Monday, 6 June 2016

An Earlier European Union and a European foundation myth

I image of Charlemagne’s coronation froms British Library MS Royal 16 G VI, folio 141v,

On Christmas Day 800, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. He ruled over a large part of Western Europe and he still stands as an icon for European unity. It is unlikely that  he expected his empire to last as the inheritance practice for the Franks was to divide land among male heirs, nor did he impose uniformity of customs over all his dominions, which extended from what is now the Low Countries to Northern Italy; in short the Carolingian Empire offers an early model for unity without uniformity. The Holy Roman Empire was , however, an expression of an understanding of a Western Europe that was united, with some elements of shared culture across its polities. A recent article in History Today  (April 2016) by Professor Peter Wilson of All Souls College, Oxford, examined the Holy Roman Empire as the ‘First European Union’.

It is not only in his authority over much of Europe that Charlemagne offers a model of European unity; the myth of Charlemagne became as important in the medieval imagination as his actual historical power.  By the twelfth century the myths and legends which surrounded the emperor had become a kind of foundation myth of Europe, extolling the idea of a Western Christendom united against threats from the East. In these fictional narratives countries which had never been part of the Frankish Empire, including sometimes England, and even Scotland, were often counted among the areas over which he had control.

As a previous contibutor to this blog has noted, the fact that stories of European unity were largely ahistorical and fictional did not make them less powerful. Today Charlemagne continues to command a pan-European position, as witnessed by the Tour Charlemagne in Brussels and the Karlespreis, given annually by the city of Aachen to honour contributions to European unity, awarded in 2016 to Pope Francis.

The Leverhulme-funded ‘Charlemagne A European Icon’ project looks at medieval developments of the myth by examining the appropriation of the same narrative material and its expression through different European languages: French, Italian, English, Spanish, Latin, German, Dutch, and Celtic and Scandinavian languages.  This spread of the Charlemagne myth reveals the long-standing nature of the desire for some level of harmony and unity across Europe. As in the twentieth century, with the birth of the European Community, so in the twelfth, harmony was seen as preferable to war within Europe. Each literary culture stresses the aspects of Charlemagne’s myth which was most relevant for the particular context of that nation, at a time, indeed, when a sense of nationhood was just developing. Even with this awakening sense of national identity, the ideal of unity transcended the particular.

