Letter from Europe: After the Referendum

Nicky Gardner, who is co-editor of the specialist and always intriguing print magazine, hidden europe, is just back from a journey through Bohemia, Upper Austria and Bavaria during which Britain’s recent referendum was never far from her mind.

She has sent out one of a regular series of emailed ‘Letters from Europe’ which are amongst the benefits of subscription to the magazine. It speaks for itself – and for much more. We have requested and been given permission to reproduce it below.

Letter from Europe: After the Referendum

Several times last week I found myself trying to explain, or even apologise for, the English. On Thursday afternoon in sunny Ceské Budejovice a matronly hotel receptionist looked at my passport and asked why the English had so sadly slipped up.

“Don’t look at me,” I thought. I was about to add: “I was for Iceland all along.” But, in my heart, I knew this was not football talk. This was referendum talk.

“There is no easy explanation. But, yes, something has gone seriously wrong in Britain,” was the best I could offer.

That’s all I could say the following day, too, when a Greek waiter at a restaurant by the Danube offered me his thoughts on that referendum. “We’ll all be better off without them,” he said, referring to Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

I was brought up in an unremarkable region where culture was not characterised by far horizons. I did however have the good fortune to go to a Roman Catholic school which countered the parochialism of the area. The Old Testament is coloured by a cultural eclecticism which found no equivalent on the bus to school. I read about Joel and Nahum, not to mention the Jewish queen Esther who had a Persian husband. Hey, this really was multiculturalism in action. None of the kids in my home area could boast a Jewish mum and a Persian dad.

I found the New Testament full of tempting geography. I soon got to grips with the core territory of the narrative: Galilee, Samaria and Judea. But there were also references to Macedonia, Lycia, Crete and Ephesus. The world, I realised, was bigger than my parents had led me to believe. As soon as I was old enough to ride a bicycle and venture out alone, I set out in search of Achaia, assuming that I could still get home in time for tea – perhaps having even met a few Thessalonians along the way.

As soon as I left school, I was venturing east – a first visit to the German Democratic Republic (alone, at the age of eighteen) fired my political imagination. First encounters with Cyrillic script pushed at the boundaries of language. I lived for a spell in an apartment block in Frankfurt-am-Main where the majority of residents were Turkish or Kurdish. And then I moved to a remote valley in Wales where Welsh was the dominant language.

In time, I really left England behind. I escaped a crushing provincialism in which the only redeeming factor was Britain’s membership of the European Union. It gave me, and millions of others, the chance to live, work, love and play across a community of nations which has worked wonders in setting aside their historic differences.

I found – and still find – the entire European project deeply inspiring, but wonder if many in England have ever read about the lives and work of the founding fathers of the European Union, among them Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Altiero Spinelli and Alcide de Gasperi.

Probably not! Because Britain has been the cuckoo in the European nest. Too many Brits saw Europe merely as terrain for trade and stag parties. And, as long as the trade was good, Britain was content to pay to be a member of the club. But it paid only in moderation. The country’s reluctance to pay its share of the EU budget meant that Britain received vast rebates, and its net national contribution to the EU, as a percentage of the country’s gross national product (GNP), was very much lower than that of any of the other 27 member states. How could it ever have come to pass that relatively poor countries like Romania and Lithuania paid a higher proportion of their GNP into the EU budget than Britain?

So Britain is set to leave the EU after a debate which has revealed the full extent of neo-nationalist instincts in some parts of England. The death rattle of Empire, it transpired, came with quite a sting in its tail. There is a certain vein of English thinking which has not changed in over half a century. It is parochial and all too often tinged with racism – as likely to be directed against the Welsh or the Scottish as against the Germans or the French. For millions of Brits of my generation, the EU gave an exit route, a chance to escape. It gave me a chance to feel truly European, to be truly European. It has given me the opportunity to explore other languages, other faiths, other freedoms, that would simply never have come my way.

My path would not have been for everyone. But that a generally older generation has cast a vote to deprive their children and their grandchildren of the freedoms which I have so enjoyed… that, it seems to me, is indefensible and not the sort of thing that can be explained away with a couple of sentences at a hotel reception in the Czech Republic or at a restaurant on the bank of the River Danube.

Nicky Gardner

Note: For Argyll can also recommend browsing here in the Letter from Europe’ archive of hidden europe magazine – which now has around 450 back issues. These gems are always highly informed, quirky and living up to the focus of the magazine on hidden europe.

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Related Articles & Comments

  • a community of nations which has worked wonders in setting aside their historic differences.

    Is this really true? All that’s happened is that the differences are played out in a vast, unwieldy and toothless parliament instead, an arena filled with too many parochial non-entities(Farage included) and which has no ability to draft law. How else would an ostensibly democratic entity preside mutely over 5 years of economic fratricide against the greek people, the usurping of a democratically elected government in Italy, a fisheries policy which has caused countless millions of tonnes of fish to be dumped in the sea instead of on plates and continues to do so, only now the fish go to landfill rather than davey jones’s locker, stick with an agriculture policy that disproportionately benefits landowners who are already hugely wealthy and profit through industrial monoculture(80% of the 50bn euro budget goes to a quarter of the EU’s farmers) rather than the stated objectives of land husbandry, sustainability and biodiversity and maintains tariffs which militate against stated objectives of lifting Africa out of poverty. The EU’s inability to deal with a developing migrant crisis which threatened schengen, a foundation stone of the common market, precipitated a kneejerk response from Germany which simply exacerbated the situation and has now been partially resolved, again largely at the behest of Germany, with a shabby, dishonorable and possibly illegal backroom deal with the fascist Erdogan.

