23 March 2016

Why quibble about 'Europe' while cherishing 'Britain'?

I know, I've been quiet lately, but Brexit debates and other matters are causing me to rethink my unremunerated silence.

Just after work, and before I pedal home, I want to write something about this annoying Spiked article in which Brendan O'Neill wheels out the Brexiteer whinge that it's oh-so-unfair that the BBC often refers to the EU as 'Europe'.

I think the BBC is right to refuse, but before considering why, I think it's worth noting that Brendan plays some tricky language games in this piece. When he bangs on about "the conflation of the Brussels-based oligarchy with the continent of Europe", he conflates the European Union with the European Commission, the latter simply being the Brussels-based civil service that proposes possible actions that only become laws if the national governments (or most of them, at any rate) vote for them.

I don't think there are that many people out there who would think it okay to say, as a matter of course, "the UK" or indeed "Britain" when what they really mean is "the Civil Service".

If there's dodgy conflation going on here, it's mainly on Brendan's part. I mean, really, what's he on about with lines like "the way Brussels can impose its writ on nation states"?

Does he mean "the way the European civil service, staffed by people from all over Europe and headed by people answerable to the European Parliament* and appointed by every single member state's government, can draft possible laws either when asked to do so by the governments or the European Parliament or do so off their own bat, send them to the national parliaments for feedback, and then submit them to the Parliament and the Council where the governments will scrutinise the proposals, haggle over them, and then vote so they become binding decisions which the national parliaments will then vote on so they can harmonise with their own national law codes"?

I think the process is a lot more representative and a lot less dictatorial than Brendan suggests.

In any case, like I said, I think the BBC is right, for at least three main reasons.

First,"Europe" has long been a colloquial term for the European project, whether speaking of the EEC, the EC, or the EU, such that it seems like a deliberate attempt to rig the game further by trying to change this now. There are no shortage of Brexiteers who've opposed the project since before the establishment of the EU, after all, whether at the time the UK signed up to the Treaty of Rome on the basis that the UK, with other countries and among other things, was "determined to establish the foundations of an ever closer union among the European peoples" and had "decided to ensure the economic and social progress of their countries by common action in eliminating the barriers which divide Europe", during the 1970s referendum of withdrawal from the Treaty of Rome, or at the time of the Single European Act in 1980s.

Second, proponents of UK withdrawal from the Union typically don't just want to withdraw from the EU. The European Court of Human Rights is constantly invoked as a shackle on British sovereignty, with the conflation of the Court with the EU being rationalised by the claim that you can't be in the EU without being subject to the court as a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights. Quite so, but neither can you be in the 47-country Council of Europe -- the flag of which the Union shares -- without accepting the Convention and the authority of the Court.

Third, it's a bit rich that people who insist that 'Europe' should never be used as a synonym for "European Union" are all too often quite comfortable saying "Britain" as though it's somehow synonymous with 'United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland', not least when they say "Brexit" when they mean "Ukexit". I'm not saying this is brazenly hypocritical, well, not necessarily, just that it seems at best indicative of muddy thinking, unless it's a recognition that Brexit might well precipitate the disintegration of the UK, as William Hague, the Scots nationalists, most Northern Irish parties, and others have all acknowledged.

It's probably worth adding that the oft-repeated line about how "Britain isn’t leaving the continent of Europe" is historically dodgy, leaving aside the Britain/UK issue. Europe is a cultural continent rather than a physical one, after all; really just Asia's western peninsula, its borders are a matter of changing convention rather than anything else. Norman Davies talks in Europe: A History of Europe being a tidal continent, such that it's eminently possible to imagine Britain leaving it. Certainly, I know people who would insist that Britain is not and never has been part of Europe, and while I think they're wrong, they testify to a possible reality.

As an example of this sort of thing, it's worth noting how Cambridge's David Abulafia, one of the 'Historians for Britain' crowd, talks of "a historical perspective on Britain’s relationship with Europe" and "a long history of British engagement with Europe" -- noting that Europe is a place with which Britain can have links, rather than a place where Britain is to be found.He talks of Britain "becoming European", which seems a claim that Britain has not been European in the past, perhaps because, he says, "the United Kingdom has always been a partner of Europe without being a full participant in it".

Granted, you might think that someone who says of national boundaries that "even Britain has contracted, with the departure of most of Ireland" hasn't really got a handle on what or where exactly Britain is, and might be better off not talking about this issue at all, but that's a debate for another day.

* Yes, it is called that. The European Parliament. Not the EU Parliament. Do the Brexiteers think the BBC should start calling the European Parliament by a name they've made up? Presumably they likewise think the European Commission should be renamed the EU Commission, and the European Court of Justice be called the EU Court of Justice. And then, maybe, they'll suggest the BBC become the UKBC.

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