Dr Marianne Ailes,
Senior Lecturer in French,

University of Bristol

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

The West Decides: The EU Referendum Debate

Professor Steven Greer, from the University of Bristol Law School, attended The West Decides: EU Referendum Debate and writes up his summary of the event.
Professor Steven Greer FAcSS FRSA,  Professor of Human Rights, University of Bristol Law School
Professor Steven Greer FAcSS FRSA,
Professor of Human Rights, University of Bristol Law School
On the evening of Friday, 29 April 2016, a capacity audience in the University of Bristol’s Wills Memorial Building Great Hall witnessed and participated in a lively and impassioned debate, supported by PolicyBristol and the University of Bristol Alumni Association, about whether the UK should leave or remain a member of the EU.
Introduced by Professor Nick Lieven (Pro Vice-Chancellor and Professor of Aircraft Dynamics), and professionally chaired by Dr Phil Sypris (Reader in Law), the ‘Leave’ team consisted of Daniel Hannan (Conservative MEP) andGraham Stringer (Labour MP), while the case for ‘Remain’ was put by Molly Scott-Cato (Green MEP) and Will Hutton(former editor-in-chief of The Observer and currently Principal of Hertford CollegeOxford, and Chair of the Big Innovation Centre).
Before inviting the panellists to open the debate, Dr Syrpis asked the audience for a show of hands. Roughly 80 per cent were in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, 10 per cent for leaving, and 10 per cent were undecided. The formal proceedings themselves began and ended with each member of the panel summarising their case in a one minute presentation. In between the same format applied to a series of six questions chosen by students from those submitted by members of the prospective audience and circulated to panellists in advance. Contributions from the floor followed. Before the event ended, a second show of hands saw little change in the initial figures, with Remain still standing at around 80 per cent, Leave dropping to about 5 per cent and the proportion of undecideds increasing slightly to around 15 per cent.
The West Decides: The EU referendum Debate, Great Hall, Wills Memorial Building, University of Bristol. Graham Stringer MP, Daniel Hannan MEP, Dr Phil Syrpis, Dr Molly Scott Cato MEP and Will Hutton (l-r)
The West Decides: The EU referendum Debate, Great Hall, Wills Memorial Building, University of Bristol. (l-r) Graham Stringer MP, Daniel Hannan MEP, Dr Phil Syrpis, Dr Molly Scott Cato MEP and Will Hutton (c) Bhagesh Sachania Photography
Acknowledging that both staying and leaving created risks, the Leave team began by claiming that Brexit would benefit the UK in two main ways: it would restore national and local democracy, undermined by the EU’s ‘democratic deficit’, and it would also revive the flagging national economy by creating dynamic economic opportunities, particularly for new trading relationships in the internet age, both with non-EU countries and with the EU itself. For Remain the key issues concerned continued involvement in a noble, outward-looking, internationalist cause, where sovereignty was pooled rather than lost in pursuit of solutions to transnational challenges, such as maintaining peace in Europe and the effective regulation of the environment and the corporate sector.
How would leaving the EU affect the UK’s global standing?
Remain had no doubt that the UK would be more globally significant as a member of the EU than outside, not least because Brexit was likely to trigger Scottish independence, thereby reducing the UK’s international presence, and because other countries generally pay more attention to bigger, than to smaller players on the global stage. The Leave team claimed, however, that by exiting the EU, the UK’s commitment to internationalism would be enhanced because it would then be free to embark upon a much more independent foreign policy.
What is the economic case for staying in/leaving the EU?
According to Leave, Europe is the only economically stagnant continent in the world, the EU caused the southern European economic crisis, and the economy of an independent UK would thrive as a result of freer international trade, national representation on the World Trade Organisation, and cancellation of the £350 million weekly EU membership fee. In a rare moment of consensus, later paralleled by recognition that the EU’s democratic deficit contributed to the rise of political extremism, each side agreed that corporate power needed to be more effectively regulated but differed on whether this was more likely to be achieved in or outside the EU. An impassioned exchange between Will Hutton and Daniel Hannan over the extent to which the UK can currently trade with non-EU states further enlivened an already vigorous debate. Challenging both, Molly Scott-Cato argued that the extent to which any given economy harms or conserves the environment matters more than its size and that the EU manages this better than most states on their own.
The West Decides: The EU referendum Debate, Great Hall, Wills Memorial Building, University of Bristol
The West Decides: The EU referendum Debate, Great Hall, Wills Memorial Building, University of Bristol (c) Bhagesh Sachania Photography
How would leaving the EU affect young people?
Remain claimed that leaving would generally affect young people adversely since the resulting visa and quota restrictions would limit their horizons, particularly regarding student exchanges which are currently funded by the EU. But, according to Leave, young people would be in substantially the same position as everyone else post-Brexit – better off on all fronts.
What consequences would leaving the EU have for immigration and geographical mobility?
The Leave team acknowledged that it was undesirable to have either completely closed, or completely open borders, and that, while those fleeing persecution from abroad should be offered refuge, immigration to the UK also had to be controlled. It was also claimed that the UK’s current immigration policy is both racist and economically irrational because it privileges EU citizens over possibly more deserving, predominantly non-white, would-be non-EU immigrants whose services might be more urgently required. Remain argued that an open attitude to the outside world is more desirable than a closed one, that geographical mobility in the EU is a two-way street, with Brexit likely to result in up to two million mostly retired ex-patriate Britons being forced to return home, thereby increasing pressure on the NHS and social care, and that infrastructure pressures caused by EU immigrants could be addressed by more investment funded by their contribution to the national economy.
What prospect has the UK of forging a special relationship with the EU if it remains a member or leaves?
Remain argued that the UK already has a special relationship with the EU, other member states are reluctant to concede more, leaving could have a dangerous and unpredictable cascade effect, and that belonging to the European Free Trade Association, as advocated by the leave campaign would, in common with Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, entail a continuing commitment to receive EU migrants. It was also claimed that, typical of most divorces, the post-Brexit atmosphere would be embittered and, although the EU would still wish to trade with the UK, it would be unlikely to grant particularly favourable terms, not least in order to deter other states from following suit. Leave argued that, on the contrary, economic rationality would prevail over any desire to hold the rest of the EU together by vindictiveness to a departed UK.
What are your greatest fears if the Brexit vote succeeds or fail and who do you think would be the biggest winners and losers in both scenarios?
The greatest fear for Leave was that the failure of the Brexit campaign would further erode what remains of UK sovereignty as the UK became permanently locked into irreversible deeper and wider European integration including monetary and banking union. The biggest winners would be Eurocrats and big business, while the greatest losers would be ordinary people. For Remain, a vote for Brexit would be a permanently lost opportunity to participate in a visionary, though imperfect, international project, coupled with turbulence and economic uncertainty at least in the short to medium term. The biggest winners would be big business, climate change deniers and a ‘rogues’ gallery’ of other elite interests, while the biggest losers would be ordinary people, particularly farmers, young people, and small and medium enterprises.
The West Decides: The EU referendum Debate, Great Hall, Wills Memorial Building, University of Bristol
The West Decides: The EU referendum Debate, Great Hall, Wills Memorial Building, University of Bristol (c) Bhagesh Sachania Photography
The event could be followed on Twitter with the hashtag #TheWestDecides and a full recording is also available on the University of Bristol Soundcloud account.
In the run up to the EU Referendum on 23rd June, PolicyBristol will be publishing a series of blogs on policy issues and topics related to the UK’s membership of the European Union.
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‘Filer à l’anglaise?’ 
Brexit seen from France.

