In the town of Eastleigh, the United Kingdom Independence Party beat the two major parties to come second in a by-election on 1st March. A party our own eurosceptic Prime Minister once rather deliciously described as ‘a bunch of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’, UKIP was deemed by many to have entered the mainstream, shifting the centre of discussion on Europe towards its own hard line of scepticism.
Anyone who has followed the UK’s unusual methods of cooperation at EU summits of late will be familiar with British Euroscepticism; like its counterparts across Europe, it is strong and growing (and does, admittedly, once in a while, have a point). Our outrage has reached a new high point thanks to the EU Budget, the European Convention on Human Rights (which is not an EU convention but which riles because as an EU member, we have to retain it), and immigrants: recent weeks have seen politicians queuing up to lament these evils and promise (more or less) to do away with them in a debate heavily influenced by UKIP.
Europe is a godsend for journalists and politicians, because (despite accusations from eurosceptics) it can be anything you want. We know it affects us but not the details, so it’s a perfect political punchbag. Portray it either as too chaotic, as demonstrated by the Italian elections or the European Council’s haggling, or alternatively as a monolithic, ruthless bureaucracy (Herman van Rompuy would no doubt have been pleased to read The Sun‘s decription of him as ‘EU boss’.
For the Daily Telegraph, an over-pacifist Europe is obstructing a military solution in Syria; meanwhile, UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage used a recent speech to decry the EU’s transformation into a ‘Europe of war’. Depending on whether it’s Nordic social legislation we’re worried about, Franco-German Eurofederalism, or scrounging, irresponsible Mediterranean states and their citizens, the hydra will offer a head to be severed. Whoever said an à la carte Europe was impossible? Whichever incarnation we pick, see how good we look by comparison to those silly/sinister (delete as appropriate) Europeans!
Some papers, such as the Guardian get distracted by detail. No wonder their sales are declining. By and large, most of our media find that the above narrative works best; an application of single-market principles to UK fisheries can so easily be made into an imperialistic land grab.
Of course, Euroscepticism counts among the many features shared by the Union’s diverse cultures. But here (if you will forgive some British exceptionalism on the part of your correspondent) it seems to run especially deep. For many journalists the Second World War has not yet completely ended. Nor, for that, have the Napoleonic Wars. We may be starting to forget England’s medieval possession of a large portion of France, but today we evoke Britain’s role as a bastion of freedom and stability as if Napoleon or Hitler were still waiting across the channel to pounce and claim the white cliffs of Dover, beloved symbol of our frontier against invaders. And that role is why we cannot accept any inferior, European Convention on Human Rights. What would those Europeans know about such things? They’re probably all still rioting.
These days the enemy is less fearsome than previous despots. But you get the picture. And an unscrupulous newspaper can make the marginalised Roma of Romania and Bulgaria look quite frightening to middle England.
At the end of the year ‘all 29 million citizens of Romania and neighbouring Bulgaria will gain full rights to live, work and claim benefits in Britain’ thanks to the EU, according to the Daily Mail which goes on to relate examples of their desire to leave their local squalor for the ‘Promised Land’. ‘I’d do anything for a job in Britain’, says a typical interviewee. Our press obsesses over how many Bloody Bulgarian Bastards will come to Bugger off with our Benefits, and how best to stop them (which, given the lavishly pitying description given of their present living standards, has more than a hint of sadism).
But we’re not being self-centred. 29 million Bulgarians and Romanians aside, Europe’s citizens feel similarly oppressed by Brussels. A favoured Eurosceptic stance involves the defence of our fellow Europeans who are being forced into an artificial and dangerous project.
But the best thing about attacking Europe is the self-congratulation. It’s not just that we know how to do things better here; it’s that having realised that, they act as a flattering mirror for Britain. They covet our money (the UK’s contribution to the previous EU budget being under 0.25% of our GDP to begin with did not keep it from taking 25% of our media commentary). They covet our way of life, our jobs, and our benefits, even if £51.85 (about €60) a week does not buy much around here. Above all, they covet our cherished sovereignty.
The British dream dreamt by luckless Romanians massages our sense of national identity. Meanwhile at an inter-governmental level, the EU’s apparent desire to meddle with our laws and policies just for the sake of it resembles the behaviour of an obsessive lover. Never mind that we no longer rule most of it, we can still be the envy of the world.
A certain breed of sugar-coated right-wingery can be detected here which revels in seeing the country’s kind heart reflected in its welfare policy or open labour market, and then takes pride in having the clear head required to realise that to survive in a world of Eurocrats and Bulgars, we must temper our own noble instincts with pragmatism.
Little else is going especially well here, so we’re lucky to have such a way of raising our collective spirits. One might indeed think that if Europe did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent it. But then again, apparently that is just what those Eurocrats and crafty Germans have been doing wrong all this time.
Cover photo: Christopher Elison, CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)