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Saturday, 1 April 2017

Europe Reverts to the Norm

Within the expensive modern buildings in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg City lurks the spirit of the old Europe. That same spirit is seen in the Moscow Kremlin, where Mr Putin receives visitors in heavily restored tsarist palaces with no less pomp that was evident when Nicholas II received the Kaiser.

The buildings in Brussels are massively costly to maintain, and the army of deluded eurorats that operate within them is even more expensive. Britain has paid the second-biggest share of the EU's central budget, after Germany, ever since Edward Heath conned the country into joining a 'market'. When Britain's net financial contribution is removed - in just two years' time - the financial squeeze on the entire set-up will be catastrophic. France's share of the cost is much less than Britain's, a difference inexplicable in terms of comparative national income but easily understood in the context of the nineteen fifties when Federal Germany was willing to accept almost any burden to demonstrate the good faith of the newly-democratic regime in wanting to submerge itself into a wider federal Europe.

The British electorate sleepwalked from the European Economic Community into the European Union during the prime ministerships of Mrs Thatcher and Mr Major. Thatcher had no more idea what she was talked into doing in the EEC than she did in acquiescing in the destruction of British industry. John Major never did anything accidentally: he was convinced about 'Europe', about the benefits of integration. He was, therefore, extremely sensitive to the passion with which his opponents within the Conservative Party, especially among parliamentarians, applied to their euroscepticism; even though they never had any effective appeal for the wider population. It was only the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party - largely among the disillusioned denizens of the formerly-industrial depressed areas of the north and the midlands [who didn't have their own nationalist independence movements] - that scared David Cameron into the fatuous promise of a referendum on the EU that almost certainly swung the 2015 general election in favour of the Conservatives.

The two issues that voters cite as their reasons for wanting to be out of the EU are 'immigration' and 'sovereignty'. Immigration is the most sensitive matter, and I will refer separately to that factor in future blogs. Sovereignty - making our own laws, and enforcing them in our own way - is easy to understand, and it is popular. It is growing in popularity on the continent, where the Russian people solidly support Putin, despite his thuggery; and a strong minority of Germans will almost certainly put AfD into the Bundestag in this year's nationwide election. That is not to say that chauvinism will become the most powerful political force, either in the still-prosperous north of the EU or in the depressed south where there are opportunities to export people northwards and the hope for cash handouts eventually passing from the north to the south.

Yet Spanish chauvinism has been allowed to intervene in the Brexit talks. It is no surprise that Spain has placed the well-pickled old chestnut of Gibraltar on the table; just as Spain is expected to try to veto any suggestion of an independent Scotland having a soft shoe-in to the Union. Ireland and Spain have been centuries-long allies [often clandestinely] in opposition to Britain. Just as the demands of the Republican faction in Northern Ireland for the Irish language to be given protected status might stymie the  resolution of the border issue in Ireland [and thus derail Brexit] so the Spanish demands on Gibraltar could have the same effect. By highlighting both these old antagonisms as early-stage issues in the Brexit saga, President Tusk and his advisers have found the surest way by which the vicious old Europe of frontier wars and imperial ambitions can enter the twenty-first century: with devastating effect.

It seems pretty clear that the British Brexiteers did not allow for any of this. They do accept that they are mandated to lead the UK out of the Union. In facing up to the activation of Article 50, the Union seems to be willing to overset sixty years of integration by introducing hard borders in Ireland and Iberia: whether Mrs May will be ready to deal with that, even in two years' time, is a fascinating question.

It was well said that the nation that forgets its history is bound to repeat it. Most Britons have never heard of the Peace of Utrecht [which gave us Gibraltar], and very few Britons has ever tried to understand Ireland [which largely explains the tragic history of the two islands' relationship]. Thus we have been pitchforked into reliving that history, farcically, painfully and for real.

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