Just as ‘taking French leave’ was once a familiar expression in England suggesting a tendency to be absent without legitimate reason, typical of Gallic unreliability, so ‘filer à l’anglaise’ is the corresponding French expression that draws on the old stereotype of the English as slippery. 

But as the temperature rises in the debate surrounding Britain’s role in Europe, it’s interesting to note how enduring and hard-wired some perceptions about our neighbours are, and from either side of the Channel. Even before David Cameron returned from Brussels with what he considered were enough concessions for his government to campaign to remain in the EU, questions were asked as to whether Britain could ever be relied on to subscribe wholeheartedly to the European project. 

When Charles de Gaulle repeatedly vetoed British applications to join the EEC, some of his critics saw this largely as a delayed response to the slights he had suffered at the hands of les Anglo-Saxons during the war. But could he have been right about the intrinsic reluctance of the British to have their hands tied except, of course, when this is done by the United States?

One of the most familiar commentators in France today, Chrisophe Barbier, as well-known for his trademark red scarf as for his sometimes trenchant views, has suggested in his editorials in the centre-right L’Express magazine that perhaps the EU should show Britain the door rather than wait for it to leave.
Barbier’s exasperation is not uncommon and stems from the view that Britain has led, first the EEC and then the EU, a merry dance with a ‘will they, won’t they’ routine that undermines the ethical and philosophical commitment its neighbours have to a united Europe.

Looking at the facts, it’s not difficult to understand the frustration expressed by Barbier and others. Barely two years after joining the EEC in 1973, having banged on the door for over a decade, the British government reopened the issue of membership by calling a referendum. Within ten years of this, Mrs Thatcher’s government was threatening to derail the European project financially by asking for Britain’s money back. Even after having approved the Single European Act of 1986 and the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, which paved the way for monetary union, such was the hostility to the European project that the government of John Major was largely undone by those he called the Eurosceptic ‘bastards’ on the benches of his majority in parliament. 

