Sunday, 27 January 2013

Snails and Horse Meat:

Why is the UK so out of kilter with the rest of Europe?

Last week as I sat down in Brussels for a meal with colleagues and some civil servants from the European Parliament on the very day our own prime Minister had made a speech inferring that the British were disillusioned with the European Project I could not but help reflect on how out of kilter many in the UK are with the continent on which they live. I sat next to a young early career European civil servant who informed me, in impeccable English, that he was of mixed French and Polish heritage and that he spoke all three languages fluently. He then informed me that although he had spent a lot of time in France, Poland and Belgium he had not, as yet, visited the UK. Automatically I found myself telling him what fantastic country the UK was and that he should come and experience the excitement of London and the glorious cultural splendour and vista that is Wales.  As we were talking my dining companion ordered a first course of snails followed by a main course of horse steak. Again it stuck me that although this young man had ordered this meal without a second thought, many in the UK would react in horror at such culinary fare and I began to recount to my new friend the recent kerfuffle there had been in the UK about horse meat in “beef” burgers. My companion immediately began to look befuddled and confused and asked me “ but why should people not want horse meat in their burgers, it is such good lean meat and who knows what else they put in those burgers.”  As an anthropologist I know it is when you can step outside your own culture and view it through the “eyes” of another’s culture its absurdities become patently obvious and this was one such moment.     
I am not a young man and since my teenage years I have travelled extensively around Europe. From Scilly in the south to Denmark in the north, from Poland in the east to Ireland in the west and while agreeing with Webber’s ( ) observation that there is a marked cultural difference between North and South Europe probably the most “different” country of all is the UK. Driving on the left, drinking tea and full English Breakfasts are all obvious examples of the “otherness” of the UK. One of the original architects of the European project Charles De Gaulle ( )  did not see the UK as European and famously blocked the UK’s initial attempts to join the EU. Historically the UK has suffered from its lack of willingness to engage with the EU. As if living in some sort of sick historical parable in the same way Queen Victoria isolated herself while she mourned over her lost Albert the UK isolates itself as it mourns over its lost empire.

The French Social Anthropologist Claude  Levi Strauss once said:
“ The one real calamity, the one fatal flaw which can afflict a human group and prevent it from achieving fulfilment is to be alone.”  Race, History and Culture. 1996.
And as Levi-Strauss’ theories posit human being appear to try to identify the differences of other groups rather than the similarities. The rantings of isolationist groups such as The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) seem primarily based on xenophobic concerns about being overrun by Johnny Foreigner without appreciating that we are all European. As a proud Welshman people often wrongly assume that I have nationalist sympathies.  I do not, indeed nationalism is an anathema to me.  The Nazis were nationalist and Saunders Lewis the father of modern day Welsh nationalism has been accused of having Nazi sympathies.  I am an Internationalist and support initiatives that are in the interests of working people wherever they are. As many commentators acknowledge the failure of the UK to fully engage with Europe has been detrimental both economically and politically and it is about time the political classes woke up and stopped playing populist politics but rather pursed the policies that are in the best interests of working people.    

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