Frenchmen, Germans, EU officials have insisted for decades that we British are obsessed with our past. I’ve been hearing this for so long it took me years to realise it was the opposite of the truth: projection, as the Freudians say.
They are obsessed with their past – and with ours.
It was living on the Continent that showed me. My French and German friends in Budapest always – sooner or later – brought up the British Empire in conversation, often in the context of why Britons are “bad Europeans”. This was presented as friendly banter, not hostile but concerned, sympathetic chastisement – yet I always heard an edge in their voice, something else behind the pretended teasing.
By the third time I noticed that it was always they, not I or any other Brit, who brought our empire into the discussion first. No Spanish, Russian, Polish, Italian, Dutch, Swedish friend ever mentioned the British empire. Not once. No-one British I knew ever mentioned it. Only – and always – the French and the Germans.
Near the end of the 19th century, Prussia’s brilliant conservative chancellor Bismarck said the most important fact about the world was that the United States spoke English.
Imagine being French in 1903, and knowing that your own country in 1803 sold an enormous slab of land, partly theoretical claims but also with real territories, of North America to the nascent United States. This land covered part or all of 15 of today’s US states, a vast area.
And this is just the USA. Never mind the other distinctive cultures of the English-speaking world.
I’ve written before that the truly formative event of the modern world was the Anglo-French Seven Years’ War in the 1750s and 1760s. Fought on several continents, a smaller and poorer Britain defeated France in what some historians call ‘the 18th-century world war’. France lost India and North America to us, and has never quite recovered.
Specifically, losing that war so enraged the French crown that they went heavily into debt vindictively helping our 13 colonies, now United States, become independent of Britain in the war of the 1770s. This crushing debt then brought on the French Revolution at the end of the 1780s, an event which was a huge disaster for France and Europe, but which is currently taught to schoolchildren as a brilliant new dawn.
They didn’t give up. Even today France’s government works hard to encourage technology, albeit in their relentlessly top-down, centralised way. The technically advanced Franco-British aircraft Concorde lost tons of money. French telecommunications specialists were leaders in the early internet, but their 1980s state-backed Minitel, putting special terminals into millions of French homes, was rigid. Les Anglos leapfrogged it with the more flexible internet.
France and Germany are naturally rich territories. France in 1600 had 20 million people while England had only 4 million. Perhaps this is why they despise traders? English-speaking economists from Smith, Ricardo onwards insist private firms are the truly creative element in any country, the innovating geese who lay golden eggs. This view is alien to the French.
Firms have a more respected place in German culture, but the grand aims of the state still come first. Despite the many great early modern thinkers in both languages (Leibniz, Pascal, Descartes, Kant, Rousseau, Gauss, Goethe…. the list is long and eminent), France and Germany are strangely short on major economists. The most famous German some call an economist, Karl Marx, was really a Hegel-influenced pamphleteer who claimed all trade is inherently unfair.
France and Germany inspect the globe like an ageing couple who painfully regret not having children. In contrast, the Iberians and the Anglos have spread their seed, planted their cultures on other continents.
Italians cheerfully regard Spain and Portugal as Latin provinces. And when the Spanish or the Portuguese look around the world they see Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Mozambique.
Yet there is no German Australia, no French Brazil. This shared imperial nostalgia is the hidden Franco-German motor inside the EU. If the EEC/EC/EU is a project dominated by two countries who feel they’re barren parents who didn’t transplant themselves overseas, it explains a lot. Particularly why French, German, EU officials in the Brexit episode have been so bitter, so petty since 2016. Why they’re so incensed British voters kicked over their eurovillage train set.
This is why the pro-German lobby conquered French foreign-policy-making in the 1950s, so soon after Nazi occupation. British failure at Suez and London’s tactless puzzlement at Paris’s secret request for political union just hastened the decline of the pro-UK lobby. For both the French and the Germans by the 1950s were appalled to grasp that English-speakers ruled the 20th century.
This is France and Germany’s secret bond: cultural angst, economic envy, imperial regret, wounded pride.
There was a Soviet-era phrase that NATO had three functions: keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down. The three jobs of the EU now are: keep the Americans out, the Germans in, and the British down.
It’s easy for Britons to overstate that last role, to exaggerate the EU’s desire to confine the UK. Yet recent remarks by Guy Verhofstadt reveal that (surprise surprise) the EU does see itself as an empire after all, and that Britain becoming a less-regulated (and richer) “Singapore by the North Sea” is a major EU fear. They intend to stop us: bribery, treason, lies, blackmail, whatever it takes.
Think of the grim steeliness of some childless women approaching 40 to see how white-knuckled this could get. In their unfortunate mindset, this is their last throw of the dice, their last chance at empire. There’s no rule Paris and Berlin won’t break to save their sickly federation, their Frankenchild.
Mark Griffith is a financial trader whose weblog http://www.otherlanguages.org follows news on artificial intelligence, economics, and other subjects. He is researching a book about whether AI will change how people live.
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