Even under a new generation of moderate centre-right politicians, many of whom have known nothing but Britain in Europe, whether it’s the refusal to shoulder part of the cost of bailing out Eurozone economies in difficulty, or share the burden of accommodating the wave of migrants looking for refuge in the EU, Britain has given a pretty convincing impression of being a slippery partner trying to evade its moral, if not its legal obligations.

Currently, while Europe is arguably facing the most serious threats to its future since the end of World War II, the British government has embarked on a referendum that is essentially an internal party political matter, aimed at bringing to an end a 30-year civil war in the Conservative Party, but which has drawn the attention of European leaders away from urgent matters that concern the entire EU. 

In spite of this, the reaction from mainstream politicians has been largely calm and measured. The recent rejection in a referendum, by more than 60% of the Dutch electorate, of the proposal to grant EU associate status to Ukraine has deepened the anxiety that a vote for Brexit could embolden the Eurosceptic sentiment that undoubtedly exists across other EU member states and lead to a kind of domino effect. 

So there has been more than a hint of irony in seeing a socialist administration in France effectively coming to the aid of David Cameron, by taking its cue from him regarding the negative consequences for Britain should the electorate vote for Brexit. During March and early April therefore, President François Hollande has made veiled references to the possible difficulties in accessing the single market, and also in retaining the pre-eminence of London as Europe’s leading financial market, should Britain quit the EU.  

The economics minister, Emmanuel Macron, has been less guarded and warned unequivocally that if the Britain leaves, potential migrants to Britain would no longer stop at Calais because the frontier would have moved to Dover. Speaking specifically as economic minister, Macron even invited bankers to move to Paris should London find itself outside of the EU. 

Some parts of the media have sensed, however, that the issue will be decided by sentiment rather than reason. So on 12April the daily Le Parisien highlighted a campaign started by Katrin Lock, a young German woman living in London, to persuade the British that they are loved, really, by their neighbours in the EU.  She and fellow expats are taking selfies of themselves kissing their British friends and posting them on line with the hashtags #hugabrit and #pleasedontgouk.  

Prof Gino Raymond,

Thursday, 28 April 2016

What Would One of France’s ‘Great Men’ Say?
Victor Hugo’s Vision of the ‘United States of Europe’

As fate would have it, on June 23rd at a UK conference I will be delivering a keynote address about what one of the nineteenth century’s most globally recognized voices would have to say about the EU Referendum. Victor Hugo’s popular writing (including the wildly successful novel Les Misérables) and his outspoken political interventions as both a public figure and an elected representative make him a high-profile figure to invoke. Indeed, Hugo increasingly used his celebrity throughout his long and storied life to lobby for a universal republic of European nations that he believed was a natural consequence of the French Revolution’s principles of liberty, equality, and brotherhood. Collective freedom, mutual respect, and lasting solidarity could become the hallmarks of a modern Europe in Hugo’s eyes. He would undoubtedly have been a vocal critic of the EU’s present shortcomings as a political entity, but he equally would have resisted any urge to cut the ties that bind the continent together.  

It was Hugo, after all, who promoted the term ‘the United States of Europe’. He first used this phrase in his inaugural address to the
International Peace Congress in Paris on 21st August 1849, where he imagined an ‘intimate’ union of European countries through cultural and commercial ties alike. A bust of Hugo can still be found standing in front of an extract from this speech in the French National Assembly in Paris, although Hugo had erected a monument of his own on the symbolic date of 14th July 1870 when he planted an oak tree as a symbol of future European growth. Hugo has become something of a public monument himself, of course, receiving a huge State funeral in 1885 and being interred in the Paris Pantheon as one of France’s ‘great men’ who continues to be regarded as a bearded patriarch of the French Republic and its humanitarian values.

