When I ask the question more often than not I am greeted with a sea of blank faces. ‘What’s the most Europeanised institution in British society?’ Easy! Easy! One-nil to me. Are we getting warm yet? Yes, a football club. From the owners and major shareholders, the management and coaching staff , via players on the pitch, youthful prospects training in the clubs’ academies, the competitions the clubs aspire to be part of, the shirt sponsors and pitchside advertising, the fans in the stands, the TV and wider media audience.
To win the debate on Europe, not that there’s much evidence of anything resembling a debate just yet, we need to entirely reinvent the terms of it. Football is as good a place to start that vital, and urgent, process as any other. Europeanisation of British football isn’t all good, of course. Foreign owners at the expense of supporter ownership. Domestic talent not getting a look in because overseas players and managers are too readily preferred. Global TV rights sold amounting to billions of pounds but ticket prices just keep going up, and up, and up. All of this is true but precious few fans would want to disconnect their football from Europe, and most would celebrate a decent proportion of the consequences of our national game going European as positives. OK it helps if you’re winning. When Newcastle supporters were basking in the success of their team’s French imports restoring the club to winning ways they famously renamed their favourite pre-match drinking hole The Strawberry, La Fraiche. Once the decline and fall returned it became all about those same French imports not having the stomach for a relegation scrap that true-born Geordies would have.
But look again at the bigger picture. Think how Cantona, Ronaldo, Vieira and Henry, Klinsmann and Zola have transformed English football, for the better, on the pitch. Wenger, Koeman, Martinez, in the technical area have immeasurably improved how the top-flight game is played. Who in Leicester this season would resent the fact that it is an Italian, Ranieri, in charge rather than their former manager, Englishman Nigel Pearson?
What can be said of football can to a large extent be said of the food we eat, the beer and wine that we drink, the fashion labels we dress ourselves in, the music we listen and dance to, the films and TV programmes we watch, the places we holiday in. British culture is increasingly Europeanised and most, if not all, are more than happy that it is. This is a popular internationalism, not of the solidarity with this, boycott that activist variety but every bit as, if not more, important. The question we should be asking is ‘What has Europe ever done for us?’ Plenty. And to those who retort, two world wars that’s what, it is Europe that both defeated the causes of both and since ‘45 has created the conditions to prevent a third one thank you very much.
There is of course the issue of immigration, but in almost every case there is next to no mention of emigration. Europe is a continent of job, education and lifestyle opportunities. To return to football as our conversation-starter. Instead of worrying so much about all those gifted foreign players wanting to come and play here we should be asking why so few of our players want to play abroad? The millennial generation will increasingly see Europe as their workplace, the place to study and train, a cultural common ground. Who are we to deny them that opportunity? Or is the Europe of the future only to be for those who can afford a French second home or a Spanish property to retire to?
What the in/out debate desperately needs is a popular vision of the Europe we want to become. A continent we are part of, not apart from. Britain as a European state like the rest of them not a so-called island race that patently ignores its history as a mongrel nation. Ironic really when 2016 marks the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest. And of course this is an island too that is on the verge of its own breakdown too. ‘Who shall speak for England’ the Daily Mail asks while on its back page the sportswriters regale the readers ahead of rugby’s Six Nations with how much they hate the Scots, and vice versa. What was once only true on the pitch is now absolutely the case off it. Not the fired-up rivalry in the stands but a political division as the dawning realisation that Scotland and England are two separate nations takes root in the body politic. And once Scotland breaks away, as in every meaningful sense it already has, Britain no longer exists. ‘Who shall speak for England?’ Whoever decided that Englishness is somehow the most anti-European of the lot is as out of touch with English popular culture as only a campaign led by an octogenarian, failed Chancellor of the Exchequer climate-change denier could be. Perhaps he should ask his daughter from which countries she gets all those tasty and best-selling recipes from for pasta, moussaka, paella or coq au vin from?
Cosmopolitanism is what this debate is all about. To change all that is wrong with the institutions post-war Europe created we have to be in it. Only the cowardly walk away. Lawson, Nigel not Nigella, and their ilk want the kind of uncomplicated Britain that existed before the Beatles played Hamburg and changed the world, Celtic and Man Utd won the European Cup , the corner fish and chips shop were overtaken by home-delivery pizza joints and the mini was built and manufactured somewhere or other but certainly not here. Have France, Italy, Spain, Germany surrendered their culture, their language, their history at the expense of being European? Of course not. And neither have, or will, we. Do the Dutch and the Germans, the Spanish and Portuguese retain their differences via their rivalry. Absolutely, as no doubt we will continue to do so with France and just about everyone else the other side of the Channel. And do parties including Syriza, Podemos, Left Bloc, Die Linke campaign to change Europe for the better? Yes and so should the English, Scots, Welsh left too, as constituent parties of a wider European Left of great variety.
Our side is popular and cosmopolitan, modern and European. The other lot narrow and inward-looking, out of touch and ancient, stop the world the want to get off and can’t wind the clock back quick enough. Ours are values rooted in the present but with an eye and purpose on a better, European, future. We cannot rely on the referendum debate being framed in these terms. Nigel Lawson and Farage vs Nick Clegg and Alan Johnson, these are yesterday’s men. One line-up of business leaders vs theirs reducing the argument to number crunching that few have very much faith in. Editors providing the anti-or pro case in papers that are read by fewer and fewer, trusted by less and less. For values and visions that matter we’ll have to look elsewhere, a Europe from below, together as Europeans of many different nations. Not out, but in to shake it all about. To the foundations if you don’t mind. Our single European currency a faceless institution or a banknote in our pocket. Don’t make me laugh. It’s a culture, for me its my football for others something else and we’re not giving it up for nobody. This is what a European looks like.
Mark Perryman is the editor of the forthcoming collection 1966 and Not All That published by Repeater Books, April 2016.
He is a part-time research fellow in sport and leisure culture at the University of Brighton and co-founded the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’, aka Philosophy Football. Philosophy Football’s Another Europe is Possible campaign T-shirt is now available just £9.99 from here.
8th February 2016