Leaders must now furnish Europe with vision and kindness
The Somme centenary is a good time for Europe to refocus on the needs of its citizens, writes Miriam O'Callaghan
This weekend, Europe commemorates the Battle of the Somme, and by extension, the 17 million people who died in World War I. Within 20 years, the Maginot Line would succeed the Hindenburg Line in maps and imaginations. Another generation of Europeans would die in the Marne, Verdun.
The seeds of World War II were sown, in no small part, in the humiliation of reparations under Versailles and the economic and political turmoil of 1920s/30s Weimar. But from the war's 60 million-plus deaths, the EU was built. As a co-operative, a common market and a union of peoples, it has brought one of the longest periods of sustained peace and prosperity to our continent.
It's a simultaneous strength and weakness of the EU that generations have been able to take it and peace so much for granted. That peace quickly became and remained situation normal, and made it easier for politicians to reduce the EU and its citizens to a market and consumers. It became less about Rousseau or Rodin, the value and values of a shared life, and more about roaming.
But now we could be coming to the end of our EU Holocene, with talk of walls and fences, them and us, in and out. It's another Warren Buffett moment. As the political tide ebbs along Europe's seas, we see who has been swimming naked of independent thought or values. In the new shallows, the 'float' of groupthink and repetition is exposed as a barnacled concrete-block, chained around ankles. In this revelation, how the people of the Union will view their leaders and institutions depends on how the latter communicates with them. To regain the people's interest, trust and confidence, the politicians must commit to a Europe with a sense of worth, wealth and well-being, way beyond a balance sheet. One where our European sense of being and belonging is connected to the authors on our shelves, the stories we tell our children, the composers we sing, play or listen to, the plays that comfort, frighten, mesmerise us when we sit in darkened theatres, alone with ourselves and all humanity.
This week, Nigel Farage's sticking it to Europe, slugging it out it with Jean-Claude Juncker on the floor of the parliament was distinctly unedifying. Dear Nigel, had taken his country back. How many centuries he didn't say. Cher Jean Claude fancied a bit of farce as to why Nigel had shown up at all. Lieber Martin had been fuming for days. It took Chancellor Merkel to get the lads to play nice, cop on.
Now they need to shut up, listen up, step up.
Because the rest of us - the people of Europe as opposed to the professional Europeans - don't have the luxury of making a drama out of the crisis. At this side of the Irish Sea, we worry about our families in the UK, the implications for jobs or businesses, a return of the Border, whether our children will be classed as international students for university fees, or if, now we're suddenly 'foreign', we might not be as welcome as before.
Ardent Brexiters were on TV straight-faced, Irish-accented, deploring "the immigration". Are the old Irish more acceptable than the new? Did Erasmus erase us? Are we not Oirish enough? Are we too European? According to the UK National Police Chiefs' Council, reported 'hate attacks' are up 57pc post-referendum. What would it take for "Polish Vermin" to become Irish rats? Since Boris Johnson got what he never wanted, you never know.
I'm not a bit sorry for Johnson with the cake he's pro-having and eating stuck in his Tory gullet. Coronation Street barm-cake proved not at all as digestible as the pastel or iridescent confection from gold-embossed Laduree. Even before he decided that no, being PM wasn't for him, we watched "the decent people" discover they were sold a pup. For example, the post-Brexit £350m-a-week for the NHS.
The presumably 'indecent' Remainers know instinctively there's something heartbreaking and alarming about the UK's poorest, most marginalised people looking to Johnson, Gove and Farage for political deliverance or social salvation. With the Tories burning and Labour melting, they could pay the ultimate price for neither.
It's a salutary lesson for wider EU politics that Farage and his Tory legitimisers could so easily hoist the false flags of "Decency", "Hope" and "Independence" over the sound and fury of millions of voices saying not so much 'we hate the EU', but 'we're too long ignored, too long poor, too long humiliated, we've had enough of the bloody elite establishment'. And that those same politicians could rally the people to the very cause and root of their abandonment. Like smashing their skull in to cure a headache.
A benefit of getting older is that you don't just read about transformative moments, you've actually experienced them. I lived in the UK during the miners' strikes and Wapping, smelled the fear, felt the rage, saw the bewilderment, dignity, resolve. As an immigrant, the daughter and niece of tradesmen and union-men, I could imagine my father and uncles on the picket line, their heads high, shirts spotless. With them in mind, I watched Margaret Thatcher lay waste to the communities of the north of England, with her unlikely attack dog St Francis of Assisi. The karma would be huge.
I had the same sense of karma watching the EU pulverise Greece. As it did, Council President Donald Tusk gave an interview to the Financial Times, citing his concern that a Tsipras speech contrasting the debt "solidarity" shown to post-war Germany with the treatment of Greece had been "loudly cheered" by a large number of MEPs. Tusk said "it was the first time I saw radicals with such emotion, in this context anti-German emotion. It was almost half of the European Parliament."
But was it actually anti-German? Or was it more pro-Greece? Was he ignoring a democratic desire for the home of democracy to be treated humanely, with a dignity befitting its union membership?
Certainly, the right-wing, anti-Europe ranks in the parliament are increasing. But if the austerity moguls wish the parliament to become a 'safe space' for their offend-me-not orthodoxy, they're playing right into their hands. They're also clattering those of us looking for the kind of deep change - not cosmetic change - that will renew.
The centenary of the Somme is a good time for rapprochement, renewal. Because the EU is not a debtors' prison; a lab to test how much we will take, how far they can go. The EU is our home. If it doesn't start to feel like home, the Last Post that on Friday scoured the war-scarred fields and 72,000 names on Thiepval's Monument to the Missing, could well be sounding for it.
I go often to the Somme. As I type, my footrest is the shaft of an exploded Toffee Apple bomb found rusted in a lane near Bazentin. The rose on my desk sits in a tiny embossed bottle reading Hopitaux Militaires.
In the World War I letters I collect, the German, Czech and Italian correspondents had different trenches, common preoccupations: post, food, warmth, weather, news of their gardens, pets, friends, neighbours, but above all family, home, love.
Our leaders must now renovate our EU, furnish it with philosophy, vision, wisdom, kindness, a sense of family, love, what it is to be human. They could heed Galbraith. "The enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events."
If they do not, they risk condemning Europeans to something my daughter observed as we bought bread early one morning in a village on the Somme. Looking at the handwritten sign in the shop window, she considered its resonance in English. It read Depot du Pain.