x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Currency crisis: why Britain chooses isolation

David Cameron's rejection of tough fiscal reforms proposed by France and Germany demonstrates that his countrymen's fear of all things European remains close to the surface.

It was impeccably bad taste and worse timing. As his leader, David Cameron, was retreating under fire from the French and the Germans, one of his MPs was caught enjoying a Nazi-themed stag night in a French ski resort.

In Britain, the story was overshadowed by Britain's latest battle in Europe. Depending on your viewpoint, Cameron's attempt to protect the City of London from tough fiscal reforms proposed by France and Germany was either a David-versus-Goliath moment or, as one French delegate put it, the action of "a man at a wife-swapping party who refuses to bring his own wife".

Whatever the merits of Britain meddling in the management of the crisis-hit euro, a currency from which it remains aloof, the two events served as a reminder that the UK's ongoing ambivalence towards Europe is rooted not only in transient political imperatives but also in a bitter shared history.

History is not compulsory for British schoolchildren beyond the age of 14, but no classroom is necessary to pass on one genetically imprinted lesson: that no one across the Channel is to be trusted.

To the British, it has always been the French that were the perfidious ones, a conviction born in 1066 and surviving across the bloody fields of Crécy and Agincourt, through the years of the American Revolution - in which the French intervened decisively on behalf of the colonials - to the turmoil and tumbrils of the French Revolution and the adventures of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Small wonder, perhaps, that British governments of the 19th century fell back on the policy of "splendid isolation" for which many in Britain now hanker.

With Germany, of course, Britain always knew where it stood - alone and facing imminent destruction. If the British teamed up with the French in the First World War it was only because they feared the Germans more - and rightly so, as the Second World War was to prove.

Constructing Europe, a paper published by five European political scientists in the Journal of European Public Policy in 1999, asked exasperatedly "Why is it that we cannot observe much Europeanisation of 'Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism'?"

British attitudes towards Europe, they concluded, reflected "collectively held beliefs about British, particularly Anglo-Saxon identity, which [are] 'as old as Shakespeare ... a free England defying an unfree continent'. There is still a feeling of 'them' vs 'us'."

At heart, in other words, Britain's relationship with Europe is all about an instinctive distrust, seasoned with a sense of superiority. It is passed on culturally and generally expressed as humour - which, as the American psychologist George Boeree once noted, "is the discovery of safety within fear".

The BBC TV sitcom Allo Allo!, a tremendous success throughout the Eighties, relentlessly stereotyped French and German alike against the unlikely comedic background of the standoff between the Gestapo and the Resistance.

Only recently a "Faulty [sic] Towers" dining experience enjoyed a successful run in Dubai, with one German guest finding herself treated to the catchphrase "Don't mention the war".

In the UK, the German stand-up comedian Henning Wehn, whose success as the "German Comedy Ambassador" hinges on the twin stereotypes that Germans are both ruthless and humourless, mocks British sensitivities about German supremacy (especially at football: "Don't mention the score").

This week, 66 years after the end of the Second World War, it was clear that the fear remains close to the surface.

"For the first time in the history of the EU," as one European think-tank put it, "the Germans are now in charge"; and a survey found that 62 per cent of Britons backed Cameron's stance, 50 per cent wanted out of the EU - and 70 per cent feared Germany now had far too much power.

"We are," sighed an editorial in Der Spiegel, "going to have to put up with a bit of Germanophobia."

But worth it, surely, as the German Comedy Ambassador might say, for having the last laugh.