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Europe’s problem with England

It is not Britain so much as England that lies behind the Brexit crisis in the European Union, according to Irish Jesuit Edmond Grace. In his paper ‘Europe’s problem with England’, a guest contribution to the publications of the Institute of International and European Affairs, Fr Grace claims that Britain was constitutionally incapable of fulfilling the commitment entailed by its membership of the European Union and that Brexit is the inevitable outcome of this situation. The paper makes the case that Britain is a “vehicle for the pre-eminence of England” – and that this English pre-eminence is inimical to the sharing of sovereignty on which the European project depends.

“Britain has always been an initiative of the English,” Fr Grace claims; it is “the mask – the persona – through which England encounters the wider world”. He continues then recalling the many instances during the years leading up to the formation of the European project in which British politicians, both of the right and of the left, expressed deep reservations about being absorbed into a unit that would diminish their right to govern themselves.

When it came to the development of the project in the direction of full union, the English politicians displayed both profound suspicion and a lack of understanding. They were content to be involved, but they could only understand it as a set of pragmatic decisions and mutually beneficial policies, not as a grand vision of a new world. In most of the official dealings with Europe, the political priority usually was to preserve the Englishness of England, the Britishness of Britain.

In all of Britain’s dealings with Europe and with the wider world, Fr Grace argues, “Britain is not so much a place as an attitude”. He quotes Rupert Brooke’s famous poem:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.

What if he had said “That is forever Britain” instead of “That is forever England”?

Britain connotes Empire, the raising of the flag, conquest. It is outward-facing and confident and would demand all of that foreign field and not just a corner. England, by contrast, suggests something much simpler. England is home. For Brooke and his contemporaries England was a place of rolling fields, hedges, pleasant villages and country graveyards. Today something has happened to Britain and England. According to Shipman, in the Brexit referendum campaign 80% of people who defined themselves as English voted Leave and 80% of those who called themselves British voted Remain.

He concludes strongly:

Like all great powers, Britain celebrated her own ability to defeat her enemies and, in doing so, she cultivated an imperial tribal arrogance. Other European powers had their variation on this vice, but they have learnt, through bitter and bloody experience, that nations thrive more effectively through interdependence than through rivalry. The dominant political culture of Britain/England is blind to this idea and the English political leader who succeeds in remedying this blindness, will have to find a new purpose for Britain or a future for England without Britain.

David Cameron’s determination to remove any reference to ‘ever closer union’ in Britain’s dealings with Europe is a classic example of the blindness of England. If humanity is to survive, all the peoples of the earth – and not just of Europe – will have to learn how to live in ever closer union. The nations of Europe have a role to play in modeling this new reality – a role which includes the English, should they so wish. The alternative is to drift towards disaster in state of bigoted bravado.

Edmond Grace SJ is a Catholic priest and Director of PeopleTalk: Citizen Juries Shaping Government, an initiative of the Jesuits in Ireland. He studied law at Trinity College Dublin and Columbia University New York and is author of ‘Democracy and Public Happiness’ (I.P.A., 2007). He lectured on law and social ethics in the National College of Ireland and, while working in Gardiner St. parish in Dublin’s north inner city, was involved in building relations between local communities and an Garda Síochána as part of the struggle against drugs and organised crime. He has also written in various journals on jurisprudential and political matters, as well as playing a prominent role in the second Lisbon Referendum campaign in 2008. He is Coordinator of the Venice Workshop on Faith and Politics which is organised every two years for young adults from around Europe.