Two things have changed since I read the Hugo Dixon book. One is that the whole Greek shituation has hit the fan, to the point where even left-leaning EU sympathisers have started to say stuff like “if this is the way the EU treats its members, then I don’t want anything to do with it.” The other big alteration, at least in my mind, is that the Tory government have started to bring in so many irritating, let’s-turn-back-the-clock-and-party-like-it’s-1983 Thatcheresque policies, that frankly “whether the UK is in the EU or not” has started to seem like a lesser concern; the major one being more “is the Tory party starting to turn the UK into the USA?” – and I don’t mean the fast food, Coca-Cola, big cars, highways, roadhouse bar’n’grill Americana parts. I mean all the bad bits. Paying for healthcare, practically non-exisitent welfare state, companies and banks being 100 times more powerful than the government; and the publicly funded broadcaster being painfully quaint and weak, primarily educational and ultra left-wing.
I’m tempted to spend this whole post fulminating on this very topic – and in fact I might devote a future one to it (you can hardly wait) – but I did actually manage to struggle through David Charter’s Europe: In Or Out? so I’d better briefly give it its due.
This book differs from The In/Out Question in many ways, and the two tomes have many minor similarities: both are written in English, both have titles possessing the words “In” and “Out”, both have blue covers with some kind of graphic representation of the EU flag mingling with a totem of United Kingdomness, both are – on reflection – mind-meltingly boring. But the two major things they have in common are more telling. They both suffer from a woeful, although inevitable, focus on economics and statistics. If this was 1974, or even 1985, when the body up for discussion was the European Economic Community, you’d expect nothing more. But the whole point of this wretched debate is that it’s the EU. A union, in lots of different ways; primarily, I would venture, of people. So where are the people? In both books? Where is the boss of a firm in Hemel Hempstead who is really jolly glad he’s employing so many super-reliable Polish people? Where is the unemployed man in Sunderland who is cross that he’s been pipped to the post in his latest job application by a mother of two from Hungary? Where is the Liverpudlian who’s having a lovely time working in Stuttgart, or the retired estate agent living quite a nice life in Malaga? Where is the Italian citizen who’s been living in the UK since 2005, working professionally, who wonders what the fuck’s going to happen if Britain severs its ties? Oh, there are a couple of token examples – a cheesemaker from Somerset who benefits from the EU’s trade deal with (unexpectedly) South Korea – but there is a distinct lack of anything resembling a “human story”, if you’ll pardon the hideous expression.
So, to put it bluntly, what worries me is that most people in this country don’t really give a shit about the human story. A perfectly nice family in Leicestershire or Cheshire who actually aren’t friends with any EU citizens living in Britain probably don’t really care about anything but the economics of the thing. I guess these books are for them. Hugo Dixon of course is undoubtedly pro – to a somewhat bewildering degree, even for an EU supporter like me – but the largely skeptical David Charter has written a book over which hangs something of a fog of depression. He never really comes out and says “we should leave” outright, but what he does fill us with is gloom at the workings of the current EU setup. Some bits admittedly do seem absurd – the money-wasting, environment-punishing shuttling of the European Parliament to and from Strasbourg and Brussels, for example – but Charter relentlessly points out the system’s shortcomings without, as Hugo Dixon does, suggesting improvements. It’s an altogether meatier book, with firmer, more satisfying writing, but I guess we’re not really in it for the writing. The final paragraph is a bit chilling and sums up a large portion of my fears about the situation, so here it is:
Without the prospect of a better EU, there is no answer to the attractions of Brexit. Returning to sovereign control over domestic affairs, Britain will survive outside the EU despite the upheaval of leaving. The question is whether it will thrive. Paradoxically, one of the conditions of a successful divorce is the goodwill of the other partner. This book has highlighted the wide range of shared interests between European nations and shown that some measure of compromise is inevitable. No perfect formula exists for the complete jigsaw of continental cooperation and Britain has much to lose from an acrimonious breakdown in relations with the European Union, in or out.
I rather wish that this notion would be mentioned more in the British press, whether from a pro- or an against-EU media source.
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