Romancing the idea of Europe

This article first appeared in The Herald on 11/10/18

By Alan Roden


At Fenway Park, Boston’s historic baseball ground, you can stand on a rooftop terrace and squint at the game with a Samuel Adams beer in one hand and a $5 hot dog in the other.

It’s a raucous atmosphere, with people more interested in each other than the players who are so far away you can’t see the ball they’re trying to hit or catch.

The only time everyone stops to pay attention to what’s happening is when it’s time to sing the National Anthem, which – regardless of your views on American patriotism – is a truly awesome spectacle for the eyes and ears.

Watching fans belt out the words, chests out, hand on hearts, arm-in-arm, captured the romance of America for me – something that I haven’t witnessed anywhere else.

There’s a reason Fenway Park stars in so many American movies. In Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s all-American farmer is encouraged to pursue his goals when he is told to ‘go the distance’ by a mysterious voice while watching a game there.

It’s a film that last year was entered into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

What is the equivalent film that represents the romance of Europe?

That’s the question posed by U2 singer Bono at the European Parliament in Brussels yesterday, who said ‘if you think about the mythology of America and you think about Hollywood and how Hollywood perpetuated the idea of the American dream… when you think about artists involved in the project that is Europe, it’s not that many’.

Bono says artists have a ‘role to play in romancing the idea of Europe’.

But at the heart of that problem is the lack of emotional attachment to Europe among people in the UK. Even in Scotland, a recent survey for the BBC suggested that 67 per cent of people do not identify strongly as European.

While Americans have a host of sports in which to get behind the USA, the only time pubs in the UK hang up EU bunting is for the Ryder Cup.

This lack of emotional attachment is a huge challenge for advocates of a second EU referendum, or People’s Vote.

While the polls point towards a narrow lead for Remain once again, a re-run could be eye-wateringly close. Everyone who wants to stop Brexit must therefore to step up to the plate.

The prospect of another defeat has been acknowledged by Nicola Sturgeon, who has belatedly and half-heartedly given her backing to a People’s Vote.

She wearily claims Scotland’s voice will be irrelevant in such a contest, given what happened in 2016. Yet there are over 1million people in Scotland who voted Leave – voters who can be appealed to to change their minds.

The First Minister should not be so pessimistic. A vote that switches from Leave to Remain in Scotland counts the same as anywhere else in the UK.

When speaking from the conference stage, the SNP leader wears her support for the EU on her sleeve. Yet, when it comes to behind the scenes, the Nationalists – rolling in Euromillions – spent just over £90,000 on the 2016 EU referendum. That’s less than they did on a by-election in Glenrothes.

If the SNP really do want to stop Brexit, the party should massively increase its efforts next time around. Every vote will be crucial.

The SNP runs a formidable campaigning machine. It knows how to focus relentlessly on the positive – as evidenced by the new slogan ‘hope’.

Alex Salmond, when he is in reflective mood, enjoys telling a story about how he once rejected a media strategy back in the early days of his leadership because it was too negative. It was a philosophy that SNP strategists have stuck to ever since, with extraordinary results.

Another EU referendum will need the kind of positivity that the SNP revels in. While it is beyond doubt that Brexit will slow economic growth and cost jobs, those arguments alone won’t change enough people’s minds.

If anyone can craft a romantic message about why we should remain in the EU, it is the modern SNP.

But those game-planning a People’s Vote are destined to be disappointed.

The threat of Brexit is boosting support for Scottish independence, and that is all that SNP chiefs really care about. Already, senior figures are referring to polls being at 50-to-52 per cent, when those results are only achieved by asking a hypothetical question about Brexit.

If there is to be a People’s Vote, SNP MPs will back it in Parliament and Nicola Sturgeon will publicly support the pro-EU campaign, but – when it comes to the ground battle – the Nationalists will not send their army in.

And it can’t just be left to Tory remainers or the Labour Party, which is led both north and south of the Border by men with no appetite to stop Brexit.

So it will fall to others to make the positive, emotional case for the EU: the common history; common identity; and common values.

Bono says the European project is a ‘thought that needs to become a feeling’. His comments are echoed by Sir Patrick Stewart and Patrick Kielty, who are strong advocates for the EU.

If a People’s Vote is to be won, it needs people who not only want to prevent Brexit for the UK’s sake, but also those who believe in Europe.