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The UK and the EU

This is an issue which affects my daily life.  I am a Brit working and living in Brussels.  I have got used to the usual jibes about not caring, about being arrogant and such forth.  I accept the fact that the UK is politically isolationist, and to its own detriment.  What I do not accept though, is the level of the debate which continues to rage throughout the British Isles and fails to hold our politicians to account.  Are you pro or anti EU? What a bloody stupid question!

Am I opposed to the introduction of the Social Charter that bought with it basic societal protection like the minimum wage, no.  Am I opposed to the increasing shift towards joint military operations such as Operation Atalanta (that smacks of safe-guarding oil), yes! 

Hopefully you get my point.  The EU is a complex beast with fingers in many pies.  To suggest you are either “pro” or “anti” it is clearly daft. 

Firstly let’s expel a myth.  The EU is not separate to the UK.  The UK is part (a disproportionally powerful part at that) of the EU.  Our elected national government has to agree to all legislation that is passed (in the European Council).  So when you hear…”it was forced onto us by Brussels”… you can be safe in the knowledge that this is scapegoating.  Equally, the UK is represented by 72 Members of European Parliament (which makes up the second part of the bicameral legislative branch of the EU – along with the Council).  On top of this, we have just had Baroness Cathy Ashton appointed as the new High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy (a sort of EU foreign minister).  To suggest that the UK is not an integral part of the EU is nonsense. 

Why then, if the UK plays such an integral role in Europe do I get constantly mocked for being a “Brit” (apart from my obsessive tea drinking)?  Why is the UK not seen as a “real” part of the EU? This question is a complex one and I do not suggest I hold the full answer.  Here though are two possible ideas that might shed some light.

Firstly, there is a historical significance of how we came about to become a member of the EU and how this contrasts with others accession process.  We can see that membership of the EU is something all other countries have strived for (in the current Enlargement programme the Balkan states are jumping through hoop after hoop to get in).  The UK however, eventually joined the Union in 1973 with a massive sense of feet dragging.  Whilst most nations joined with an optimistic sense of opportunity, the UK slouched in to the back of the class to play the disruptive role from the beginning.  Ever since then, the UK has been plagued by this concept that we might somehow be losing out.  This is something uniquely British.  Even other Member States who have tricky domestic politics have the ideological commitment to an integrated Europe to fall back on. 

Secondly, New Labour in the early 2000’s, chose a series of policy choices that scuppered their commitment to improve relations with the EU (after 18 years of disastrous relations jerking from one crisis to another).  New Labour came into power with a strong commitment to play a key role in the EU. Blair, by all accounts demanded respect within council meetings and for a short while a British voice was taken seriously.  In Blair’s own words, he saw himself as a bridge between Europe and the US. 

This position however was only successful in the short term.  Geo-politics soon meant that Blair had to decide to between Europe and the US.  With both France and Germany opposing the American neo-cons war mongering, Blair was left with an opportunity of great strategic importance.  At this time of decision between being Bush’s poodle and his strategic commitments within Europe, Blair sat on his metaphorical bridge for so long that the path back to the EU was soon cut off.  His inability to criticise the US meant that he lost all credibility and support within the EU (this was all dragged up again recently with him being linked to the position of President of the EU). 

Blair, back tracked on his personal enthusiasm for the euro, he smashed any concept of a common position on foreign and security policy within the EU and most of all he isolated himself from all “socialists” across Europe. 

Enough about the past though…what does the future hold for us?

In all likelihood a Conservative led government headed by Cameron.  This is a man who has chosen to remove his MEP’s from the most powerful block in the European Parliament in favour of teaming up in a marginal group with radicals from central and Eastern Europe (The European Conservative and Reformists Group).  This has annoyed nearly all major centre-right figures across the EU.  A Cameron UK government will not be taken seriously by their conservative counter parts (who now make up the main power houses across the EU).  This EU observer article gives you an idea of how the UK Tories are viewed (http://euobserver.com/9/28783). 

The only ray of European hope in British Politics is represented by Greens and Nationalist (Plaid Cymru) who sit in the Greens/EFA group.  Both the UK Greens and Plaid Cymru representatives have played a progressive integrationist role in Brussels.  This however, is only reflected in the European Parliament and not in the European Council (which has national governments in…i.e. Labour or Conservatives). 

