Why UK will never fully belong to the EU club
Published 28/01/2013 | 05:00
The German tabloid newspaper 'Bild' published a half-comical plea to Britain last week not to leave the European Union: the Germans would so miss the cavortings of Prince Harry, the saga of the Loch Ness monster, Rowan Atkinson as Mr Bean, the Sex Pistols, London Mayor Boris Johnson, and the funky couture of Vivienne Westwood. "You taunt us as Krauts and your favourite word is 'Blitz'," ribbed the mass-market tabloid, "but please don't go ... we need your contrariness and your obstinacy in the face of a United Europe."
'Bild' is unlikely to be Angela Merkel's chosen newspaper, but it probably expresses, in broad strokes, something of Ms Merkel's own view in the face of Prime Minister David Cameron's promise to hold an "in or out" referendum on Britain's place in the EU. It's healthy to have someone in the club who challenges some of the rules. In actual fact, it is very unlikely Britain would leave the European Union: but it is also unlikely that the UK, and particularly England, will ever be an entirely comfortable and fully integrated member of the EU club.
More than one historian has traced British half-heartedness about a united Europe back to the wars of religion starting in the 17th Century, when, essentially, Protestant Europe split from Catholic Europe, and produced a cultural division all over the Continent (and these islands), which has never gone away.
During the economic euro crises of 2012, commentators were quick to point out that the countries that were in trouble – the PIGS (Portugal, Italy/Ireland, Greece and Spain) – were basically Catholic countries. (Greece is Orthodox, but that is probably nearer in culture to Catholicism than to the Nordic Lutheranisms or Calvinisms.)
That is to say, the historically Protestant countries were prudently organising their debts and their economies in a way that related to Max Weber's theory of Protestant fiscal virtue: careful husbandry, not spending more than they earn, keeping reliable accounts. While the traditionally "Catholic" countries took the notion that God will always provide to reckless degrees. This is something of a caricature, and would need a degree of nuancing, since Germany is split 50-50 between Catholic and Protestant traditions, as is the Netherlands.
Moreover, the City of London provided outrageous examples of casino banking, and there was blatant out-of-control spending and lending within British banking and credit organisations. Yet there is some logic to the general thesis; and understanding the religious roots of European societies can help us to perceive the reasons why there are fractures and fissures within the EU.
Professor Norman Stone, formerly professor of history at Oxford, has suggested that Britain's ambivalence towards "Europe" is rooted in Henry VIII's break with Rome, when the Pope would not allow him to divorce Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn.
And that political DNA is still enfolded within British policy towards Europe. It's nonsense to suggest that David Cameron is only playing party politics, propelled by Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party. The ambivalence towards Europe is there in the people, and it will always surface.
It has been suggested that if the European Union doesn't progress towards the "ever closer union" planned by its progenitors, it will once again split into a Protestant and a Catholic Europe: with Germany, the Netherlands, Finland and the other Nordics – who have been so critical of the PIGS – leading the Protestant tendency.
Sweden and Denmark are, not coincidentally, often counted among the Eurosceptic, and Mr Cameron's strongest ally is the Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. Thus the map of Europe is again following along the lines of that old Reformation split.
Where would Ireland stand? Historically, the ties with Catholic Europe are strong – France and Spain traditionally being regarded as Irish allies – and issues such as agriculture have strengthened links with France. But there are meaningful cultural (and familial) links with Britain, and Irish Catholicism has always had a Calvinist element. Ireland is in a position to understand why Britain's history has led it to be of Europe, but never entirely in Europe: it's more to do with King Henry's antics than Prince Harry's.