No retreating to Little England

January 30, 2014

I was an early reader. Let me be precise: I was an early reader of the Treaty of Rome. It was the 1960s and I was in my first job. I was told to write a paper on the policy implications of the Treaty of Rome for what was then a British industry giant. Equal pay for men and women! Freedom of movement for workers! What wonderful things were promised if we became members of the European Economic Community. On reading my paper, my boss said: “We can make sure equal pay will never happen here.” I switched rapidly to the equal-pay Civil Service.

Fast-forward a decade. We had come to Paris, a response to the opportunities opened up by British membership. At that time there was no risk in temporarily dropping out of the UK labour market. We thought we would dazzle our friends and employers by returning with impressive French and, since it was the nature of the job, a good knowledge of continental Europe. Initial case made.

But I had already pushed the case in the family debate that there is more than one version of history; to live that would be enriching. And so it turned out.

However, being in constant contact with Europeans from all parts of the continent, with the issues of what divided us and what united us, was endlessly stimulating and sometimes humbling. We at last understood how life-shaping it was that we had lived through wars and empires very differently. Their parents, under occupation or in defeat, had had to decide which side they were on. Their governments and civil societies had had to rebuild institutions and values post war. It was a choice that the British were spared, but perhaps it was an opportunity for reassessment lost.

All this was, of course, tied in with the enrichment of myriad cultural connections. As our French got better, there were bridges into Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, where hitherto there had been walls. Similarly with Anglo-Saxon and German connections. New worlds opened up in European literature and, in my job, French social science. The experience forced a more nuanced look at many previously held beliefs about class, religion and winners’ versions of history.

Another three decades on and I am in a research world that is essentially, although not exclusively, European. The quality of work in my area of interest, higher education, has been immeasurably improved thanks to the recent European Union enlargements and the intellectual mobility that has gone with it. The reunification of Europe after 1989 not only seemed to be putting a historical wrong to rights. It has opened up new research and teaching horizons, and brought new vigour within what is overall a common research and teaching ethic.

So when I read of the mess that Prime Minister David Cameron is getting into on migration, and that he believes he is being let down by the Germans (reach for the violin), I am at one with Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, and Mr Cameron’s other continental critics. Freedom of movement, long since expanded to all European citizens, is a fundamental freedom of the EU. I feel like the parents of our 1960s continental friends and colleagues who knew in the 1940s that the choice to accept or resist was personal. Sign up to Little England? No way.

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Reader's comments (1)

I was involved as a junior civil servant in the accession of the UK to the three communities in 1973. Yes I was enthusiastic about the opportunities which free trade with the other 8 members of the EEC would bring, while a little sad to be working on levies on Australian tinned fruit - my speciality being peaches. Now, 41 years later, and with 27 other members of the EU, the free trade area is bigger and better, but the emphasis has changed so much from free trade to daily interference in our lives and loss of sovereignty that no matter how much is gained from European-wide research, I am a firm convert to withdrawal, and I am not in UKIP.

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