The EU is facing a defining two years as it entrenches the changes that the Lisbon treaty has put in place.   I welcome the introduction of a progressive British politician into the position of High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy.  I worry however, that the level of debate in the UK around European politics removes any sense of accountability to our flailing politicians.  Cameron should not be able to ruin the UK’s strategic interests in Europe and not be held to account.  Browns work to repair relations with the EU should be applauded (opposed to the usual Brown bashing we experience in our media).  More to the point, I should not have to endure daily jibes because my fellow countrymen are blind to one of the most powerful influences on their lives and cannot hold their politicians to account.

The UK is lost in Europe but it is not dead.  We still (just about) have the economic and political stature to be welcomed back by other Member States.  I do not know whether this will still be the case in 5 years after a Cameron premiership!

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Filed under Balkans, EU politics

Islam and Europe

In the week before the Swiss voted on banning the construction of minarets the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group (which is where the UK Tories sit) and the British Council did their bit to entrench a bit of prejudice by putting on a debate in the Parliament on “Islam and Europe”.  I had the misfortune of attending this event and to come face to face with the likes of Douglas Murray. 

Douglas Murray, the widely credited political commentator, came off by far the strongest in the debate.  This is a travesty of the highest order as he presents such simplistic arguments (albeit in a clever and articulate way) that anyone with even the slightest grasp of Islam should have been able to expose him.  None of the panellists managed this.  I am by no stretch of the imagination an expert on Islam, or even a follower of the faith.  What I am, is somebody who can see that having a debate about “Islamic culture” and “European culture” is so overly simplified that it borders on being useless. 

There is clearly a debate that does need to happen, and this is how to reconcile potentially antagonistic aspects of cultures within a given geographic location.  We can see that honour killings for example are clearly incompatible with western understandings of liberalism and human rights.  Murray went to great lengths to represent some actions of some people who purport to act in the name of Islam as being representative of Islam as a whole.

This argument should be quite easy to show as being flawed.  Just as the opinions put forward by George Bush in the name of Christianity might sit uncomfortably with lots of practicing Christians, so an individual Muslim in the public eye may well act in a way that is abhorrent to many millions of Muslims.  This first point was at least partially raised, that people interpret faith in many different ways and can use it to justify all sorts of actions (from invading countries to habitually helping the poor!).

The point that was not raised (to my utter shock) however was that theologically Islam is extremely diverse.  It is a truism that Liberal Quakers and the Catholic Church represent two very different schools of Christian thought.  In the western media and in every day life however there is a lot of loose language around different schools of Islamic thought.  The most often quoted is that of Wahhabism (thanks in large to people’s connections with it and Bin Laden). Often this is blurred with inherently violent forms of Islam such as Jihadist Salafists.  It cannot be stated clearly enough that there is nothing inherently violent about Wahhabism.  There is something inherently conservative, but this is vastly different from violence.

There is nothing within Islam that suggests that it cannot be compatible with human rights and western understandings of liberalism (See the writings of An-Na’im http://www.law.emory.edu/aannaim/). What is apparent, is that an absolute understanding of Islam as one distinct religion (opposed to a series of theological schools of thought messily brought under one banner – like nearly all the world’s big religions) can be used to either justify the complete compatibility of Islam and western standards, or (if you so choose) it can be used to argue that they are inherently antagonistic. 

By arguing that any religion (including Islam) is inherently peace-loving is short-sighted and plays into the hands of those who would wish to paint a faith as intolerant (like Douglas Murray for example).  We all have a responsibility to engage with the worlds religions, even when we are starting off from a level of ignorance.  If we do not explore alternative religions and see the potential within them for moving towards a progressive future we will alienate those who wish to work for a better future through a religious framework.  Equally we leave ourselves ignorant to argue against those who wish to paint any given religion as being intolerant.

I happen to agree with Douglas Murray when he comes out with comments like “Mary was probably a Jew who told a lie” and “Mohamed probably did not write the Koran” (he actually said these things in the Parliament sessions), but I would have at least two responses to such comments :

  • Firstly I would have to question what he hopes to achieve by making such inflammatory statements and
  • Secondly I would suggest that he leaves himself alienated from billions of people who see their religion as their primary moral guide.  If Mr Murray is genuinely interested in building a better world he is going about it in a very strange way.  How can you build a better world when you have just insulted half of its population?

Instead of showing themselves to be progressive minded individuals the ECR and the British council have shown themselves to have little academic (let alone political) credibility.  If you are interested in this, do not be afraid to go and ask about it in your local mosque and be honest that you do not know much about Islam but you are interested. 

I am no expert, but even I can see that Douglas Murray is a short-sighted populist.  Let’s not stigmatise people because of the actions that are undertaken in the name of their faith.

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Filed under EU politics, Far-right politics, Human rights, Religion