THE ECONOMIC arguments are inconclusive. Since we are not very democratic ourselves who cares about the EU’s democratic deficit? In today’s world sovereignty is meaningless. No, the real passion underlying Brexit is a hankering for Agincourt and the Delhi Durbar: opponents of the EU are just snobbish about continentals. Stumbling over the quad, illustrious academics are opining that it’s really about ‘imperial nostalgia’.
As a European who thinks of himself as anti-imperialist, a socialist and someone who is ‘globalised’ – my students are of every colour, bar white, and my preferred social medium is weixin - empire was a betrayal of our values rather than something to be mourned. We shouldn’t confuse Britishness with Empire and nor should we confuse Europe and the EU. To Europeans, unless of the political class or in receipt of subventions, Europe is the world of Goethe, Leopardi and Pan Tadeusz (interalia) and not the corporate HQ with the blue flag.
On the streets, demonstrators against the EU also distinguish the Europe of peoples and cultures from the EU. The EU is the construction of a political class more and more at odds with ordinary Europeans. Evidence? From the suppression of Greek and Italian democracy to the unhappiness of Dutch voters; but my own reasons for not seeing EU and Europe as coterminous come from other sources: Chinese history and in my parents’ experience of the Second World War.
It was in studying why China, for so long the most advanced civilization, was overtaken by Europe in the 19th century, that I came to realize what most distinguished Europe from preceding civilisations. It was the competitive diversity of Europe that succeeded over the politically contrived homogeneity of Ming and Qing China.
The essential germ of Europe’s vitality has been the competition between small states and the opportunities given through it to the enterprising and the progressive. The failure of any great power to dominate long term the politics and economies of the continent made it possible for extraordinary leaps forward to be made in different cultural and political settings at different times. The achievements of the Middle Ages, the Italian Renaissance, the German Reformation, Portugese sea power, England’s revolution, the French and Scottish Enlightenments, Prussia’s institutional reforms and hundreds of other advances started in one political setting and later could be adapted elsewhere. In principle China should have been equally diverse because, despite the common hieroglyphics, its languages and cultures are as varied. But centralized decision making, ideological conformity and bureaucratic control stymied the potential benefits of diversity.
The European Union is now trying to do what the Ming did to China and what Charles V, Louis XIV, Napoleon and Hitler wanted to do to Europe. The political class is committed to unification because it is in the interests of that class, big business and the so-called ‘NGOs’ that it subsidizes. This is classic class avarice that Djilas identified under Communism. Truly representative parliamentarians – from the countries whose intellectuals led the struggle against Habsburg, Hohenzollern or Soviet hegemony - would never have allowed the institutions of the Common Market to be perverted into an imperial project.
The value of diversity was evident in the Second World War. My mother’s first job in the army was on the Atrocities File, recording the vile activities of the Germans and their Ukrainian, Dutch and Nordic helpers as they slaughtered their way around Europe. Later she investigated revenge killings by German forces in Italy. She met her future husband in this period; as a prisoner he had been savagely beaten by an Italian general later tried for war crimes.
It is often claimed that the EU is successful because it suppresses nationalism, blamed for the Second World War. But my parents saw nationalism as the saviour. They had every reason to hate Germans or Italians but never did because they saw that and the following, Cold, War as being against hideous transnational ideologies which sought to eliminate diversity. For them, the urge to centralize, to ‘cleanse’ and to unify of both Nazis and Communists was, finally, subverted and defeated by the patriotism of Danes, Norwegians, Poles, Czechs, Hungarians and the British.
For three years of my childhood, jobs being hard to get in Britain, we lived in Italy. My playmates, the next door neighbours, were the sons of German soldiers who had stripped off their uniforms and, pretending to be Dutch refugees, survived in Rome when their armies surrendered. One day in their flat I found a scrapbook with a picture of the father as a young Nazi stormtrooper. When I asked him why, he explained: ‘I don’t know what came over my generation. We forgot all our German decency. Thank God we are becoming German again.’ At the time this struck me as perverse, which is probably why I have never forgotten. But later I connected his idea to my mother’s certainty that patriotism and sense of difference saved Europe.
Today Greek workers do not want a Euro ideology imposed on them by bureaucratic capitalism in Hugo Boss suits. The rich and powerful want the Euro because it turns poor countries into colonies (sorry, captive markets) and keeps their economies primitive. Will the confrontations get worse? As a Spaniard said to me recently talking of EU economic policies, ‘We are not yet fighting with weapons against our political masters, but there will come a time when they go too far’. I was reminded of the time as a child when I saw mule trains of Alpine troops snaking over the Dolomites in search of Tyrolean terrorists demanding self rule (they got it).
There is another reason why Britain must lead the way in this battle for Europe. The UK has made a very particular contribution which it will no longer be able to make when its MPs are left with the powers of Rotherham District Council. For centuries our long-maturing common law and democracy, resulting from a thousand skirmishes and court cases brought by the workers, has been the model for Europeans. It was copied in the 19th century by many countries but abandoned in the 20th in favour of authoritarianism. The British today seem blithely unaware of how unusual and how particular to us are the rule of law and democracy and their persistence while democracy was jettisoned on the mainland.
The EU will implement further integration as soon as the referendum is over. If we remain in, our elected parliament will be over-ridden by village councillors from Luxembourg, ex-Communist thugs and Mafia ‘amici’ from the south. The expansionists in Brussels will rely on our armed forces when they provoke Russia. Our social services will teeter under the strain of helping Eastern European politicians remain in power – by relieving them of the need to reform their economies and provide proper health and welfare for their huddled masses.
The Battle for Europe is for our political and cultural diversity and for the rights of working people to have some democratic control over their leaders. In the Kafka’s castle that is Brussels, functionaries are patiently realizing the dreams of dead dictators to consolidate Europe. That is imperial nostalgia.
Hugo de Burgh BA (Hons) MA PhD FRSA is Professor of the Study of Journalism and Director of the China Media Centre.