Major fumbles while England find the net

Click to follow
The Independent Online
There have been three wonderful things about Euro 96. The football has been enjoyable, England have played better than most of us suspected possible, and - greatest joy of all - rival bands of supporters have been colourful and passionate, but not belligerent. When Scotland played the Netherlands at Villa Park, it was difficult, from a distance, to know which supporters were which: Scotsmen wore orange and tartan; Dutchmen wore kilts. Even the predicted mayhem between English and Scottish fans last Saturday came to nothing. There was intense patriotism on all sides of Wembley Stadium, but also mutual respect and affection. After England defeated the Netherlands on Tuesday, the Dutch supporters were desolate - for five minutes; then they joined the ecstatic England fans in belting out rival choruses from the soccer songbook.

Compare this to the hollow and cynical nationalism, and now even violence, exhibited in the other great Euro-contest of the summer of '96: the European Union beef war.

The Government foolishly tried to turn a crisis of its own making into an Us vs Them battle with our EU partners. John Major's policy of non- cooperation has proved predictably mistaken. The row over Europe's ban on British beef was a standard European dispute, with rights and wrongs on both sides, and the usual mind-bending inter-twining of technical and political issues. It could only ever be solved by arriving at a conventional European compromise. By raising the stakes so high, for domestic political gain, Mr Major angered our allies as well as our opponents in the quarrel. Rather than quietening his Euro-sceptic right wing, he excited their hunger for the kind of bloody showdown with Brussels that might lead to UK withdrawal. He unleashed (unwittingly) an outpouring of brainless nationalism and xenophobia in the tabloid press, which has startled and offended public opinion across Europe.

And all for what? Mr Major will have his framework agreement, which is, to be fair, all he asked for. It looks to be a sensible and measured document, which recognises that British beef can only regain its markets in Europe when public opinion is reassured - whatever the scientific rights and wrongs - that it comes from cows free of BSE. The British policy of non- cooperation has doubtless concentrated minds in Europe. But European resistance has also concentrated minds in Whitehall. The present proposal for eradicating BSE and identification of BSE-free meat, under the ultimate control of EU experts, is precisely what our European partners have been demanding for months (years, in the case of Germany). In other words, all of this could have been agreed by humility and co-operation, rather than arrogance and confrontation. It is also a classically European solution to a problem that would have proved far less tractable if the EU had not existed. What will the Government now do about the 40-odd other countries refusing to buy our meat?

Unfortunately for Mr Major, his belligerent approach led Euro-sceptic media and politicians to ignore his words and set the bar for success much higher than he did. He is being accused of selling out, not for throwing several thousand more cows on the bonfire, but because he failed to achieve objectives set by the Euro-sceptic right, rather than by himself. In truth, the Euro-sceptics cared nothing for the intricacies of the beef dispute in the first place. Like the troublemakers on the terraces of old, they just wanted a punch-up with Europe.

It is depressing that the only European hooliganism of recent days has been connected not to football but to politics - French farmers obstructed a cross-Channel ferry full of British holidaymakers that was due to dock near Caen in Normandy. There is no excusing the French farmers' behaviour. To a minor extent, the British government is culpable, for stoking up feelings in the beef war. But the real culprit is successive French governments, which have not merely tolerated but tacitly encouraged a kind of low-level rural terrorism on the part of their farmers, designed to bolster their own national aims in Brussels. However pro-European our sentiments, we cannot go on allowing French farmers to behave like licensed louts.

The French farmers, the Euro-sceptics and the British tabloids have one thing in common: they confuse patriotism and nationalism. This is an important distinction, made most memorably by George Orwell in his essay The Lion and the Unicorn. True patriotism is love of country, pride in national culture, attachment to national symbols and - yes - support for the nation's sporting teams. It is based on affection and attachment, even love. It is content and confident in its own judgements. It does not demand an aggressive or dismissive attitude toward the patriotism of others. It is precisely encapsulated by the sporting behaviour of many soccer fans during Euro 96: exhibiting an almost mockable passion for your team but also a passionate love for the game, even in defeat.

Nationalism, by contrast, is an unhealthy preoccupation with supposed national superiority and uniqueness. It is characterised by vanity, self- satisfaction and narrow-minded boorishness. It frequently manifests itself in aggressive attitudes toward supposed rivals. It is rooted partly in national pride, but mostly in jealousy and envy, which are themselves partly born of an essential weakness and insecurity of character. In the modern world, it often refuses to face up to the distinction between the outward symbols of national sovereignty and the real challenges for democratic resolution of political and economic problems.

The root argument of the Euro-sceptics is that even a limited pooling of sovereignty in the European Union is a threat, ultimately, to Britishness. That fear is misplaced: it confuses political status with what is really important about being British (if there was ever such a monolithic British character, as opposed to Scots or English or Cornish or Welsh in the first place).

There is a final irony about this comparison between Euro 96 and the Euro-sceptical beef war. England and Scotland were driven into a single union nearly 300 years ago. Today, England will play against a national team, Spain, which is actually drawn from a bundle of Spanish regions that have distinct differences and identities, yet Spaniards will all cheer their team equally. England, by contrast, will field a team drawn from only one part of the United Kingdom, the part we call England.

What can we conclude? Simply this: when it comes to European competition, Mr Major and his team only know how to find the back of their own net, while Gazza and the lads have finally worked out how to find the one at the other end.