The Somme, Verdun and Brexit

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl at Verdun in 1984.

Brexit was the point at which two narratives about 20th century European history collided. The 21st century has seen Europe begin to turn once again toward nationalism. Fritz Groothues warns there is much to be done to reverse this trend.

Fritz Groothues is former head of strategy at the BBC World Service.

The two 20th century narratives are encapsulated by two images: one, taken at Verdun in1984, shows Kohl and Mitterand holding hands, a gesture repeated by Merkel and Holland in 2016. In the other picture, members of the Royal family commemorate the centenary of the battle of the Somme at Thiepval.

The first narrative is pretty straightforward: it took two world wars in one generation to put in place, slowly and deliberately, mechanisms and institutions of cooperation that would make another war in Europe impossible.

The transformation and EU accession of three military dictatorships in Southern Europe became part of this story. For Greeks, Spaniards and Portuguese the EU was the guarantor of freedom and democracy, and even the financial crash of 2008 and its devastating consequences for these countries have not radically changed a basically positive attitude towards the EU, as the positions of Syriza and Podemos show.

The next chapter opened with the fall of the Berlin wall. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe, now freed from Soviet domination, joined a Union that would help them economically and whose democratic principles they now shared.

Or so the narrative went – but it is unable to account for very different political values and cultures in East and West, North and South. The euro crisis and the influx of refugees exacerbated these tensions and gave rise to waves of nationalism throughout the continent, even within the founding member states.

Much of this nationalism defines itself in opposition to the EU: if the European Commission criticises policies in Hungary or Poland as undemocratic, then where is its own democratic legitimacy? The AfD in Germany, the National Front in France and UKIP in Britain speak the same language, and this has become the territory where the British and continental narratives about the EU overlap.

In Britain, the attractiveness of anti-EU rhetoric needs to be seen in the context of a collective memory that precluded all attempts to reach a common understanding of Europe’s history in the 20th century. Where France and Germany purposefully created symbols of reconciliation, Britain excluded from its war commemorations any representatives of the defeated in two world wars. This is as true for the current centenary events as it is for Remembrance Day every year.

The British victories in 1918 and 1945 are framed in school curriculums and mass media as Britain’s finest hour, with little attention paid to post-war Germany and France. This did not change after 1997, when a pro-European Labour Party came to power. It was a Labour minister who downgraded modern languages in secondary schools, with far-reaching consequences for a new generation’s ability to function in Europe as equals.

After 2010 the Conservative government gave its official sanction to the UK-centric view of European history. In an article in the Daily Mail in January 2014, Michael Gove outlined his thinking about how the First World War should be taught. His central theme is the heroism of the British military in a just war, all other interpretations are “left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders”.

For a country that is proud of its history, its democracy, its values of tolerance and openness, this bespeaks a narrow nationalism and a lack of magnanimity that finds its clearest expression in Nigel Farage’s insults in the European Parliament and the sneering chants of football hooligans abroad.

Brexit has left us with the enormous task to reverse this nationalist turn and to start reframing the UK’s relationship with Europe.

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