Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Back to reality

It is something of an irony to me that I should have seen more of Europe in our final year of EU membership than in the whole time preceding. From Normandy earlier in the year through to Berlin, Warsaw and Bruges over Christmas, I've had a superb sample of what the continent has to offer.

You won't be surprised to learn that I haven't returned as a born again foaming europhile. It is entirely possible to appreciate Europe without seeing the need for a European supreme government. Europe is very different to home and I very much like it that way.

If anything, my trip further reinforced my view that the UK's political problems are little to do with the EU. There is certainly no existential crisis over national identity in Poland, and the Flemish identity runs deep through Bruges. Britain's wanton disregard for its own culture and heritage is a problem of its own making. For all that Warsaw was all but obliterated, Old Town still has more national distinctiveness than most UK places.

The UK, though is, different. Only the touristy towns are frozen in aspic and even then, one can say of Bath, Oxford and Salisbury, that they have embraced modernity. In many ways the UK lacks that very European conservatism. In an odd way, though, that's what makes life here better. British culture doesn't pander to the foibles of anyone particularly.

What made this trip especially illuminating was visiting for the first time as a driver. I can't say I enjoyed the experience. We Brits do like to moan about "health and safety gone mad" but we do have things like cats eyes, traffic cones and reflective surfaces that make night driving all the easier and safer. Britain takes safety deadly seriously. This I cannot say of Poland.

The closer one gets to Warsaw, the more lunatic the driving. In horizontal rain, in the pitch black, with poor road markings and next to no lighting, you can still find a BMW riding inches off your back bumper while overtaking. An Uber ride across town in the snow is a terrifying experience. Moreover, elevators in residential blocks don't even have inner doors. Health and safety is just something that happened to other people.

It is actually little wonder that the UK's greatest contribution to the functioning of the EU and the single market is its regulatory culture. Britain's number one export throughout the ages is high quality technical governance. This is partly why I think the UK will continue to be a standards powerhouse after Brexit in that we very much practice what we preach.

This reminds me that there is a massive gulf between the European mentality and the British mentality. I made my fair share of mistakes driving through the cities. Berlin especially. In the UK we are used to all the lights and signals being right in front of us. To a point it de-skills driving in that you're no long reading the road. On the continent you need to be looking everywhere and you need your wits about you. On that score I don't think my driving qualification should qualify me to drive on their roads commercially any more than their drivers should be qualified here.

Over the course of the Brexit debate we've had the Fintan O'Toooles of this world chastising us Brits for our sense of exceptionalism, but in a very real sense Brits do things differently to the continent. On the continent there is commonality because crossing borders is a part of everyday life rather than a once in a lifetime odyssey. There is an island mentality at work which does make our own governance incompatible with theirs.

Moreover, for all that grandiose integrationist Commission schemes (very often starting life in UNECE) make all the sense in the world for Europe, particularly in terms of intermodal transboundary transport networks, it makes no sense at all for the UK to follow suit. Britain has evolved differently as an island with an Atlantic outlook.

In respect of that, I do believe the UK to be the odd man out of Europe, but have arrived at the view that if the Europeans want transboundary technical integration under a single government then best of British luck to them - so long as we are not a part of it. Britain's otherness is its fundamental strength.

What became clear to me in Warsaw, though, is that the EU is very much an inkblot test that means many things to many people according to their nationality. In Poland, the EU represents the freedom to leave. And I supposed if you lived in a rainy white supremacist version of Mega-Croydon, I can see why you would want to.

I had the pleasure of speaking with a well-to-do Polish architect whose view of the EU was more of economic necessity but also as a bulwark against reabsorption into the Russian sphere of influence. For a nation that has had its sovereignty overruled in a very real sense for most of its modern history, the technocratic incursions of the EU are simply not worth going to the barricades over - not least when they are so very clearly beneficial or Poland. Warsaw is by no means the poor post-communist slum it once was.

It would seem the Poles like the idea of a United Europe under a single banner, not least because Soviet rule left a deep scar on the Polish psyche. That the EU is not a democracy is neither here nor there to them. It is we Brits who festishise democracy whereas the Polish mindest sees the EU as maximalist in terms of individual liberties. To a point they are not wrong.

Britain, though is the destination of choice, precisely because we are not in thrall to Catholic conservatives and old fashioned dogma. British conservatives, however, look to places like Poland with envy in that they have preserved a socially conservative order and kept the migrant hordes at bay while the UK has become a free for all business park. Brexit is the revenge of the regions.

In many ways the UK is a victim of its own success. Britain is in a state of contact liberal evolution - which may very well add to GDP but it no basis for a functioning society. Society depends on fixtures and traditions, many of which have melted away out of commercial convenience.

By no means is Brexit the answer to our economic malaise, but it is clear that the UK is undergoing an identity crisis that is exacerbated by EU membership, and one that is not healthy for the country. It may be that in the future we are able to be part of the European economic and social community, but Brexit for the moment is very much a political crisis that needs to be resolved. The EU is the thorn in the paw that needs to be removed.

Britain is never going to be a part of the continental mainstream. As much as we are too diverse in infrastructure and mentality, not enough of us want to be. Even if "global Britain" is in part a national delusion, it is still our aspiration and it would be a depressing world indeed if all aspiration gave way to immediate economic convenience. Britain needs the space to rediscover itself and some to terms with its place in the world. For that reason alone, Brexit is no bad thing.

I will have more to say over the coming days about my experiences, but today I am mainly recovering. All that remains for today is to thank my readers whose generous donations made the trip possible and to wish you all a happy and prosperous new year.

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