Just Another Day In Europe

Yesterday I was in Madrid (the image above is of the main post office in the city). It was the last day of a holiday in a city I haven’t visited since 2011. Back then, only five years ago, but already well into this long drawn out period of ‘austerity’, finding wifi in the city was difficult, and the set-up in the flat we rented was a primitive matter of wires and cables.  This time wifi was everywhere, the costs of using my smartphone had tumbled, and so I was both present in Spain, and every moment able to check in to social media to follow political events back home. It made Europe feel a smaller, and a larger place simultaneously.

I first went to Spain around about the time it joined the EU. In that thirty year period it has changed beyond recognition.  Whatever mess PSOE, the Spanish Socialist Party is in now, the long years of PSOE rule after the end of dictatorship cemented Spain’s emergence as a modern European country.  They used EU support to build infrastructure, educate the population, and reach out to the poorer areas of the country to try to spread prosperity. I saw it happen. New roads, high speed rail, brand new schools, and enviable facilities for the elderly, all proudly bearing the flag of the European Union.

Britain could have had some of that.  When I look at poor Wales (and I mean poor – one of the poorest areas of Europe), with not a mile of motorway, or even a dual carriageway to link North and South, nor a railway to do the same (unlike the 19th Century), I could weep. We didn’t do it not because the money went to Spain, or Portugal, or Greece, but because our government under the Tories wouldn’t match fund such projects in our poor regions, even though they had North Sea oil receipts and a boom in the post-Big Bang City, unlike the impoverished Spaniards, who had the political will to make the EU work for them.

But that’s an old grudge I bear.  And Spain’s been battered of late, a Club Med country suffering Euro privations to support Germany’s strengthening economy. Some of it shows. There seemed to be an awful lot more potholes out there in Madrid’s roads. No doubt had I ventured out into the less favoured regions of the country the evidence of high unemployment would be even more apparent.  But what struck me most last week was the Europeanisation of Spain – and of Britain.

This is a tale of how Europe – the club that is the EU – feels to me, an ordinary European citizen.

When I first visited Spain it was absolutely Spanish. Perhaps not even fully Spanish, for the strength of regional and local identities was everywhere palpable. Food and drink could change from village to village, region to region.  Bars and cafes all looked pretty much alike, scruffily pretty in the sunshine, while the restaurants were stuffy places that looked like Franco-era hunting lodges, all dark wood, and animal trophies mounted on the walls, serving lukewarm hunks of meat to people who looked like retired generals.

That has all changed.  Not through an erosion of national identity, but through a relaxation, and an opening up. Regional Spanish food and drink can be found, and appreciated, throughout the country, but so too can food from across Europe, and the world. There’s pride in the country which is intrinsically linked to a sense of broader European and global solidarity.  There were bilingual schools all over Madrid, which felt like absolute cultural confidence.

So what of Britain over the same period?  We aren’t in the Euro, and our unemployment levels are much lower (although as anyone with half a lung , or the ability to stand for 30 seconds, is now deemed fit for work, and I suspect we don’t know how many of our army of ‘self-employed’ are really hidden work seekers, it is hard to make a fair comparison).

We certainly haven’t seen much investment in regional infrastructure, or education – the things that have helped to transform Spain.  We are less likely to notice the tiny little EU flags on those things which the EU has helped to fund, because there’s little political appetite to trumpet the good things the EU has given us. And yet we, too have Europeanised.

This struck me when I was in a Spanish supermarket. I say ‘Spanish supermarket’ as it was in central Madrid, but Carrefour is French.  The foods on sale would have been impossibly exotic thirty years ago in Spain. Stilton, Cheddar, Gorgonzola, Gouda.  German beer, and London gin, ready made lasagne, sushi-to-go.  I might have been in Waitrose (though the prices were lower).

British people who might be thinking of voting to leave the EU are as Europeanised as any in Spain, or the Netherlands, or Sweden.  We expect to move quickly past passport control when we travel in Europe, our burgundy passports a fast-track.  At the pub we down bottles of prosecco, or Polish vodka, with rather more enthusiasm than we could rustle up for a pint of lukewarm mild and a pickled egg. For heaven’s sake, we expect pubs to serve food – bruschetta, olives, moules marinieres. Whatever happened to a bag of pork scratchings and a game of arrows?  We want to drink proper coffee at tables in the street – even Greggs does that!

So why has European cultural transformation not translated into an emotional attachment to the EU in Britain, when it plainly has elsewhere?  No serious political party is Spain, of left or right, is anti-EU. In Britain the atmosphere is so hostile that the most enthusiasm politicians are willing to display is lukewarm and hedged about with criticism and caveats. Sure, Nick Clegg (who he?) was willing to take on Nigel Farage in a debate, but look where that got the Lib Dems.

I’d like to shake the British population by the collective shoulders and make them realise how much – and for the better – this country has changed by being integrated into the EU. I’d also like them to realise that we’d have had, and could still have, much more out of Europe if we put a bit more in.  Not more money.  Time, effort, team-work, a constructive attitude.  If we could see how European we really are, it might help.  It might help us to pressure our governments into working together with our neighbours for the good of us all.

Photo by aledgruff.tumblr.com

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