Friday 28 October 2016

Britain's emotional distance from Europe runs deep

Published 24/06/2016 | 02:30

Chelsea pensioners arrive at a polling station near to the Royal Chelsea Hospital, London. Photo: PA Wire
Chelsea pensioners arrive at a polling station near to the Royal Chelsea Hospital, London. Photo: PA Wire

'It is necessary to say goodbye to Europe.' So said British foreign secretary (and Irishman) Lord Castlereagh in his last conversation with King George IV in August 1822. He committed suicide by cutting his own throat four days later.

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Castlereagh was referring to the European model of co-operation that was emerging following the final defeat of Napoleon a few years earlier (the Battle of Waterloo, as it happens, was fought 201 years ago this very week). Although that model was very different from today's European co-operation arrangements - in the shape of the EU - it did involve major summits of the kind Enda Kenny, David Cameron, Angela Merkel et al have been attending for years.

But even joining in those summits two centuries ago was too much for Britain. It kept at arm's length from the 19th century's 'Concert of Europe'. As the brilliant, if controversial, historian and statesman Henry Kissinger has written of the emerging order of the time: "Britain was not comfortable with a system of European government…(harbouring) the twin fears of 'continental entanglements' and a unified Europe."

How things haven't changed. The suspicious instincts of many Britons towards 'European government' remain strong.

At the time of writing, 2.30am on Friday morning, it looks as if Britons might have voted to take a lonely plunge into the north Atlantic.

But even if that doesn't prove to be the case, almost half of voters will have said no to EU membership.

What is not in doubt is that swathes of working-class and rural England (and Wales) voted resoundingly to say goodbye to Europe, to borrow Castlereagh's 194-year old phrase.

Britain out of Europe would be a disaster for this island - economically, politically and geopolitically. That is a certainty.

If a British departure from the EU was to trigger European disintegration and the breaking apart of the single market, it would be even worse. The foreign companies, which drive the Irish economy as they service the European market, would pack up and leave because there would be no market to service. The Republic would almost certainly reacquire the status it held for most of the 20th Century as the poorest country in northern Europe.

But even if the final result is for Remain, Britain will not settle down to live comfortably with the EU. Our neighbour will remain the awkward partner in Europe. History explains why.

Along with France, England is the country which has most consistently been a great power in Europe over half a millennium. Indeed, it was a player in the continent's politics long before many states even came into being, including two of the biggest, Germany and Italy. This has given the British a confidence in their ability to shape their own destiny alone.

But unlike France, Britain has not suffered the trauma of invasion in what historians call the modern era, which began with the end of the Middle Ages 500 years ago. Nor, over more than three centuries, has Britain suffered revolutionary rupture. As a political entity, it has enjoyed a uniquely smooth evolution.

Even the trauma of the Second World War is looked back on with a degree of coming-together nostalgia. That is a very different collective memory from other European countries.

This history marks Britain out and probably explains its unease with integration, not only among the more nationalistically minded working-class - something that is true in Ireland and most other countries - but also among intellectual types.

If Britons have voted themselves out, it may be that that was always their destiny - transcending history never happens easily.

But the nightmare for Ireland will be just beginning. It will be a very long one.

Irish Independent

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