Letter to The Economist published on 25 January 2020
It’s encouraging that your newly crowned Charlemagne columnist has already stumbled on the European Union’s greatest achievement (‘Why stereotypes rule in Brussels’, January 10).
Not content to have kept the peace, built a single market, launched a new currency and quadrupled their membership in the space of a lifetime, the Union’s members have also allowed themselves to revel in their national cultures and, yes, indulge their well-worn prejudices. You can have your gateau and eat it, after all.
But this is more than a “coping mechanism for complexity”; it goes to the heart of the Union’s success. The member states never did try to “iron out” their distinctions, crass or otherwise, but instead wrote them into the Union’s DNA, from a legal commitment to “respect its rich cultural and linguistic diversity” (article 3 of the Treaty on European Union) to a daily workload that is negotiated in 24 official languages.
A close family, respectful of its differences, is stronger than the sum of its parts. Britain’s liberal instincts will be sorely missed after January 31st, but perhaps not as much as its knack of settling disputes with a good cup of tea.
It happened in the middle of a frozen night in February 1991 as I lay alone on a bed in Duisburg, deep beneath the glow of Germany’s steel mills and chemical plants and slipping further into a nocturnal region that I could name only years later. New colleagues had returned to their families at five, leaving me, the trainee, to another long evening that pulled itself over a drab suburb like a heavy grey sheet; some nights I’d venture behind the lace curtain of a local pub only to spend a soundless hour at the bar. This night I put my ear to a small black radio and edged the needle millimetre by millimetre down the line of European cities, hoping for life in Lille, Luxembourg, Malmö, Hamburg, Dresden, anywhere, finding nothing but news until, at once, a hero’s voice and tinny beat broke through the hiss above the North Sea and carried me back to a place I had lost, reminded me who I was, and as the song faded away again, I pushed back the covers, reached out from the bed, fumbled for my diary and scribbled one line in the dark: “It’s going to be alright.”
We are at war. But the enemy is not who we think it is.
Sooner or maybe much later we will defeat IS, but this is not what is truly at stake. When that particular gang of criminals is finally worn down, another will spring up to take its place. If we haven’t learnt this over the last two decades, we never will.
At these moments of shock and sorrow, we ritually appeal to our values. This is all very well but it’s starting to ring hollow or at least a little weary. This is because that very appeal captures neither the scale nor the urgency of the task we face.
So what is truly at stake? In one word and an entire universe that lies behind it: freedom. Not the freedom to do this or the freedom to do that. But freedom in all its unique simplicity.
Christmas arrives a week early this year. Disciples spanning three generations will converge on cinemas from Bombay to Boston to witness the seventh instalment of this planet’s favourite space saga. If a two-minute trailer can ignite the sort of fervour we saw this week – the faithful beheld mysterious images that foretold the Good News, and they were pleased – we can only wonder what forces Star Wars will awaken when the film reaches our screens.
People who want the UK to stay in the EU usually belong to one of two camps. The pragmatists argue that, for most of the British public, Europe remains little more than a common market and a major source of trade and jobs. The believers, on the other hand, plead that much more is at stake: it’s about our identity and the sort of country we want to be. The former see the referendum as a war of facts and figures, the latter as a battle for hearts and minds. Both want to win but disagree on how to get there. Both might be wrong if the old adage holds true that referendums are never about the question on the ballot paper.
Something’s in the air. No one knows quite when it began or how, but people are stopping in the street, heads are turning. What’s going on here? What’s happening to Brussels?
Once isolated, the symptoms have become a rash. Mysteriously and without warning, we find good coffee in our streets. New restaurants are no longer an annual event, they’re opening by the week; some are Tibetan. The city is kicking its dirty car habit and flushing the arteries that once clogged its heart. And a posse of young artists has moved into town, a parade of new galleries marching behind them. Even Louise has let down her bourgeois guard. Whisper it softly, but a city best known for its stodgy comforts might now be discovering its cutting edge. If the Economist ever designs a global hipster index – measuring cities’ growth in beards, check shirts and gin bars – Brussels is quietly working its way up the ranks. Craft ales? We invented them.