The British, (especially the English), tend to see borders as something permanent and immutable. We too easily delude ourselves that our “blessed plot” is limited only by “the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall Or as a moat defensive to a house”, and forget that we have a land border that is less than a hundred years old. We assume that our national identity is a fact of nature, handed down from on high, rather than the result of a long historical process in which we are still involved.
Our assumption is a luxury. It is far from the norm for our continent. When Peter Hitchens described Britain as “the only virgin in a continent of rape victims” he was alluding to our long history of (relative) security and stability, in contrast with the invading and plundering armies that have, time and time again, breached the more fragile borders on the European mainland.
Neither should we delude ourselves that our relative detachment from such trauma results from our pacific nature. Tolkein’s Shire is a fanciful view of “Merry England”, but we aren’t hobbits; we kept Europe at bay in order to pursue our interests elsewhere – to rule the waves.
The historical process referred to – that of constructing our national identity – has left us in a variety of positions, with some of us defining ourselves as English or Scottish, and some as British, but vanishingly few as Europeans. It can be hard to determine whether a Euro-federalist is a Euro-patriot or not. Some may see themselves as patriots – at least some of the time – while others reject any sense that a stable collective identity in a fixed geographical area has any relevance or use in the modern world, still less that, in the form of a demos, it is the sine qua non of democracy.
Paul-Henri Spaak, one of the so-called “Founding Fathers” of the EU, was a “European patriot”. He believed in and loved the unique culture of Europe, and saw communism as the greatest threat to it. The founding dates of his Europe were not 1951 (when the Treaty of Paris created the Coal and Steel Community) or 1957 (when the Treaty of Rome created the Economic Community); they were 451, 732 and 1683, when Europe had been saved from Atila the Hun, the Umayyad Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire respectively. With his background, how many Ukippers would have disagreed with him?
Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Guy Verhofstadt (MEPs, sworn enemies of our party) will also sound pro-European when it suits them, but they argue more fervently against the idea of nation-states, rather than for a larger, European, nation-state. Their rhetoric flips from the nationalist to the anti-nationalist, sometimes within a single pargraph. They can identify things outside their Europe, without much reason for the places inside it to be united other than contiguity. “Let’s not fool ourselves: in a world where the Americans, the Russians, the Chinese and the Indians pull the strings, only a united Europe will be able to make its voice heard.” (To make one’s voice heard is plainly a euphemism for something – best not to speculate on what.)
Verhofstadt and Cohn-Bendit want their federal state to exist, and to be distinct from what’s outside it, but they refuse to define it as a nation or to justify its existence. At one moment they crank up the purple prose to invoke our shared identity: “… our ancestors, many generations have contributed to the Europe of today. More an idea than a continent. An idea with Celtic, Germanic and Latin roots. A world of saints and heros – Greek, Latin and Slav.” The next moment they turn their noses up at such things: “Farewell, the pathetic rhetoric of patriotism. Farewell the false nationalist promises…”
They denounce said patriotism and nationalism as xenophobic (fear of foreigners), but see the need for European solidarity only in their fear of the growing economies, as well as their fear of Germany becoming disproportionately strong. Their freely admitted desire for a United States of Europe, though, can only be distinguished from nationalism by the fact that they refuse to define it as a nation.
From the perspective of centuries, we see nations (even Britain) changing their shape, size, name and constitution, and we may be tempted to see our identification with, and loyalty to, them as no more than a stage, something that we’ll grow out of. Is it possible that one day our identity as Europeans will seem more important and be strong enough to legitimise a Euro-federal government, such that we will accept being outvoted by the French and Germans without it feeling like tyranny, and being taxed by them without it feeling like theft?
We shouldn’t be too dogmatic about the future, but my guess is that that can never happen. I am certain, though, and relieved, that we can never be absorbed into the faceless, soulless, meaningless United States of Europe advocated by the likes of Verhofstadt and Cohn-Bendit.