Brits abroad - and all at sea?
As I watched David Cameron's speech on Britain's future in the EU on Wednesday, I was reminded of a scene from the 80s British sitcom, Only Fools and Horses.
Our cockney hero Derek Trotter, or Del Boy, is on holiday in France. He spots a bikini-clad beauty at the poolside bar and tries to pick her up. Sadly, Del Boy cannot speak French but rather than admit he's clueless, he gives it a go anyway. You can see he's convinced himself of his fluency. Responding to the blonde's 'Vouz restez à l'hotel?, Del replies with a smirk, 'Defense de fumer', following up with a drinks order 'Dos Dubonet, per favore. Danke Schön'. Cue much canned laughter and an incident with an inflatable chair.
So, why did David Cameron's speech remind me of this? Because I felt the same cringe-worthy embarrassment watching Del Boy as I did watching Dave Boy. The sense of, here's a Brit, making a wally of himself abroad. To paraphrase Del Boy, I wanted to shout at the screen, "Dont be a plonker, David!"
Now, the British Prime Minister is a clever man. He knows how important it is that the UK's part of the EU bloc. He has economic advisers to tell him the importance of being part of the EU bloc. He himself said in Wednesday's speech that he wants the UK to keep being part of the EU bloc. Then why, oh why, did this message became so diluted by a Little England cry for pseudo-sovereignty? Why so much posturing in a stance of 'we' are the only country to know what's best for everyone else? Why a metaphor about a drawbridge? (Way to be a man of the people, Dave.)*
Mr Cameron's speech highlighted, for me, quite how far Britain feels separated from its European neighbours. It goes well beyond psychological geography, the excuse of "We cant help being suspicious of the EU, we're an island" or "We're more entitled to sovereignty, we're an island." I often get a sense of genuine fear.
But I have a way to solve this. Britain, move!
BRITS IN PARIS
There are around 20,000 Brits living in the French capital. When I first moved here, someone told me to expect a lot of Brits suddenly becoming experts on what shade of blue the Queen would wear at Ascot. No-one's as patriotic as an expat, I was told. To a degree, that's right. In nearly every quartier, there's a pub, packed with a crowd baying for Sky Sports' english-language football commentary on big match days. Picking out the Brits at France 24 is easy - who gets the most excited by a packet of hob-nobs? who knows where to find bacon in Paris? who knew the most efficient way to live stream the London Olympics? The Brits, of course. I even made sausage rolls, for the first time in my life, to mark the opening ceremony.
Yet, speaking personally, I am constantly amazed at how a tiny move geographically has completely re-worked the lens through which I view the UK's place in Europe, and by dint of that, the rest of the world. London, where I am from, is so close to Paris, not even 3 hours by train, but it's perspectives apart. Only by moving out of the UK, have I come to realise how incredibly UK-centric my motherland is. Perhaps that's the result of generations of British schoolchildren spending more time learning about what Henry VIII ate for breakfast** than the formative history of nations we live right next door to. It is fascinating how much British history the French know and are taught at school. I am actually quite embarrassed when I realise Les Miserables (musical version) is my primary French historical reference. Yet, living in Paris, I have undergone, what I shall term, a 'Strasbourgean enlightment' and I feel all the richer for it. I, for the first time, feel truly European. Startling, given that I've lived in Europe my entire life. But it's true, I feel like a British European; one who can love the Queen and admire a Republic; who can raise a toast to Britain but do it with a glass of Bordeaux. I do not feel that, by being one, I cannot be the other. Indeed, I revel in the dichotomy.
MR BROWN'S BOIL
Now, I am in no way saying in terms of political or economic governance that Brussels or Strasbourg is beyond criticism. The EU is a giant-mammoth of an organisation and it is wasteful, slow to react and endlessly bureaucratic. But I remember once having a lively classroom debate/all out brawl with my history teacher, Mr Brown, over the UK's relationship with Europe. I suppose it must have been when the Amsterdam treaty was being signed in 1997, because otherwise we would have been talking about duckboards and trench foot, as ever. I remember Mr Brown being quite an angry man with an unfortunate boil on his bald pate. "Vittozzi," the boil throbbed, "we dont want to be governed by corrupt officials in Strasbourg and Brussels!". I landed, what I felt was a killer blow, 'Brown, I am sure there's corrupt officials in Westminster too'. Bang, knock-out! Vittozzi champion of debate (and detention for being impertinent).
Now, years later, I still feel the same. Just because we fear one thing's not perfect, why should we think the status quo is any better, just by being what we've always known? I have described myself as British European. Do you think that's a contradiction? I don't. It's a term that accepts that countries can be united, but still have very different cultures. I know plenty of French people who live in London because they think the Brits do some things better. Vice versa with British people here. It's vital that this interaction of cultures, economics and politics is allowed to continue. It's something to be explored and cherished, rather than feared. If there's a 2015 referendum, I am a big IN. I want to be part of this economically, politicaly and culturally diverse mish-mash. And it's a position I will guard, as vocally as I can.
*The only person I have ever met who has a moat lives in Henley. And he's a prat.
** I always believed Henry VIII ate swans for breakfast. But apparently he liked marmalade.