Back at Europe's battlefields


Great Britain is only a victorious European power when Jude Law is king. 

Henry V is not Shakespeare’s greatest play. But the British still love it, especially when Jude Law plays the main part. It’s sold out in the West End for weeks. ( The title role shows a moral king – that doesn’t make for great drama and Shakespeare runs the risk of his character boring the audience. But Henry V conquers France during the Hundred Years War in 1415 and he also wins the heart and the hand of the French princess Catherine. It’s a simple plot but Jude Law fills the stage with such confident charm and playful joy that the work never collapses under the weight of even its dullest patriotic moments.

Only subversive immigrants think about these things. For the British spectator, things are straightforward: England is victorious over France, the good triumphs against the bad, the brave islanders put the decadent Europeans on the Continent in their place. The world is in order and Britain is a European superpower. Here is the trailer:

It is also how Britain’s Conservative government would like it to be in reality. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne opened a conference in Westminster last week on EU reform. It was organised by the Tory-affiliated Eurosceptic group “Fresh Start”, together with the united European Eurosceptic reformist think-tank “Open Europe”. Osborne announced there and then that Britain would only stay in the Union if Brussels would agree to negotiate a new treaty and give back some rights to his great nation. He could not be more specific because it is relatively complicated to come up with more extra rights for the Brits in the EU. The “rebate”, a partial refund of their EU contributions, was newly fixed in 2013 for the next seven years. British opt-outs from the Schengen Treaty or the euro are already old hat – the Eurosceptic British public clamours for more. At a times when the anti-European UKIP party is benefiting from a surge in popularity, Prime Minister David Cameron needs more concessions from the EU. But which ones?

Exactly a year ago Cameron promised a referendum on a possible “Brexit” by 2017 to calm the eurosceptics in his own party. This gambit failed, as FT columnist Janan Ganesh explains: On the contrary: the enemies of Europe are manning the barricades. Ninety-five Conservative backbenchers are calling for Britain to be able to veto every EU law. If national parliaments actually got such powers, the 27-member EU would get bogged down within minutes. Cameron rejected the idea immediately.

A senior official in the British Foreign Office told me this week that it is not clear exactly which reforms the British government will request from Brussels but the general thrust is: „We want more rights for national parliaments.“ I doubt this will calm the eurosceptics in the Tory Party, to say nothing of the Europe-hating UKIP members. They want a Brexit, nothing less.

Compared to Henry V’s times, policies towards Europe under David Cameron’s reign are, however, a mild form of anti-European aggression. At least the Tory backbenchers are not plotting military action against France.

Although everyone is currently remembering the terrible slaughter of the First World War, which began in 1914, Britain’s collective memory seems to be rather limited. After all, it is one of the great success stories of the European Union that the Brits, the French and the Germans can fight each other in conference rooms when they disagree, rather than on the battlefield. We can surely live with the odd European regulation on condom norms in return? As long as electric plugs on the British Isles remain thicker and heavier than their continental counterparts, everything should be fine. The British economy enjoys major advantages thanks to the single European market. Access to European decision-making would be all but lost if Britain were to leave the EU.

Other EU leaders have been rather considerate so far when it comes to British needs. If the ideas become too populist and vulgar, the partners block it. That happened with Cameron’s latest push for restricting the freedom of movement and the right to benefits for citizens from new EU member states. German’s foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier quickly reacted: „This threatens Germany’s interest.“ But in general everyone from William Shakespeare to Angela Merkel knows that foreign policy is mainly driven by an attempt to divert attention from domestic problems.

„The English have the stomach to eat but not to fight“, mock the French in Shakespeare’s Henry V. „The fewer men, the greater share of honour“, says the king alias Jude Law before he sends his men into the battle of Agincourt. The English win – although they are heavily outnumbered by the French. But still, most of the soldiers are dead by the end. And what was it all for? Henry was pushed into the war by his own advisers, who wanted to divert his attention from a domestic power and land struggle.

Let’s hope George Osborne and David Cameron pass through the West End and see Jude Law wage war on the French before the final curtain falls in February.


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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz