Europe is not a favourite topic of conversation in the United Kingdom. Even the most pro-Europe politicians have their reservations and prefer to see the UK as a separate country. People in the street, on average, are even more Europe-averse. Still, the UK will soon sign the new European constitution and transfer yet another set of rights from London to Brussels.
Before leaving Edinburgh, I speak to Nikki (29, photo) who very much favours European integration. She studied in France for a year and speaks French fluently, thereby being an exception compared to the general mass. While other countries heavily encourage students to add some internationality to their lives, studying abroad for a year is still quite uncommon in Britain. Many people are either unaware of the opportunity, or can`t be bothered to make the effort.
`Many young Britons are either unaware of the opportunity of studying abroad, or they can`t be bothered to make the effort.`
After arriving in Newcastle, I talk to Andy (21) who thinks Britain does not really want to integrate with Europe because it`s an island of its own ? he even uses the term continent. Compared to other European countries, Britain has always had more of a choice than a necessity to work with its neighbours in the East. As a result, Europe is not often called just Europe. People tend to refer to it as mainland Europe and mainland Europe is far away. It can only be reached by plane or by ferry, not by the simple act of walking across a national border.
When I refer to the fact that Ireland is also an island ? even further away from the mainland than the UK, and how Ireland is one of the major success stories of the EU, people shrug their shoulders. Most of the time, they will comment that the Irish were much worse off before joining the EU, and that Britain can easily do without such a boost.
Wind of change
Andy further thinks that the British people as a whole are reluctant to change behaviour they feel familiar with. They need to see a clear and visible advantage for people to change their way of thinking. Europe is not producing those instant advantages, or at least fails to get them across the North Sea. `We don`t need Europe`, says Andrew (22), `we`re perfectly fine where we are.`
Hardly anybody considers it very likely that the British pound will ever be replaced by the Euro. `The pound is such a strong currency, especially now. Changing to Euro would be a step backwards, rather than forward. And it would be very strange not to have the Queen on the backside of the coins`, Andrew explains. By hearing him say that, I presume that he is unaware of the fact that each of the Euro countries have their own national side, which in case of the UK could perfectly fit their beloved queen`s face on it.
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Another silent source of national pride is the way people keep using the Imperial system for measurements. Even though the metrical system has made it to classrooms every now and then, the most common fashion of expressing a person`s weight is still in stones rather than kilograms and height in feet rather than meters. A carton of milk will not hold a litres but a number of pints, and road distances will be in yards and miles.
The system could hardly be called practical. Converting pints to gallons (both imperial measurements) or inches to centimetres (imperial to metrical) require conversion schemes and a calculator. Also bear in mind that a pound may refer to different weights, depending on whether it is an Imperial pound, an American pound or a metrical one. Although the majority of elements may be measured in Imperial units, surface is typically expressed in square meters. When buying fruits in a supermarket, you are likely to be confronted by per-kilogram prices as well.
Both measurement scales exist next to each other and every generation has seen one or the other prioritized in maths classes. Despite these obvious complications, the current system is kept in place and people amuse themselves with their mobile telephones as conversion tables and calculators-in-one. Measuring seems to be more about feeling than about science, but one thing is entirely clear: no interference from Brussel desired in this matter either.
Andrew laments the EU interference in British politics: `Don`t think that I am very positive about our own politicians either, I just think it is good to be as close to the matter as possible. Brussels doesn`t know our problems. Actually, London is already to far away from Newcastle to know how things work here.`
David (22) supposes that farmers are the most appropriate people to interview about Europe. `They deal with European regulations on a day-by-day basis. And they are the ones who get the subsidies. That`s about all we see of the EU here, helping farmers stay in business by telling them to constantly increase the size of their operations.`
Over the last few years, it is indeed the agricultural sector that has been dealing with Europe quite a lot. Outbreaks of animal diseases like Mad Cow Disease and Foot and Mouth have faced them with exportation bans that, some claim, have had a very negative and unnecessary impact on UK farming.
Carl (22) suggests the EU is to blame for letting in too many immigrants who all march for England. `They can earn good money here, better than in the countries where they come from`, he says. Many people are unhappy about the overwhelming amount of Polish people who have found their way to the UK. They are typically ready to work for half the minimum wage and do a five times better job than a Briton.
The debate about the Poles stealing local jobs is highly divided. To some, the fact that they work five times harder is more important and that Britons have imply started to get lazy. Others say that they mess up the social achievements of Britain by accepting salaries that go below the legal levels. In addition, Poles are said to form isolated groups of foreigners, who make no effort to speak proper English or to mix in with the local population.
In spite of the preferential treatment that the United Kingdom has always enjoyed in the EU, the British seem to draw more attention to the problems that EU membership is bringing about. UK politicians are often accused of openly flirting with the EU and diluting the power of the United Kingdom as a nation. Even the UK`s most euro-sceptical representatives on the European political stage risk being seen as betrayers of the UK heritage.
In the British view, Europe is a nice destination for summer holidays. It makes the existence of Spain, Greece and Paris a little more useful. It`s better to have a good neighbour than a far away friend, as a Dutch proverb goes, but whether the good neighbour will ever become a good friend is something different.
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