George Osborne, a leading contender for future leadership of the nation, wishes to see Britain’s relationship with Europe reduced to a matter of trade.
This is a solipsistic approach to a continent whose political and economic concerns we share, whether we like it or not.
We ignore this at our financial peril. Profitable trade depends on trust, and on mutual accountability, and these do not take root when the primary motive of engagement is essentially selfish.
Britain’s main concern in relation to the European Union seems to be the protection of its own interests. To be fair to the present UK government, the Greek debacle has demonstrated that when the interests of the powerful and the sovereignty of a weaker nation collide, the EU’s entire raison d’etre disappears under the resulting muddy waters. The UK, who no doubt saw this coming and kept us out of the eurozone itself, has observed the storm from a relatively safe distance and has felt only a little of its effects. We remain in Europe, but not entirely of it. This predicament is a conscience challenger, partly because we are not always honest about what our perceived ‘interests’ are. Are they purely economic? Or is there an unhealthy xenophopic tinge to them?
We worry about sovereignty, but surely it is possible for a nation which is already comparatively secure, both politically and financially, to retain its sovereignty without that nation needing to protect itself from any shared responsibility for its neighbours and from the risks which that responsibility entails.
As a dual national who grew up speaking both French and English, and who lived in both those countries, I know that there is more to speaking another language than protecting one’s own interests. Without a real desire for the kind of communication which leads to mutual understanding and shared enrichment there can be no conversation. Language is more than a matter of words. Fluency in another language enables a subtle shift in thought process. This allows for a reciprocal inhabiting of the other’s contextuality, the history which has shaped them and, in the case of Europe, ultimately given rise to our shared circumstances. It will, if we allow it, shape a better future for us all.
The last two world wars are a reminder that such a reciprocity and willingness to enter into the contextuality of other nations is vital to the survival of Europe, and to that of the United Kingdom. Furthermore, no serious financial or trade transaction can take place without this kind of reciprocity, or trust. The same of course is true for other shared concerns, such as climate change and the root causes of mass migration. This suggests that we need to think differently about European political integration.
We have now had seventy years to re-build the kind of empathy which leads to trust between European nations. Political unity ought therefore to mean something other than what it meant at the beginning of the second world war. It ought to imply integrity, a commonality of purpose for the greater good. This is not to imply that the UK should forfeit its sovereignty, but it does suggest the need to develop the kind of trust which we can only know from engaging fully with the language and contextuality of others.