By Rob Hyde
On the face of it, given how my country-hopping life in Europe turned out, I should have been made an EU pin-up boy. Though a 43-year-old British national, I have spent half of my life on mainland Europe. Last year I also acquired German citizenship, which in turn makes me a citizen of the European Union. So does all this leave me siding with most Germans in raving about the EU and chastising Brits for Brexit? Does it heck!
Popping the elitist bubble
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not some little Englander living in some snooty British expat bubble. Two years in Saudi Arabia put me right off such elitist lifestyles. My stomach turned as I saw wealthy expatriates hiding from the natives behind the walls of their luxury compounds.
None of that for me. I live in social housing, I take public transport and, through my work as a freelance journalist and language trainer, I have contact with Germans of all ages and social classes on a daily basis.
Germans are my friends, my neighbours, my students and my clients. They are the people I have been living amongst and working with for almost twenty years. But, had I listened to my class mates back at school, none of this would have ever happened…
Fruity and flirtatious
It all started back in French class in Birmingham. Many of the boys just viewed the French language as something fruity and flirtatious. Most lessons took on the flavour of a ‘Carry On’ film, full of loud whispers of “ooooh là, là madame!” or even “voulez vous couchez avec moi?”
I saw French totally differently. My parents, both teachers, had a place in France where we spent each holiday. The local lads who often were not on school holiday, so would take me to with them to class and show me off.
And how wonderful it was! Unlike my British male classmates, I didn’t dismiss French people as titillating cartoon-characters, they were real people with their ways and charms and fears and foibles, and I wanted to find out about all of it.
I lapped up every opportunity to practice my French by answering their questions on British life and culture. At school I was a socially awkward non-entity. In France I was the self-appointed official British Ambassador for the City of Birmingham.
Behaviour in German lessons was equally puerile. You could count the minutes down before someone muttered “Jawohl, mein Führer!”, “Sieg Heil!“ or, on a particularly bad day – “Achtung Schweinhund!”
Years and years of Nazi-busting WW2 films, Nazi documentaries and hilarious British television series such as ‘Allo ‘Allo had taken their toll on my classmates.
It had installed in them a profound sense that Brits were chipper, joke-cracking war-heroes. Germans, however, were evil, goose-stepping fascists who munched salami and liked to shout.
I ignored them all, worked hard and topped the class. After a degree in German and French, and a couple of years flitting between England and Austria, I moved to Germany 2003.
I’m also unnerved about how the EU monopolises Europe as a concept. The EU is not Europe. Europe is made of over 50 territories. But only 27 of these choose to be in the EU.
The years flew by like a breeze. Until, of course, the Brexit referendum came, and Britain left the EU.
Now, as a holder of joint British and German citizenship, I completely accept that without my German citizenship, my life here would have remained precarious. I am completely grateful to Germany, the stimulating Wunderland that has become my new homeland.
What I don’t accept, however, is the idea that this morally obliges me to agree with everything the EU or Germany decide.
Can’t vote ‘em in or out!
This argument is extremely old hat now in the midst of widespread Brexit exhaustion, but I’m afraid I just can’t get past it. Sorry, but I still have a real problem with EU citizens only being able to vote for the European Parliament, and not the Commission.
How would you feel if, in Britain, the House of Lords – this unelected secondary chamber – were transformed into the fully-fledged British government, responsible for legislation?
Before you answer – first remove the opposition bench, where the official government’s opposition is tasked with holding the government to account. Finally, also do away with any electoral mechanism which would allow citizens to remove their legislators from power. You might be perfectly happy with the result. I find it rather sinister.
I’m also unnerved about how the EU monopolises the concept of Europe. We should not, for example, refer to the ‘European Parliament’ rather the ‘EU Parliament’. Europe is made of over 50 territories. Yet only 27 of these choose to be in the EU! When the EU claims to represent the EU citizens who cannot vote for it, this is arrogant enough. But the idea that the EU speaks for Europe’s non-EU citizens too is arrogance at its most breath-taking.
This arrogance, however, sometimes takes on a wholly despicable nature, particularly when MEPs associate criticism of the EU with the darkest elements of nationalism imaginable.
Perhaps the most poignant example was in 2005 when MEP Margot Walström, then EU Commissioner responsible for communications, took school children round the former Nazi concentration camp in Terezin, in today’s Czech republic.
