

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Notes on the European Union: Where does Great Britain fit in?

Westminster Bridge was packed with Londoners.  Residents of the British capital lined the north bank of the River Thames and many of the bridges that cross it.  Facing the London Eye, festively lit for the winter holidays and under the protective glow of Big Ben, a hush came over the crowd.  The seconds passed, each one a moment lost to history and a year in the past.  Then it came, suddenly, but so expectedly and scheduled; low, loud, and long—boom, boom, boom!

The first sounds of my New Year were the dongs of Big Ben’s clock.  The entire crowd remained silent until the bells were finished with their extended announcement that the clock had struck midnight and that we were all entering a new year.  And then, as the last sounds echoed across the Thames, through the streets, and over the roofs of this regal city the fireworks burst, with the utmost power, pageantry, and excitement, into action.  The London Eye seemed to literally become engulfed in flames and for twenty minutes I felt like I was at the center of the universe.

London is an indescribable city and without a doubt the axiom that “when you’re bored with London, you’re bored with life” is perhaps one of the truest collections of words ever uttered.  The city, full

There certainly seems to be a psychological, cultural, and political gap between continental Europeans and the British.
There certainly seems to be a psychological, cultural, and political gap between continental Europeans and the British.

of museums and galleries, countless markets, shops, churches and neighborhoods, seems to be the world itself.  The history and sense that this is the heart of Britain, and an empire so big the sun never set on it, was undoubtedly strong.  All this time I was not necessarily thinking about Britain or London though.  Yes, I was considering the American and English “special relationship” and honing my arguments in support of monarchy, but really what came to mind was the European Union.  Oh, the EU, a perpetual problem and source of good.  The Noble Prize winner that can get it’s house in order; that diverse fragmented, confusing, chaotic union forged out of war to prevent Europeans from going at it and murdering each other again.

So if that is my view of the EU, why the hell was I thinking about it in the shadow of Tower Bridge, the Globe Theater and Buckingham Palace?  Well, because the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a part of that Union and the entire time I couldn’t quite understand why.

Each country I’ve travelled to seem to have a very different relationship with the EU and it really shows the diversity, but also division that inevitably exists in such a context.  The Spanish seemed to just love being Spanish (I think I saw one EU flag, and possibly more gold and red in one place than I eve have before), the Dutch are just happy in the their unbelievable prosperity, the Germans are ridiculously invested in the Union and it’s survival, and the British seem to not even know they’re in on the whole thing.

So really what’s the point?  This is a question that is actually being debated as I write this blog and the answer will drastically alter how the EU goes forward.  British Prime Minister David Cameron wants to take control of many things back from Brussels and is willing to put forward a simple “in-out” referendum to the British people to decide whether or not there is reason for them to be part of the whole project, or experiment, or scheme (whatever you want to call it).

Being in London and seeing how the Brits responded to a year that included an extremely successful Olympic Games (London’s fourth), the Golden Jubilee of the Monarch, and the news that Kate Middleton is pregnant and will give birth to the next heir to the throne I didn’t feel the presence of the EU, and it felt like that was the way it was supposed to be.

From a cultural and historically perspective it seems wrong for Great Britain to go forward and get more invested in a Union with a questionable future.  A union that has little universal identity and history, and a purpose that quite frankly is depressing to think about. (Remember what I said about Europeans having a problem with killing each other?  Exactly.)

I was in a place where the people knew who they are, were proud of that, the history and culture and identity, and despite all the problems the UK currently faces, were still able to put a smile on their face and throw a pretty good party.  I felt so distant from the ever present role of Brussels that I sense in Germany and I think about how, when the EU won the Noble Peace Prize, it was Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, and François Hollande, the French President who stood on the stage together hand-in-hand celebrating the achievement; notably sans the British Prime Minister, David Cameron.

Is it right for the UK to become a part of this Union?  I don’t know, and I wish I had an answer.  The EU wants the UK a part of this family, because they see the history and political success of the country and an indispensible asset to the Union’s future, they also think that the Brits are a key to the EU’s relationship with the US, and the Irish worry they’ll lose an important linguistic and cultural partner if the Brits choose to step back from the whole thing.  These are compelling for British participation, but what about history and culture.

I understand we can’t become too attached to our history and that culture is an organic creature that grows and changes, but there seemed to be something wrong about the UK being part of a more consolidated and federal EU.  I don’t know if it is, but should culture and history be taken more seriously when the future of the EU is considered?  I think there is a rush towards consolidation that is unwisely ignoring what thousands of years of history does to a peoples’ mindset and I think that it would be wise for the EU to take note and think about what that might actually mean.

In London, I experienced something extraordinary on New Year’s Eve that will always be tattooed to my memory and could not have been better time.  I am glad too that I got to spend it with the British revealing in their history, culture, language, and pride, rather than Europeans, whoever they are.  I just don’t think it would’ve been the same