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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 30 New Delhi July 16, 2016

When Shall The Twain Part?

Sunday 17 July 2016

by l.k. sharma

Britain is Britain and the Continent is Continent. Proven again by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. It is more than the Channel that divides the two plots of land.

The flood of immigrants and loss of sovereignty were important considerations for those who voted to “Leave”. Their decision was made easier by the residual hereditary antipathy, cultural differences and differing geopolitical conside-rations.

Britain and the European Union had entered a marriage of convenience notwithstanding the historical antipathy at the popular level and mutual suspicions at the official level. A hidden reality surfaced when the referendum result was announced.

In the geo-political sphere, Britain goes all the way with the USA, exulting in its special relationship. France and Germany tend to sound a discordant note. It became quite evident in the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq or in the reactions to the illegal killing of Osama bin Laden. It is currently evident in policies towards Russia.

As strategic partners led by America, their approach to war and peace while confronting a perceived common enemy differed often. Britain led by Tony Blair was most enthusiastic about waging war against Saddam Hussein. Other EU member-nations were not.

Now that the Chilcot Commission has castigated Tony Blair for dragging Britain into an illegal Iraq, one recalls that in Europe, Blair stood as the most trigger-happy leader. The opinion polls and debates in the run-up to the invasion highlighted the differences between Britain and other EU nations.

Incidentally, the disastrous outcome of the invasion on Iraq made Blair’s participation in the pro-EU campaign during the referendum counter-productive. Commentators say that the Chilcot Report will further increase the people’s distrust of the political establishment. This was one factor that influenced the voters who wanted Britain to exit from the EU.

Prime Minister Tony Blair advocated with messianic zeal the case for war. Blair gave the impression that it was not George Bush who was pushing him but that he considered it Britain’s moral duty to fight Saddam Hussein!

That was not what some other European leaders said in those days. The French Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin, powerfully argued in the UN the case against the war. He mesmerised the audience with a scintillating speech and got the loudest applause in that session.

The French Foreign Minister’s logic or the then French President’s warning against invading Iraq only led to the vilification of France in the British media. Some in Britain, like most in the US, gleefully called the French cheese-eating surrender monkeys. The British have the self-image of being brave warriors while they see the French as wimps and appeasers.

France and Germany were together in opposing the war. The German response disappointed US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld so much that he made an insulting remark against that European nation.

Once the Chilcot report was released, the French media promptly recalled the warning given by Jacques Chirac who had opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq. The then French President had warned a week before the invasion in 2003 that war would only bring death and misery and occupation of Iraq would be a nightmare.

Blair may have been encouraged by the opinion polls indicating that he was leading a brave and exceptional nation for ever ready to demonstrate its fighting prowess. Only 41 per cent of those polled in Briton opposed any military action against Iraq. In Spain, 74 per cent opposed the war. In France, 60 per cent said “No”. And in Germany, 50 per cent opposed a war.

In the Gallup poll, the second question was: if military action goes ahead against Iraq, should your country support this action? In the UK 44 per cent said yes and only 41 per cent said no. In Spain 73 per cent said no. In Germany 71 per cent said no. In France 61 per cent said no to supporting military action against Iraq.

This specific issue of the Iraq war apart, there is a long history of Britain being suspicious and fearful of France and Germany. In recent times, British leaders have been anxious about Germany dominating the EU. Margaret Thatcher had opposed the German reunification for the same reason.

The British leaders gain political mileage by taking a strong stand against the EU. Every British Prime Minister promises to be tough while negotiating with the EU. Margaret Thatcher’s political stock shot up when in 1984, she got “our money back” from the European Community by forcing France and Germany to reverse an unfair budget deal and grant Britain a huge rebate.

Euroscepticism is the dominating political philosophy of a distinct and powerful section of the Conservative Party. Every Tory Prime Minister has to keep an eye on the Eurosceptics. John Major was so irked by them that he called three of his anti-Europe Cabinet colleagues “bastards”. One of them later pointed out with pride that the bastards like him had kept Britain out of the Euro currency (cherishing the Pound Sterling)!

It was primarily to silence the Eurosceptics in his party that Prime Minister David Cameron ordered the referendum on EU and led the campaign against leaving the EU. He was confident of winning it and of Britain continuing in the European Union.

At the popular level mutual hostility between Britain and another EU member-nation can be witnessed on the football field, in the headlines of the British tabloids and in private conversations among the elderly Britons.

British nationalism, at an earlier stage, strengthened itself by pitting Britain against France in the cultural field. The nationalists fuelled resentment against the French culture and language that had gripped the imagination of Britain’s higher classes in Britain. Of course, the history of wars made it easier to exacerbate the anti-French feelings.

Believe it or not, garlic divides Britain from France. The French revere it as the centre of their culinary culture. The British hate it, though its consumption has gone up. In Britain, one also comes across the term, garlic-eating surrender monkeys. The garlic-eating French used to be ridiculed in Britain where one detects a trace of envy of the French culture and cuisine and of its intellectuals.

The antipathy that had infected British society in the earlier centuries is best illustrated by the hanging of a monkey in Hartlepool during the Napoleonic wars. The monkey was recovered from a French ship that was wrecked on the coast of Hartlepool. It was found dressed in a French uniform. The folklore celebrates the hanging in songs!

Religious differences contributed to this hereditary antipathy as the anti-Catholic sentiments became very strong in Britain in the 16th century. Then the French Revolution was hardly appreciated in a monarchy where class mattered, as it still does. The revolutions are enacted by ill-educated peasants and urban poor.

The plan to connect Britain with France through a Channel Tunnel used to conjure up the fear that it would demolish the defensible island-status of their nation. The tunnel plan was seen as a conspiracy to infect Britain with a dreaded disease. When the tunnel provided the first land link between Britain and the Continent, half the British population was convinced that rabies would arrive from France! The British Government installed anti-rabbi electric fences. The anti-rabbi measures were announced in the House of Lords some three years before the Channel Tunnel became operational in 1994.

Of course, the government could do nothing to allay the fears of immigration, terrorism and outright invasion through a tunnel. British Minister Alan Clark feared the “Channel Tunnel would lead to job losses and the risk of foreign invasion”. He was merely retelling the very old stories that Napoleon’s army or Hitler’s storm-troopers would launch a sneaky attack through a tunnel!

The wars between Britain and France or the cultural conflict that continued much longer are part of history dead and gone but when nationalistic passions run high, the older generations of Britons tend to remember it all. This history does not haunt the educated young Britons who love to go to France, and who depend on the EU funding for high education and research.

The EU bureaucracy in Brussels always came in for constant criticism and ridicule in the British media. The Brussels functionaries were lampooned in the tabloids and on one occasion, a tabloid abused a top official of the EU in a screaming front-page headline.

Such factors and conflicting as well as common economic interests will influence the British negotiations for leaving the EU. The minefield of complex trade and tariff arrangements lies ahead. The next Prime Minister will have to show to Britons that he is getting concessions without giving any.

The European leaders face a tough choice. If they are generous to Britain that has rebelled and left their club, it will encourage some other member-nations to think of quitting. If they are too tough and teach Britain a lesson, they may also be affected by the pain that an economic disruption will cause.

Thus Britain and EU, who had come together after endless delays, face the divorce proceedings that will be quite prolonged.

The author is a senior journalist and writer who worked in India and abroad (notably Britain) in several major newspapers. Now retired, he is a free- lancer. He was in the British capital at the time of the referendum on whether or not the UK should remain in the EU, and wrote an article on the issue; it was carried in Mainstream (July 2, 2016).