There’s a startling gap between the English and French media on the agreement yesterday (8 March 2016) on migrants from Turkey which has worrying implications for the EU referendum debate.
In the afternoon I spoke with two friends who are usually well-informed, and who expressed concern at the deal being done with Turkey over migrants. My mind went into “euromyths” mode, wondering what the kernel(s) of truth in the story might be. Later caught a radio news bulletin which seemed to confirm what they had said — that a deal was being done with Turkey that would mean Syrian migrants reaching Greece from there would be returned, and one migrant from the refugee camps would be allowed to settle in the EU for each migrant returned. That’s an elegant way of removing the incentive for the human trafficers who are putting lives at risk. The implication is that this was a last-ditch attempt to head off Syrian migrants on their way to the UK, and linked to the sweetener of fast tracking Turkey’s application to join the EU (ignoring concerns at press freedom and democracy in Turkey).
The Daily Mail for 4 February managed to give the impression of sort-of link Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Nazi Germany and David Cameron’s EU renegotiation and gets it spectacularly wrong. One of the primary reasons for the European project was to prevent another war: far from being talks on the eve of war, we are now in talks about the continuance of peace.
It’s hard not to read the comments in the Daily Mail as linking Chamberlain returning from Munich in 1938 and announcing to the press “I have in my hand a piece of paper, signed by Herr Hitler, in which he assures us that there will be no war in Europe”, and Cameron returning with the outline of an agreement with the EU.
In the UK the debate around immigration seems to swing between discussions of free movement of people within the European Union, “economic migrants” (who come to the UK and pay taxes here) and comments on those seeking asylum which swing between seeing them as threats and seeing them as people who deserve compassion. That mix mobilises lots of fears of “others” or “foreigners”, particularly among those with least actual experience of people from other countries.
The grassroots Cambridge for Europe campaign brings together a buzz of Cambridge’s communities from local businesses to researchers and universities, from political representatives to local interest groups. It’s the first such self-organised regional campaign in the country, and the fiery multi-community nature of the effort makes the campaign a model for how other pro-EU groups can get among their local communities to make the case for remaining in the EU. But what has driven Cambridge to be the first to rally itself?
Cambridge is a multi-cultural, vibrant and successful city. It’s open, engaged and looks naturally to the wider world. Walking through the city centre recently, I heard a group of people talking in French and grumbling, as Cambridge residents do, about the number of tourists. I went into a pub and found myself sitting by a table where people who didn’t seem to be visitors were talking in Italian. Being European is woven into the fabric of the place.
My eye was caught recently by a super watercolour of the Houses of Parliament in the mist, viewed from the Thames, in the days before motorised boats on the river. As it was hanging on the wall of the room where the Liberal Democrat European Group held its AGM, I was tempted to quip that that might be the age to which Eurosceptics seek to turn back the clock. This was the age of empire and Rule Britannia. I can see the appeal of that romanticised vision but golden ages don’t usually stand close scrutiny, and this vision is particularly deceptive.
The European Union is a newish body, but it builds on a rich heritage. The Britain that “ruled the waves” was one of the European powers with a colonial story. We have been rivals, but we and our European neighbours were neighbours across the world.
Scratching the surface barely more deeply, there are the seemingly-unending stories of migration, preserved in some of our surnames, and in the genetic mapping of the UK which shows England’s genetic debt to the Saxons who settled here.