My current research explores the cultural influence that Hugo exerted both during and after his life as a grand homme, so it has been timely this month for me to think about his conception of Europe, which was at once hopeful and anxious. While he rarely underestimated the more egotistical aspects of human nature, he remained committed to an inclusive social philosophy that prioritized cohesion over distinction. Hugo was acutely aware of the political tensions that threatened continental stability throughout the nineteenth century, having himself grown up during the
Napoleonic Wars, and so he repeatedly tried to direct attention to the need for greater cooperation across the continent. Simón Bolívar’s proposition of a holy alliance of Latin American nations at the 1826 Congress of Panama had given Hugo a model of opposition against the monarchical grip of old Europe – a model which he believed could reinvigorate the ideals of the French Revolution and productively reorganise the continent.

Hugo began by believing that a single ‘great’ figure like Napoleon would be needed as the driving force behind such a project, but as his conservatism waned he came to prioritize the sovereignty of the people and the importance of their democratically elected governments. Towards the end of the 1840s, he envisaged a multinational European entity whose main goal would be collective prosperity rather than just national security. This Europe was a continent of free trade and movement, bound by a shared sense of history and a collective rejection of autocracy, with military budgets transferred to civilian purposes so as to improve education and technology. Central to this idea of Europe was Hugo’s Romantic worldview, which looked beyond divisive and restrictive lines to stress interconnection and kinship between all things. Open minds demanded open borders in every sense for Hugo, requiring a focus not on nationalist vanity but on fraternal fortune.

When the
Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, Hugo’s dream seemed like a farcical fantasy, especially when France herself descended into a bloody civil war between the ensuing Paris Commune and the Versailles government. Yet ‘the terrible year’, as he called it, underlined his belief that the European nations needed to fortify a broadly conceived common ground before any specifically political infrastructure could be put in place. In this respect, Hugo turned to his own country in an attempt to move beyond old partitions. His 1872 poetry collection The Terrible Year stirred uncomfortable memories in order to open up painful national wounds and target France’s failure to overcome the divisive legacy of 1789. Two years later, his final novel, Ninety-Three, picked yet more aggressively at these lesions by dramatizing the civil conflict of 1793’s Reign of Terror so as to confront France’s internal tensions between republicanism and reactionary conservatism, as triggered by 1789 and as sustained by 1871.

Although the tragic ending of that novel reiterates Hugo’s uncertainty towards whether his own generation could ever realize the potential of a united Europe, he continued to stress the futility of conflict between shared interests.
In 1876, for example, when Serbia declared war on the Ottoman Empire in support of Bosnia and Herzegovina, he used the resulting military atrocities to argue once again for ‘the necessity of the United States of Europe’. ‘Let us replace political questions with human ones,’ he pleaded, ‘for our entire future depends on it.’ At a time when the political rhetoric around the EU Referendum is often striking a divisive, even confrontational, tone, Hugo’s voice arguably remains resonant in its call to look beyond nationalistic oppositions and economic self-interest towards ideals of collective prosperity. Them and us, me and you, are ultimately one and the same, so breaking up the Union rather than continuing to work together to improve it would be short-sighted rather than visionary – a step back away from the democratic dreams of the late eighteenth century, rather than forward into the future.

Dr Bradley Stephens, Senior Lecturer in French

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

The EU, Brexit and nature conservation law

In the lead up to the sold out Brexit debate at the University of Bristol on Friday 29 April 2016, we are posting some blogs from our Cabot Institute members outlining their thoughts on Brexit and potential implications for environmental research, environmental law and the environment.  

The EU plays a fundamental role in shaping the environmental law regimes of its Member States and that of the UK is no exception. A significant proportion of current domestic environmental law derives from EU Regulations (that automatically become part of English law) and EU Directives (that are implemented through national legislation).