Here the original version of the press release for the event suggested that doing away with a supranational Europe could lead to the holocaust. So, the 27 odd European territories such who choose not to be in the EU will therefore be complicit in the vile persecution and mass-murder of Jews?
Repulsed by nationhood
I can understand Germans being wary of Brexit. It is, after all, an assertion of British sovereignty as an independent nation-state. And many here in Germany favour the EU mantra that the nation-state should be consigned to history’s dustbin.
It makes sense that many Germans see the nation-state this way. The ferocious, malicious ultra-nationalism under national socialism resulted in war, persecution, endless suffering, mass murder, death camps and much of Europe reduced to flames and rubble.
But this does not put me off the nation-state as a political model. Using German history as a model to measure the success of a nation-state is suggesting that a worst-case example is all people can aspire to. It is the logical equivalent of saying paedophiles are proof that adults cannot have children.
And I really think the nation state is working. It is not what the EU wants, but I rejoice in the fact that Europe is an exciting patchwork of diverse systems.
Striving for a friendly, co-operative demotic nation-states seems a healthier option to me than striving for a homogenous block of citizens who cannot vote for their legislators.
I believe the nation-state model is working especially well in non-EU countries. Just check the statistics and you will see that the four countries in the non-EU European Free Trade Association, EFTA, are far happier, literate, healthy, transparent, equal and democratic than their EU counterparts.
Instead of blindly embracing EU expansion, I think Germany should first foster a healthy sense of national pride, without automatically equating the concept of a nation-state with the horrors of the holocaust.
In the 2006 football world cup many Germans flew their flag with pride – albeit nervously. Here in Bremen and in other cities, however, you had people placing flyers on cars denouncing the flag-flying, and arguing that Germany should not be getting caught up in nationalist fervour.
I see it differently. I say reclaim the German flag from the far-right scum who are holding it hostage, and fly the German flag as a celebration of all the wonderful values which Germany stands for.
Pot, kettle, black!
Just like the simplistic, highly insensitive and even twisted Disneyfication of French and Germans I experienced back at school, comments of the same ilk about the UK and Brexit are now snaking their way into the mouths of German politicians.
German politician Martin Schirdewan, co-chair of the Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL), recently declared UK was risking becoming a “rogue state” for supposedly breaking international law.
Bojo’s Internal Market bill does indeed break international law, which is wrong. Why do those highlighting this, however, not also accept that the EU itself is equally guilty of the same offence?
Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway and Switzerland which form the non-European Free Trade Association, EFTA, are far happier, literate, healthy, transparent, equal and democratic than their EU counterparts.
When it suits the EU, it simply does not follow its own treaties. Germany and France have broken EU laws on debts and deficits, yet did not face any consequences.
The EU has also for years not adhered to international law by ignoring World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules on hormone-treated beef.
And in the Kadi-Barakaat case of 2008, the EU’s Court of Justice even ruled that the EU should ignore the most supreme example of international law – the UN Charter!
The Council of Europe also slammed the EU in 2019 for breaking international law with its treatment of refugees. And, more recently, the EU has also been under-fire by NGOs for breaking international law in 2015. This was when it allegedly funded unauthorised Palestinian buildings in areas placed under Israeli control by the Oslo Accords.
Beware the cartoon-speak!
Just as I hated the outlandish remarks about Germans I heard as a teenager, I feel there is a similar current Disneyfication of Brexit taking place. One which is reducing those who have legitimate concerns about the EU to racist cartoon characters.
Brexit is not what I wanted, or voted for. None of this for me changes the fact that the EU is undemocratic, or that it accuses countries of breaking EU and international law when it does exactly the same itself.
It also doesn’t make it alright for me that the EU is hell-bent on eroding the democratic nation-state.
After all, favouring democratic nation-states over undemocratic homogenous blocs does not make you an isolationist imperialist in my book. It just makes you more of a democrat.
Rob Hyde is a freelance journalist based in Germany. He has been published in mainstream newspapers such as The Times, The Times Ed Supplement, The Weekly Telegraph, The Mirror, and specialist titles including The Lancet, The Catholic Herald, Woman, Bolted and The Volvo Group magazine.