Flying the EU Flag

I’m delighted to see the European Union flag flying (or, more accurately, hanging limply) in the foyer of our office building in Prague. Part of a Czech Ministry has taken up residence just a few metres away from my desk. I look forward to the happy buzz of busy bureaucrats.

euczflag

A few weeks ago a Romanian friend asked me, with an unfeigned air of perplexity, if I thought it likely that the United Kingdom would leave the EU. I said I thought it very possible, perhaps even 40% likely, though I, myself, would be sorry if it were to happen.

For Romanians, and for many citizens of the new member states, most of them formerly members of the Warsaw Pact or the Soviet Union, joining the EU felt like a homecoming, the reassertion, in many cases, of values they had once lived by or aspired to live by. ‘Joining Europe’ has brought economic benefits, as investment and subsidies have flowed eastwards, and as new markets have opened, but it’s the emotional sense of belonging to Europe, of a belief in common values, that fixes these nations in the Union.

Though the average citizen might find it hard to articulate the meaning of ‘Europe’ if stopped in the street and asked, it’s more or less obvious to the newcomers what Europe stands for – very often things they didn’t have, such as freedom of speech, human rights, democracy, an independent judiciary, a free press, property rights, the rule of law (including equality under the law), open and efficient Government, qualified capitalism, equality of opportunity. And more, no doubt.

By contrast, the argument in the UK is presented as a technical one, not an emotional one. Will we be better off or worse off, in or out of the EU? Perhaps because the values and standards I’ve listed are second nature to the British, any politician who recited them would be ridiculed as talking sentimental piffle. We take these values for granted, as if they’ve always belonged to us, were even invented by us. We’ve lived by and fought for these values over centuries.

For us, these ideas are endemic, so there’s no sense that we’ve gained very much by joining a club that promotes them and protects them. We’re up to the task of protecting our way of life without the help of others. So the idea of ‘Europe’ exerts no strong magnetic attraction, certainly insufficient to prevent the United Kingdom drifting off into the Atlantic. In fact, we seem only to resent the EU’s administration of these ideas, and especially if we disagree on their detailed interpretation.

The real shame is that the EU has failed to blow its own trumpet. It’s been useless at promoting itself and the hugely successful, hugely precious values that underpin it. My own view is that ‘European’ politicians lack the stature and celebrity of our national representatives. I would like to see a short European Parliament peopled by the heavyweight politicians we already know. That way we might feel part of it.

Sadly, the current debate in the United Kingdom is dominated by those who want Out, and no one argues passionately for the In case on matters of principle, preferring merely to rubbish the case for Out. We need some positive rather than negative arguments.

I see the EU’s circle of stars here and there as I travel about Europe, even in countries outside the EU where money is being spent to raise the standards of education, transport, and other institutions. For example, in  Moldova, the EU’s investment is a benign political influence, and as the EU’s values spread, so the world will become a better and a safer place.

It’s great to see limp EU flags hanging in the foyers of Government offices, but seeing them only reminds me of how much more work the EU must do to convince the British and many others that the whole project is worthwhile.

Shared Ancestry – Shared Values

The Hungarians and the Finns share a common history, somewhere beyond the Urals and near the River Ob. The evidence for this is largely linguistic. Their languages are the most commonly spoken two of the Finno-Ugric group (Estonian is the third) and of the wider Uralic group. Both are difficult to learn for those of us steeped in the syntax of Indo-European languages, agglutinating suffixes instead of using prepositions, eschewing gender and staying singular after a number.

Quite when the Finns and the Hungarians parted company is uncertain. The former struggled north-westwards towards Finland and developed a taste for vodka. The latter rode south-westwards towards the Carpathian basin and developed a liking for palinka. Both are unusually morose people. Over the few thousand years that have passed, the vocabularies of their languages have diverged so much that neither understands the other one today. They share only a certain intonation and syntactical logic.

Differences were thrown into sharp relief in recent days by the attitudes and behaviour of their two Prime Ministers, Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, defensive in tone, disdainful and unwelcoming of the thousands of refugees trekking across his country, Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila, generously offering one of his own houses to new arrivals in Finland.

Orban

Viktor Orban

sipila

Juha Sipila

Hungary’s government has inflicted serious reputational damage on its country through its behaviour towards those fleeing war-torn Syria and other hotspots. ‘We must preserve the Christian character of Europe,’ Viktor Orban protests, but the Christian message is one of compassion and generosity, not mistrust and contempt. Hungarian xenophobia, at least as voiced by the government and a few toxic right-wing groups, is offensively ugly and not, in the end, pragmatic.

Consider the behaviour of senior police officers welcoming migrants as they crossed the border into Austria, ushering footsore families towards tables of food, clothes and shoes, and then on to the trains that took them to Vienna and Munich. Their role was protective and liberating.  By contrast, Hungarian officials attempted only to contain the thousands of migrants stranded at Keleti Station in Budapest, or held in bleak camps devoid of comfort and sustenance, not to support or assist them.

I watched an interview with an Iraqi migrant on BBC News, and I take comfort in the fact that he praised the kindness of individual Hungarians, reserving his anger only for institutional Hungary, the tone and actions of the Hungarian government not the people. This is my experience too. There is kindness in Hungary and news stories showed many Hungarians offering food at the roadside to those who left the city to walk from Budapest to the border.

On Sunday a convoy of Austrian cars crossed the border into Hungary to pick up refugees and take them back to Austria. So many generous gestures, Christian or just straightforwardly humane, but not a word of kindness from Mr Orban.

The unity of the European Union is an artificial construct. It isn’t something we feel instinctively. The idea of ‘European Values’ that supposedly unites us means one thing to one nation, another to another.

The founding/joining emotions of the early members were formed in the aftermath of the Second World War. Though the Coal and Steel Union and, later, the European Economic Community, were ostensibly economic institutions, it was a determination to avoid conflict based on narrow national interest or racial identity that bound these nations together. The enthusiastic welcome offered by Germany and Austria to arriving migrants reflects their sense of history, and the shadow still cast over their countries by the Holocaust.

The accession motives of newer members, particularly those of the former Soviet Bloc, were not emotional. They were based on economic, political and military expediency.

The fragility of the European Union has never been more apparent than in recent months. ‘European Values’ are lamentably ill defined. Desperate references to ‘solidarity’ by leaders of the founding members mean little to the Visegrad Four. They understand each other no more deeply than the Finns and Hungarians understand each other’s language, however much of the past they share.