Nature conservation law, i.e. the legal regime used to protect environmentally significant habitats and species, is a case in point and the focus of this blog. Conserving nature is key not only from a purely biodiversity standpoint but also from an ‘ecosystem services’ perspective. Ecosystem services are the benefits nature brings to the environment and to people, including supporting services (e.g. nutrient cycling), provisioning services (e.g. food), regulating services (e.g. carbon capture) and cultural services (e.g. recreation)

Site designation and management is a favoured technique of nature conservation law. The well-known Natura 2000 network, would not be there if it were not for EU Directives, namely the Habitats (92/43/EEC) and Wild Birds Directives (2009/147/EC), implemented in the UK by the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010. Under Article 3 of the Habitats Directive, Member States are indeed required to set up the Natura network composed of Special Areas of Conservation (sites hosting the natural habitat types listed in Annex I and habitats of the species listed in Annex II of the Habitats Directive) and Special Protection Areas (sites for the protection of rare and vulnerable birds as listed in Annex I of the Wild Birds Directive and for regularly occurring migratory species). 
Greenfinch by Mschulenburg - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
In the UK, there are a substantial number of European protected sites: 652 Special Areas of Conservations (including candidate Special Areas of Conservation[1] and Sites of Community Importance[2]) and 270 Special Protection Areas, covering a total of 10,8128,04 ha (JNCC statistics as of 28 January 2016).

Has the establishment of Natura 2000 made a difference to biodiversity protection? 

As part of its Smart Regulation Policy, the Commission has initiated a fitness check of the Habitats and Wild Birds Directives to evaluate their effectiveness, efficiency, coherence, relevance and added value. Though the final Commission report on the results of the fitness check will be available only later this year, the draft emerging findings prepared by a consortium of experts do suggest that the Habitats and Wild Birds Directives have substantially contributed to the conservation of nature and to meeting the EU’s biodiversity target.

It is fair to note that, prior to the EU Directives on nature conservation, the UK did have its own system for habitat protection, most notably based on the designation of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). Introduced in the post-war period by the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, the law governing SSSIs has been strengthened over the decades by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, amended by Schedule 9 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. However, the management measures in place for SSSIs are not as stringent as those for the protection of Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas. 
Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) were introduced in the post-war period in the UK to help manage habitat protection.
It is also fair to note that in the marine environment, the UK has taken important steps domestically: the passing of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 in England and Wales (and similar Acts in the devolved administrations) has brought in new domestic marine conservation zones that contribute to the establishment of an ecologically coherent network in UK waters. But the building of such a network is not so disentangled from EU law, considering Art 13(4) of the EU Marine Strategic Framework Directive (2008/56/EC) requires the formation of marine protected areas’ networks in the marine environments of Member States.

Clearly therefore, EU law has contributed much to the development of nature conservation in the UK. Moreover, being part of the EU means that the Commission can exercise its power to bring infringement proceedings against Member States for incomplete or ineffective implementation of EU law, thereby exercising an external check on implementation (for nature conservation, see Commission v UK, Case C-06/04 [2005]  ECR I-9017).

What would Brexit mean for the future of nature conservation law?

What is unknown however is what would Brexit mean for the future of nature conservation law in the UK because much depends on the type of post-Brexit EU-UK relationship and the agreement that will be negotiated. However, it could be argued that compared to other environmental sectors (such as waste and water) nature conservation may be more at risk.  

Indeed, even in the not-too-radical scenario in which the UK chooses to stay within the EEA, the future of nature conservation law will depend on whether there is political willingness to continue to abide by existing commitments, rather than legal obligations stemming from the EEA agreement. This is because, though the EEA agreement does contains many environmental provisions, nature conservation is excluded (Annex XX of the EEA agreement excludes the Habitats and Wild Birds Directive). Consequently, the future of nature conservation law is very uncertain in a post-Brexit world, even in the event of EEA membership.

[1] Candidate Special Areas of Conservation are sites that have been submitted to the European Commission, but not yet formally adopted.
[2] Sites of Community Importance are sites that have been adopted by the European Commission but not yet formally designated by the government of each country.
This blog has been written by Cabot Institute member Dr Margherita Pieraccini, a Lecturer in Law at the University of Bristol. 
Margherita Pieraccini

Monday, 4 April 2016

Ahead of the West decides debate on 29 April, Daniel Hannan argues the case for leaving the EU

Daniel Hannan, Conservative MEP, offers his assessment of why UK citizens should vote to leave the EU on the 23rd June. Contributions from the other speakers at The West Decides (29th April) will be posted as they are received. 

