National Identity Abroad

It was exactly a year ago (Sept 18th 2014) that Scotland voted on a referendum for independence (see my views post), a mandate that was defeated by 55% to 45% (see my results post). British Prime Minister David Cameron at the time promised more devolved power to the Scots which may well have swung the vote to remain within the UK. He has not delivered on that promise yet and the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has spoken of the PM “living on borrowed time”, a view I can’t help but agree with. Both the referendum issue and the General Election result have had a profound impact on me, which I became acutely aware of on holiday in Brussels two weeks ago.

Ever since my first visit to Brussels in 2002 I have adored the place and felt very comfortable there despite my linguistic short comings. English is beautifully spoken, menus are in various languages and even I can negotiate the French part of the dual language signage (the other is Flemish) for the metro and tourist spots. You just can’t help but know that you are in a city that prides itself in being at the heart of the European Union, something I’ve felt very relaxed about.

But in 2015 on my fifth visit to the city I realised for the first time I was embarrassed by my own national identity, and it has all stemmed from my feelings regarding the political shenanigans that have gone on here for the last year. When politely asked which language I spoke I happily replied English. But the question “where are you from” stirred in me turmoil and I floundered to respond. Previously my reply would instantly have been Britain but this time I found myself saying that I had travelled from England but was a Scot, although basically we were all sort of British! I racked my brains to remember what we were called in the Eurovision Song Contest and of course it is the United Kingdom. The museum clerk who had asked the question smiled at my eventual UK answer and commented “ah yes the UK like Belgium we are all European”, to which I ruefully responded “well for now anyway”. I walked away disconsolately feeling utterly hollow inside.

England is where I live, but I had identified myself as a Scot in a mental attempt to put distance between me, the nationalistic UKIP party and David Cameron’s Tory England. The Prime Minister advocated the Scottish referendum debate, something I deeply opposed, because in my opinion it has begun the process where Scotland and England will separate in the future. His determination to have an IN/OUT vote to remain within the European Union could well be the catalyst for this to happen. Knowing all this made me somewhat hesitant and a little ashamed to admit my British nationality whilst in Brussels. But the internal political strife of this country is little known within the EU, for now anyway!

Before David Cameron relinquishes his tenure as British Prime Minister, he might guide the nation into sleep-walking out of the European Union and preside over the disintegration of the United Kingdom. My passport is for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland but sadly under Cameron’s government I no longer feel the country is great, nor the kingdom united.

A British Scot in Europe. Image credit abmj
                     A British Scot in Europe. Image credit abmj
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People Crisis in Europe

The massive flux of people travelling toward the continent of Europe from many troubled lands has made headline news in 2015. But the first week of September has seen an apparent seismic shift in how European heads of state deal with the problem. It seems that a photo of a small child from Syria drowned in the Mediterranean Sea and washed ashore, and hundreds of people walking from Budapest to the Austrian border have been the galvanising moments in the story.

I was on holiday effectively from the 1st to the 5th of September and did not take my smart phone with me, nor did I watch the news at my hotel in Brussels. On my return home the headlines emanating from Hungary, Austria and Germany were literally “news” to me. Suddenly with the situation becoming dire in Central Europe and Hungary seemingly throwing its hands in the air in despair, the rest of the continent woke up. The problems that Italy and Greece have been dealing with on their own for months almost buckling under the pressure, and pleading for help with the situation have come home to roost so to speak. Finally an attempt at a cohesive joined up effort to deal with the issue is taking place. Or at least that’s how it seemed watching reports on Saturday 5th September, but 24 hours later the political “goodwill window of opportunity” was already being talked of being suspended soon. But in the meantime, transport is being put in place to offer safe passage from Hungary to Austria and Germany (and perhaps beyond) for the thousands of displaced people seeking refuge.

Some may say that the open borders policy of the European Union enshrining freedom of movement has in part created the problem. However, the humanitarian effort today is only possible because of those same laws that bind the European Union nations. I don’t think the necessary diplomatic dialogue channels would be in place otherwise.

Germany looks to be prepared to take several hundred thousand displaced people, whilst early speculation has suggested that David Cameron may take in about 15,000 to the United Kingdom. I’m not overly enthused by the Prime Minister’s stand on this issue, as he only seems to have reacted because he has been backed into a corner. Looking bad in the eyes of other European leaders is no strange notion to the UK political leader, after all our demands for European renegotiation and rebates etc doesn’t make us popular. But if the UK appears to be not “pulling its weight” in this matter then why should our “bleating” be given a fair hearing. Yet if the UK doesn’t get some kind of rebate/new membership terms from Europe as Cameron has promised his electorate he will strive to do, he loses face with the very people who got him into power.

The brief amount of news coverage I watched on Saturday night included seeing Germans applaud the arrival of people disembarking from trains in Munich, and a chat with a Syrian family recently settled in a small German community of 1200 in size. The woman of the family spoke of gifts being given to them within days of arrival (TV, bikes for the children) and the warm welcome received. I was glad they felt safe and secure but couldn’t help wonder how different their story may have been here.

Germany as a nation has a general policy of wide scale social housing availability, home ownership not being the norm. Unsurprisingly then the Syrian family had a fair chance of being offered a roof over their heads once their asylum paperwork had been processed. The United Kingdom on the other hand has wide scale home ownership, has given away for sale most of its social housing in the last thirty years, and not replaced anywhere near the same amount lost. There are large waiting lists for social housing and many have become homeless due to the lack of suitable affordable homes. So when the news triumphantly reported that “many in the UK have volunteered to take refugees in” my views were a little less charitable I’m afraid. Home owners with room to spare are about the only ones able to offer an instant “roof over the head” solution. Local councils have to juggle their waiting lists with available housing stock, and anyone in housing authority properties or private tenants would be in violation of their tenancy agreements, to take anyone unauthorised into their home. Under those circumstances I think any refugee family housed by the council would probably be viewed with suspicion and could face having their windows put in! Not a very nice welcome.

Austerity measures in the UK have seen many basic services funding being cut back to a minimum. We hear reports of NHS difficulties in providing comprehensive cover at weekends, some areas with not enough school places, council subsidies for local transport being reduced, to name but a few. These issues show what a potent mix of “general disgruntlement” we have in this country at the moment, and that is without even mentioning “benefits” to provide a social income for displaced people.

Of course the UK should help people in need, but that does rather depend on our infrastructure being robust enough to provide them with all they require for a decent life. Looking at our society today I’m not all together convinced we are doing a decent enough job looking after those who are already here!

Throughout 2015 news reports have shown hundreds of thousands of people arriving on the European continent mainly through Italy and Greece. I can only assume that the bottleneck of people in Hungary occurred as a direct result of the natural travelling progression of those early 2015 arrivals. Something had to be done quickly to deal with the issue and this humanitarian intervention was the outcome. But if the “goodwill” is short lived the problem could well occur again because many more thousands are arriving on a daily basis in the southern Mediterranean states. Hopefully this wake-up call will result in a more long term cohesive plan being put into action