Mary Dejevsky: Are we the next 'new' Europeans?

As of last week, I wonder whether I might not have been too pessimistic about the extent of euroscepticism, even europhobia, among young Britons
Click to follow
The Independent Online

New Europe was the neat formula coined by Donald Rumsfeld in aid of the Bush administration's war effort. The "old Europeans" disliked and derided it, as it suggested that Europe was more divided over the Iraq invasion than it actually was. But they could never deny its grain of truth. There was indeed a split between those who signed up to the Bush crusade for democracy in foreign parts – not least because of their recent history – and those who saw the same campaign as a misuse of military might.

But that was then. Now that Poland and Russia are making up, East and Central Europe have lost their appetite for fighting US wars, and the Obama administration is eschewing the whole idea of special relationships, it could be time to lay this irritating concept to rest. Six years after the European Union completed its greatest single expansion, the divisions are neither as sharp nor as resentful as they were.

Even as "new" Europe blends with the old, however, could it be that a new breed of rather different "new" Europeans may be arising in that least likely of places, here in Britain? There are reasons to doubt, but suddenly, too – for us pro-European dinosaurs – to hope.

Not so long ago, I was lamenting what seemed an immutable layering of British foreign policy interests by age. There were those who remembered the Second World War and saw fascism in its various guises as the greatest threat. There were those who grew up in the darkest shadow of that war – who became doughty cold warriors, looking across the Atlantic and clinging to the shelter of Nato. Then came what might be called the first Europeans – we who had the freedom of at least half the Continent rolled out before us, who travelled ever more adventurously across its vanishing borders, who holidayed in Spain, bought second homes in France, tramped the ancient sites of Italy and Greece, and generally revelled in the sights, sounds and culinary delights of somewhere else so close to home.

The abject failure of my – European – generation, as I saw it, was that we had been unable to pass on our enthusiasms to those coming behind. To be sure, there was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the excitement as the two halves of Europe were reunited. And there were the cheap flights that made drunken holidays in Ibiza and Crete a rite of passage and whisked crowds of twentysomethings to "stag" weekends in Tallinn.

But those pleasures seemed to co-exist with indifference, suspicion, even xenophobia, towards Europe and the EU. This generation seemed unaware that such experiences were so easily available only thanks to the idealism of those who wanted to banish war from the European continent and created the institutions to make that happen. Languages were "too hard" to learn. They took the benefits for granted without understanding how and why they had come about – and set off for gap years, helping prevent Aids and saving endangered species around the globe.

The stratification of foreign affairs interests in Britain becomes glaringly apparent if you have anything to do with universities or think-tanks. We Euro-enthusiasts tend to be passé. If you want to attract the under-30s, you have to be talking development and the environment.

As of last week, though, I wonder whether I might not have been too pessimistic about the extent of euroscepticism, even europhobia, among young Britons. Until then, the assumption had been widespread that David Cameron's brand of euroscepticism was a vote-winner with a British electorate inclined the same way. The traditionally unapologetic pro-Europe stance of the Lib Dems was seen as a liability to the party, and to Nick Clegg, as he went into this week's second electoral debate, which will focus on international affairs.

It was even joked – not without a tinge of seriousness – that Clegg's command of several languages, his stint in Brussels, his somewhat Continental style, his Dutch mother, his half-Russian father, his Spanish wife and the Spanish names of his children, might be seen as negatives with the parochial British voter.

It remains to be seen how he acquits himself tomorrow evening. But my sense is that Clegg's relaxed and classless style is in tune with a Britain – at least an urban Britain – that has become more informal and international, even identifiably European, over the past 20 years. It was among younger voters, hitherto seen as apathetic, that Clegg's television performance made the greatest impact. I doubt they see him as too European.

I rather suspect the contrary: that a modern brand of British European-ness has a chance of coming into vogue. Nor would it be in isolation, but as part of an integrated view of the world. You have only to consider the attitudes and policies that were identified with "old Europe".

First there was opposition to the Iraq war, on the grounds that it reflected US priorities, not the national interests of the European countries whose leaders were asked for support. France and Germany said No. A large number of Britons also said No, but were sidelined by a government and opposition that fell into line. Then there was the "social state", with its preference for job protection, shorter hours, and more equality than recent British governments have deemed to be in our interest. And most recently, there was the more conservative attitude to banking and credit that left their banks, if not their economies, relatively unscathed by the crisis of the "Anglo-Saxon" financial system. In all the discussion of additional regulation of the banks, the British public takes a more punitive stance than either Government or Opposition – in other words, a more Continental view, in which GDP growth is not all that defines success.

Britain has been stung by its 20-year flirtation with American ways to an extent that may be pushing our social and economic attitudes in a more European direction. And perhaps politics is shifting, too. It was notable that the Government's recent defence Green Paper, quite out of the blue, proposed closer relations with France. If it turns out that euroscepticism exerts less surefire appeal than it did, perhaps my generation can claim some credit. We will have made Europeans of our fellow-islanders after all.