British, English, European: What am I? (7/22)     Print

By Jamie Connolly, European Affairs Editorial Assistant

The easiest way to answer this question is to think of my response to people who ask “where are you from?” – a common and plausible question asked on a regular basis to any foreigner living in Washington DC. My first go to answer would be English. I was born in England – directly in the center of the country and mark each and every application form as such – nationality: English.

I wear a pin-badge on the lapel of my blazer to work each and every day, but it is not the red and white of St. George, England’s Patron Saint. It is the Union Jack of Britain that brings a little more color to my work attire – so ask myself again, what am I?

When my American friends initially asked for clarification on what Britain is and why I call myself English, I often mumble my way through vague and wishy-washy explanations of the divisions between the home nations. Our history isn’t pretty.

We each cling onto our individual identities – Scotland with their kilts, Wales with their dragon and daffodils, England and their Rose and Northern Ireland, well, that’s a topic for another day. I would direct anyone who is interested in the division between our Kingdom to watch a home nation’s rugby game to understand the passion and rivalry that exists – grown men crying at the sound of their national anthems – a sea of opposing nations’ colors split between red for Wales, white for England and blue for Scotland – ready to engage in a type of battle that is full forcibly backed in each and every home across the land – for losing, is an immortal sin.

Yet, we all use the same currency – British Pound Sterling (BPS) – printed with the face of a youthful Queen Elizabeth II and we all have in modern times, stood side-by-side on the battlefields of the Somme, Normandy and held station at Camp Bastion under one common flag, the Union Jack.

So where do we lose this sense of British-ness and where does this leave me in calling myself a European, because after all, I would never label myself as such. Yet, my identification card, which also serves as a driving license, does not carry the flag of either Britain or England, but labels me as a European under a flag that has a blue background with twelve golden stars.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has promised an in/out referendum of British EU membership by the end of his current government, which is supposedly going to be held towards the end of 2016 or sometime in 2017. As a twenty-three year old, I am part of the first generation to be born within the framework of the European project and I am well aware of the extreme advantages it provides for the UK. When the referendum is held, I shall be voting “yes.” That is a “yes” to stay in the European Union, and also it is a “yes” for the interests of my country.

As I have previously alluded, there does seem to be a certain type of disconnect between being British and/or being English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish so adding another dimension into the mix is not evident. I cannot recall a time of when I have seen a European flag flying in the UK and I couldn’t recite the European Union national anthem’s lyrics or sing its tune [I doubt many even know that it exists]. I cannot recall a time when I have seen investment from the European regional development fund on newly built bridges, roads or buildings labeled with a small plaque or sign – something which I have witnessed in other parts of Europe and I cannot recall a time when I have not referenced “Europe” as I get on a plane for my summer vacation to somewhere in the Mediterranean.

These symbols and attitudes are important and they need to be in greater evidence. Not only do we need to know what the benefits of the EU are, but we also need additional visual, public reminders of the advantages of being part of the United States of Europe. If the UK government continues to fail in this department, the consensus of the average person in Britain will surely slip ‘ever closer’ to marking “no” on that ballot paper, primarily on the basis that we -- that small little island sitting 14 miles off the coast of France -- does not do enough to identify ourselves as being part of 28 collective states.

Instead, the emergence of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) during the recent general election and which polled 12.6 per cent of the popular vote must sound as a warning shot to David Cameron and other pro-European politicians. The constant media frenzy surrounding immigration and the drain on our NHS system from suspected “welfare tourists” is doing little to promote a positive image of the EU, instead portraying the Union as one of the sole reasons why “problems” exist in a country where Britannia, once ruled the waves!

Nationalistic sentiment and history – is this the problem? One could argue that the history of the British Isles plays an important role in the way we view our own country today. Are we proud of defeating fascism in Europe – yes, are we proud to say that the sun never set on the British Empire – yes, and are the Scots proud of William Wallace – yes. So where is that elusive disconnect between Britain and England or Britain, England and the EU? Could it quite possibly be a question of identity combined with an element of history, or is it quite simply that we don’t really care and we are happy enough to cling onto our individual past?

Figures from the UK’s European Parliament election turnout make for grim reading. Between 1979 and 2014, the turnout has not risen above the 39 per cent threshold which would indicate that indeed Britain’s simply do not care when compared with the EU average. Jamiegraph

I would however argue that the European Parliamentary election was not publicized enough. At no point in 2014 can I recall an advertisement or any one of my favorite TV shows being interrupted by a ‘Party Broadcast message’ urging people to vote in the European elections, and I question why and who is to blame for this?

I would first lay blame at feet of the media and the ineffectual way in which British governments have continually neglected the necessity to promote the benefits of the EU to the electorate over any meaningful period of time.


                                                  Examples of the British press' coverage of the EU

David Cameron’s current rhetoric towards Europe and his planned referendum is bordering on bolshie. Seeking to achieve a “better deal for Britain,” Cameron’s Concessions resemble more of a European a-la-carte menu than a far-sighted strategic negotiation on the future of the UK’s place in Europe. A ban of EU migrants claiming in-work benefits for four years; a British opt-out of the “ever closer union” phrasing in the Treaty of Rome (1957); safeguards of non-eurozone members in a single market union and more power to national parliaments in their right to block EU legislation are all apparently up for negotiation according to the Prime Minister.

But what does this mean for the confused Island that I call home? It means that for as long as politicians continue to present themselves as euro-skeptics or along the official line of the current Conservative Party, as trying to get a “better deal,” the EU will continue to be seen as ‘something over there [in mainland Europe]’.

Returning to my original question, I do believe that I can call myself all three – European, British and English, but when asked “where are you from?” I will have no hesitation continuing to answer “England.” None are mutually exclusive and each has a rightful place in my identity.