Daniel Hannan, MEP. Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Undecided on whether to remain in the EU? Here are seven things to bear in mind. 

1. Our money, our priorities. Our annual tribute to Brussels now stands at £19 billion a year gross, 11 billion net. If we kept that money at home, we could give the entire country a two thirds cut in council tax. Or we could build and equip a state-of-the-art hospital every week. To put it another way, during the last Parliament, we saved £36 billion through the entire domestic cuts programme; yet, over the same period, we gave Brussels £85 billion. The EU, in other words, wiped out our austerity savings twice over. Even if we use the net figure, it’s still enough to have cancelled all the cuts and have had enough left over to take a penny off income tax. 

2. The EU is out of date. In the digital age, we are no longer defined by our geography. We have links to other English-speaking and common law nations around the world – nations that, unlike the EU, are growing economically. In 1980, the 28 EU states accounted for 30 per cent of the world’s economy; today, it’s 17 per cent and falling. The real growth is happening across the oceans, not least in Commonwealth countries to which we are linked by language and law, habit and history. 

3. Keeping Britain secure. Outside the EU, we can control our immigration policy. More passports are checked at Britain’s borders than at those of the other 27 EU states put together. The former Secretary General of Interpol, Ronald Noble, describes the Schengen Zone as ‘an international passport-free zone for terrorists to execute attacks on the Continent and make their escape’. 

4. Recovering our democracy. If the EU were just about international co-operation and trade, no one would have a problem with it. The trouble is that it regulates things that have no conceivable cross-border dimension: the power of our electrical appliances, the frequency of our bin collections, the way we open a bank account, the tax on sanitary products. Our laws should have precedence on our own territory, and we should be able to hire and fire the people who pass them.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

'Brexit', September 1938

The EU referendum campaign reminds me how much we remain influenced by our national mythologies. The Brexit campaign often implicitly evokes the memory of the Second World War as a time when Britain stood alone in Europe against Hitler, then came together with our Allies to defeat him. By contrast, the Czechs remember only that in September 1938, at Munich, France and Britain sided with Hitler against Czechoslovakia to avoid war, in effect allowing the Czechs and Slovaks to fall under first Fascist and later Communist dictatorship. Some even speak of a psychological ‘Munich complex’ that limited popular Czechoslovak resistance to both dictatorships and even hampers efforts to build genuine civil society after Communism; this notion is boisterously satirised in Petr Zelenka’s 2015 film, Lost in Munich

On his return from Munich, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain infamously declared: How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is, that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here, because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing...’ These words must have been especially painful for the Czechoslovak leadership, which had spent the twenty years since the establishment of independent Czechoslovakia in 1918 trying to ensure that the world knew exactly what Czechoslovakia was and what it stood for. In the 1920s and 1930s, Czechoslovakia worked to acquire and exercise what we now call ‘soft power’, vigorously supporting the League of Nations project, building alliances and promoting cultural exchange.

I am currently writing about how, in this period, Czechoslovakia tried to raise its profile in Britain through literary translation. The Czechoslovak elite felt close to the British, not only because some British intellectuals, cultivated by Czech and Slovak counterparts, had lobbied hard for the creation of independent Czechoslovakia, but also because they identified more with imagined ‘gentlemanly’ British values - civility, tolerance, good humour, pragmatism - than what they saw as German cultural aggression. The embodiment of Czech Anglophilia was Karel Čapek, the first Czech writer to win an international reputation, thanks to his 1921 play R.U.R., which gave the world the word ‘robot’. His tour of the British Isles in 1924 resulted in the travelogue Letters from England (1927). It says something about the self-centredness of the British reader that, though many of Čapek’s plays and novels about the politics and landscape of Central Europe were also published in this period, these quaint impressions of Britain – and The Gardener’s Year (1931), about that most British of hobbies, gardening – were by far his best-selling.