by Helen Cannam
SO the European Union is a "political project"? At least, that's the view of the people who oppose Wear Valley District Council's right to fly the EU flag outside the Civic Centre in Crook.
You'll have to excuse the cheap point, but somehow a local authority having an office in a place called Crook seems somewhat appropriate. Perhaps they could twin themselves with Corrèze, the home of l'Escroc... But moving on to matters of more substance, why the scare quotes around political project?
Well, yes, it probably is. In the same sort of way as the union of Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland is a "political project", if a rather older one.
They were both set up as a means of pooling the interests of a collection of disparate nations which (in spite of mutual suspicion and many causes of disagreement) yet had many things in common. They both involve sharing sovereignty in the interests of a greater good. They are both ways of giving a stronger voice to smaller nations than any of them would have on their own. And we are after all (like it or not) an integral part of both projects. Shouldn't we then be doing our best to make a success of them?
The union of Scotland, Wales etc. involved rather more than simple politics. In the case of both Ireland and Wales the union was established by means of an invading army. In the case of Scotland it involved England agreeing to bail out a bankrupt nation who shared the same head of state. Arguably that was a political project but the relations between England & Wales on the one hand and Scotland on the other between 1645 and 1745 or there abouts involved a lot of invasions, putting down of rebellions etc. etc. culminating in Culloden. You might stretch a point and call it a sharing of sovereignty but it was not a way to give a voice to weaker nations it was a way for a stronger nation (England) to impose its will on the others. It may well be true that England benefitted from its conquest of the rest and certainly the British Empire that sprang from the union featured numerous Scots, Welsh and Irish but up until the advent of the Blair government in the 1990s neither Scotland nor Wales could claim much independance or influence within the UK.
There's a lot wrong with the way the EU's run. Even the most passionate European would have to admit that. But in my view that's a reason for reforming it and making it work better, rather than turning up our noses and saying we'll have nothing to do with it.
And this has precisely what to do with the flying of the EU flag? The UK (and hence England and hence perforce Wear Valley District Council) are members of the UN, NATO and half a dozen other international organizations so should WVDC also fly the NATO, UN etc. flags as well? Some of them are run better than the EU (e.g. NATO) others are run worse (e.g. the UN), I could draw a lesson from which are well run and which aren't but that is a rant for another day. Suffice it to say that their administration is not a factor in the reason why WVDC chooses not to fly their flags.
Many years ago we spent a family holiday in a cottage in a village in Alsace in north-east France. The lady who owned the house had lived in that pretty village all her life. When she was born, it was in France. In her girlhood, it was annexed by Germany. Suddenly, they were all made to speak German, to behave as if they'd never been French. Then the war ended and the village became French again.
That lady was the most passionate pro-European I've ever come across. She'd had more than enough of war, of disputes about what land belonged to whom. She just wanted to be allowed to live her life in peace. It was there, in that region of ever-changing borders, that the whole European project made real sense.
It is unclear to me why decisions about a border between France and Germany should have any bearing on the welfare on the rest of us. Furthermore the fact that there has been no war between the two for the last 60 years and that during most of that time the EU has been either non-existent or a predecessor body like the EEC indicates that the "European project" does not in fact require us all to fly a flag. It is in fact a little hard to understand what advantages the EU (which needs reform and to be made to work better) has presented in terms of the prevention of Franco-Prussian War IV that a free trade area or UN peacekeepers might not have done. Although I guess there might be more corruption and more abuse of women and children with the UN approach.
We've lately been remembering the dead of two World Wars. We think of the waste of young lives, the terrible suffering, the cruel things that were done, in the names of other nations and (sometimes) of our own.
And most of these things happened in the heart of Europe between the nations of Europe.
Assuming you define Russia as Europe, ignore all the deaths in China, Indochina etc etc that is possibly true. But it is a bit of a stretch and includes fighting in countries which are not even to this day part of the EU. The EU, madam, is not in fact Europe and Europe is not a place which has a flag. It is true that many European nations wish to be part of the EU but by no means all do. Norway, for example, which was invaded by Germany in 1940 is not a member of the EU and shows no desire what so ever to become a member of it.
No European Project is going to wipe out all our differences. The French will always be French, the Germans, German. We will always be British; just as within the United Kingdom the Scots will always be Scottish, the Welsh, Welsh - and the people of the North-East, North-Easterners, shouting loudly for their region.
Didn't we forget a little layer of nationality between Britain and the North East? It's called ENGLAND and I reckon that if you did a survey of people in your neck of the woods you would find them describing themselves as English not North Easteners. They might call themselves Geordies or Northumbrians or something but that is not apparently one of the options on offer according to Ms Cannam.
But surely it's better that our representatives should sit round a table, however tediously, however unproductively, and try to solve our problems by talking, rather than shouting from the sidelines with a stockpile of weapons at their elbows? Surely in these days of a global economy, global terrorism, global warming, it's a good thing that we work together to give a stronger voice to our nations than we would ever have working alone?
Well if talking solves the problem that is good, but lets go back to the most recent Franco-Prussian war and see how "jaw jaw" did then. In the build up to it we had things like the "Munich Agreement" for "peace in our time", said peace utterly failing to stop a rather unpleasant dictator. In fact I have to say that the number of dictators who have been toppled by means of people sitting around a table is approximately zero. The number of terror campaigns that have been stopped by sitting around a table is also nearly zero - the Northern Irish "troubles" being the sole example I can think of and that not being stopped exclusively by the filling of bums on seats around a table. Furthermore the EU's "stronger voice" utterly failed to stop the dissolution of Yugoslavia and doesn't seem to be doing much to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons either.
So I like to see the EU flag flying from our flagpoles. It speaks to me of friendship, or working together, of trying to make a better world. We're nowhere near achieving it yet. But it's a hope worth striving for.
It may speak to you of motherhood and apple pie too for all I care. So what? The argument for flying the UN flag or the NATO flag would be identical. As it happens the EU, in addition to speaking "of friendship, or working together, of trying to make a better world", could also be said to speak of corruption, incompetence, bureaucratic micromanagement and so on. On the other hand given those latter feeling perhaps flying that flag in a place called Crook would be remarkably appropriate.