    I voted to escape the parochialism of the EU, which in its existing form seeks to shut out the rest of world and impose an inflexible framework upon flows of trade, ideas etc which the digital economy and global trade increasingly renders obsolete; what made sense in 1972 is not necessarily going to stand the test of time. Being shackled to the contradictions of the euro has been ruinous to every adopter other than Germany yet the troika’s inevitable answer to all problems is loans to cover unrepayable loans and ‘be more german’, a solution which might be theoretically correct but ignores the elephant in the room. There are already signs that the italian banks are in crisis again and even Deutsche Bank is being talked about as needing a bail out.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

    db July 7, 2016 9:09 pm Reply
    • Indeed the EU has its problems, many of them self-constructed. So has the UK, even more so. But the Leave campaign, self delusional and bitterly divisive, with a strong undertone of xenophobia, wasn’t the way to improve things. I note that its ” leaders ” have now all retired from the mess which they have created, all doubtless well-cushioned from its results.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

      Arthur Blue July 13, 2016 2:58 pm Reply
      • Some are lurking, in the shadows, working out how to play the situation to best advantage – for example, the Hon. Bernard Jenkin MP, and the Hon Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, both of whom saw fit to rubbish (or attempt to) the governor of the Bank of England for doing his job rather than stay silent in the face of some of their more unrealistic claims for the advantages of Brexit.
        There are snakes in the undergrowth, Arthur.

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        Robert Wakeham July 13, 2016 4:26 pm Reply
  • So you voted out on race grounds. I am glad Scotland voted to be inclusive.
    I sure you will be welcomed in RUk should you choose to head off with your prepacked suitcase. Ms Mone is there already.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 5

    No Cheese Here July 10, 2016 2:33 pm Reply
    • Scotland didn’t vote to stay in the EU, add the ‘no show’ who couldn’t care less into the leave vote and you have an overwhelming leave.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

      Richard July 10, 2016 3:47 pm Reply
    • LOL NHC… your fixation on racism is disturbing…
      I read nothing in DB’s post that vaguely supports racism…indeed DB’s comments highlight the fact that more folk died in the med after Merkle’s ill-advised unilateral ” let the people come” speech than the initial surge of refugees…moreover, the make-up of this wave of displaced humanity went from a majority of genuine refugees to a majority of economic migrants… you live in a dark parallel universe NHC… thankfully you are a micro minority… you should crawl out from the cave of doom and gloom and seek an epiphany of wider understanding…. there again, track record shows that is about as likely as snow in Basra in August.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

      Karl Hughes July 10, 2016 5:20 pm Reply
      • NCH showing his nasty face, again.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

        Robert Wakeham July 10, 2016 7:28 pm Reply
      • ” Went from a majority of genuine refugees to a majority of economic migrants ” Do you have firm evidence of that ? And what’s wrong with economic migrants ? Most of our ancestors were migrants at some point, driven to try to better their circumstances and often bitterly resisted by the indigenous inhabitants of the time, in due course to become assimilated and themselves fervent resisters of the following lot.
        Our own UK expatriates and emigrants, spread all around the world, were and are economic migrants. The UK actually needs migrants, as the NHS would collapse without them, and so would the food and tourist industry. The free movement of labour, however, should not include the freedom of unscrupulous employers to exploit it, or allow government to shrug off its responsibilities for the provision of affordable housing, or sufficient school places for an increased population.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

        Arthur Blue July 13, 2016 3:15 pm Reply
    • What’s inclusive about an immigration policy which discriminates against 90% of the world’s populace?

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

      db July 10, 2016 7:43 pm Reply
  • He nutters that inhabit the dark corners in Argyll should really think before they write.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

    A.Salmon July 10, 2016 9:27 pm Reply
  • Despite the involvement in Europe of large numbers of people from these offshore islands, and the regular impingement of European affairs – like the Norman Conquest or the Reformation – on our own, there has always been a degree of detachment from our neighbours. ” Fog in Channel – Continent cut off ” ” Balance of Power held by Britain ”
    Ms Gardner has recently visited Central Europe. In the immediate aftermath of WW2 there must have been at least 50 million displaced or ” relocated ” people milling about there. 12 to 15 million Germans pushed west, and a similar number of Poles following them into what had been Germany east of the Oder. Romania, Ukraine, Poland, and Belarus struggled to claim territory from each other, the conflicts in Western Ukraine costing thousands of lives. The expulsion of Bohemia’s ethnic Germans – over a third of the population – and confiscation of their belongings, cost more lives, and all this after peace has supposedly been re-instated. No government comes out of these events with glory, and some should hang their heads in shame, but the consistent attitude of the British Government was one of fastidious detachment. ” These relocations are being carried out in an orderly and humane manner ” was one assurance, a similar turn of phrase to those used during the earlier post WW1 expulsions between Turkey and Greece, and today concerning the turmoil of desperate refugees at Europe’s borders.
    So what happened to all these people ? Well, Germany, particularly the Western Zone, quickly put them to good use, and they were an important part of its Wirtschaftswunder of the 50s. Jews, by and large kept from migrating to the US or the UK, went to Israel, with final results yet to be seen. In many other places resentments still fester, and are a big factor in much of the Continent’s instability.
    Leave’s idea that we can just turn our backs on Europe is not realisable. The consequences of European affairs inevitably affect us, so we might as well have a say in them. Hopefully a sensible say, though maybe that’s a bit too much in today’s climate.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

    Arthur Blue July 13, 2016 5:18 pm Reply

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