Trojan horse to gallop into sunset?

by Terence MacNamee

The British, as is well known, are soon to vote in a referendum on whether to leave the European Union or stay.

Writing in the Montreal paper Le Devoir, the commentator Martin Poëti puts things bluntly: Britain does not belong in Europe. Europe is better off without it. And the British would be happier just being a part of the Anglo-Saxon world.

Culture, history and language weigh more in the balance than geographical proximity. In having Britain in the EU, he says, the Europeans “have confused geography with culture.”

He goes so far as to say that Britain in the EU is nothing but a Trojan horse for the Americans. Europe needs to be independent of the USA and have its own voice, expressing its own peculiar “genius”.

Poëti has his own definite ideas about what this genius is and where its natural borders lie. Russia does not belong, he says, because it is too big and an entity of its own (Eurasia again?); nor does Turkey, which belongs in the Middle East. Within the Western world thus restrictively defined, there are and should be two rival camps, Europe and North America. This tension is “a source of enrichment for all Westerners”, he concludes. A thoroughly Western perspective, as can only be expected from a Quebecker who evidently sees himself as a little bit of Europe in North America.

Poëti is right when he points out that culture trumps politics, economics and even geography. For culture has been around for a long time, so culture involves history – with culture shaping history and history shaping culture – and it does not change all that quickly or all that much.

If Britain was all alone in the world, then it would pitch in to the European project without a murmur. But as Poëti emphasizes, it is difficult for Britain to be a part of Europe, because it has the counterweight of the English-speaking world pulling it away in a centrifugal manner. The British can indulge their illusions of absolute independence, because they live in that English-speaking world and can pretend there is no other.

Of course, the politicians in Britain won’t talk much about cultural issues in the referendum campaign. They will produce economic arguments to say “we’re better in – or better out – because we’ll be better off.”

Then again, there is an aspect of all this that Poëti does not consider. Surely the USA would not relish having to deal with a Britain-less Europe. It’s nice for America to be able to deal with someone who speaks the same language (both literally and figuratively). One can imagine the British wooden horse galloping across the Atlantic like Pegasus and turning up outside the American stockade, neighing eagerly and wanting to be let in. Uncle Sam looks down over the gate, strokes his long white beard, takes off his top hat and scratches his head in perplexity. “What the hell are you doin’ here?” he growls finally. “Get back over there inside the walls of Troy where you belong!”