I’ve always defended the EU – now I’m having doubts

All 27 EU leaders rightly condemn Hamas’s attack on Israel, express concern about the humanitarian disaster but still back Israel’s horrific war tactics

This is In Conversation with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a subscriber-only newsletter from i. If you’d like to get this direct to your inbox, every single week, you can sign up here.

I was against Brexit from the day the whole miserable project began. I went on the marches; I wrote many, many columns; I spoke at events, on radio and TV; confronted the fake messiahs who claimed they were freeing us from the “undemocratic” and controlling EU.

This went on for years. It was a cause I felt I had to fight for. Brexiteers manipulated voters and made promises they could never have kept. It was so all-consuming, there was no time and space to think about what the EU is and what it does.

Don’t get me wrong, I think those who wanted to create a united Europe after the bloody world wars were extraordinary and heroic. The conglomerate of democratic nations working together is an example to the world. Leaving was a terrible mistake; we have lost power and influence, are poorer and more pessimistic.

Supremacist sentiments

However, these days, I see faultlines in the grand project and am frequently upset by the EU’s actions and ethics. Some reservations were always there and are now resurfacing. I remember writing a furious response to Margaret Thatcher’s 1990 Bruges speech, which was loaded with supremacist sentiments, such as: “The story of how Europeans explored and colonised and – yes, without apology – civilised much of the world is an extraordinary tale of talent.”

And after interviewing the adamantly anti-EU Labour firebrand Tony Benn in 2005, I understood how ruthlessly capitalist the bloc was. When Turkey was kept out of the club, I knew that the collective of approved European nations was a white stronghold, into which only Christian-heritage countries were admitted.

But then either I mellowed or the EU changed and seemed to have gradually become more cosmopolitan, modern, egalitarian and open. I remember my husband, who then worked for an international consumer organisation, going to an EU conference that wanted to bring Palestine and Israel into a Mediterranean trade zone. Imagine that.

‘European values’

Now what do we see? EU members pushing for a “Fortress Europe”, which now would do anything to stop the poor, oppressed or terrorised migrants from the South and East, including from places wrecked by Western interventions.

Some think Rwanda deportations are a jolly good idea. As Shada Islam, the Brussels-based political analyst, wrote in The Guardian this year: “European leaders spend a lot of time telling the world about the virtues of ‘European values’… Yet external perceptions of the bloc are determined not by fictionalised narratives but by the real-life experience of African, Asian and Middle Eastern migrants and refugees who seek EU protection. The EU’s image is also increasingly judged against the treatment of its own black and brown citizens.

“Regrettably, the record is poor on both counts, prompting justified accusations that the bloc is guilty of double standards and has a human rights policy based on selective outrage.

“Having once denounced Donald Trump’s plans to build a wall on the US border with Mexico as morally unacceptable, the bloc now has nearly 20 external steel walls or razor-wire fences, running to a combined length of nearly 2,000km. Twenty years ago there were no walls around the EU.”

A crying shame

And now there’s Gaza. All 27 European Union leaders rightly condemn Hamas’s attack on Israel, express concern about the humanitarian disaster, but still back Israel’s horrific war tactics. Because, you know, Israel has the right to defend itself. Are dead kids part of the defence strategy? Kill them before they grow? The UN is the real moral leader here. The EU, in contrast, is perfidious and iniquitous.

Pro-Palestinian marches are banned in Germany and France – another indicator of Europe’s betrayal of democracy and justice. None of this will silence or stop citizens in the Eurozone from standing up for Palestinian citizens, but the blood is chilled.

The ultra right – antisemitic, anti-Muslim and anti-foreigner – is growing in popularity, winning elections and becoming acceptable and respectable. The principle of “never again” is being shredded from within. Millions of EU citizens are losing faith. Globally the EU’s reputation is falling. I still want to believe, but at the moment, I can’t.

Unless the union remembers its ideals and recovers its purpose, it will become moribund. And that would be a crying shame.

Moving Forward

When Tory minister Andrew Mitchell appears to diverge from the former PM Boris Johnson’s categorical declaration that the International Criminal Court has no jurisdiction in Israel and shadow frontbencher David Lammy says the siege conditions are “unacceptable”, you know our political class is getting panicked by Israel’s military actions and mounting civilian casualties.

But do they ever examine their own part in this unending tragedy? No.

Western politicians have long safeguarded Israel from proper scrutiny and criticism. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has never been allowed to inspect Israel’s nuclear arsenal; its leaders disregard UN resolutions and reports by neutral human rights organisations. If the UK, US and the EU had ensured Israel respected international law and universal standards it would not have become exceptionalist and defiantly stayed outside the circle of democratic nations.

Real friends are honest and responsible. These friends of Israel are neither.

A conversation I had this week

I had a hospital appointment this week. The waiting room was full and there were long delays, but most people seemed relaxed about that. Doctors and nurses came out to call in their patients, which I thought was a nice personal touch. And then, suddenly, a middle-aged woman shouted, “I will not be treated by you. I’m English. Get me someone English.” Everyone went quiet.

A female Asian doctor walked up to her and said: “So sorry. You’ll need another appointment. It may take some months. So fine, I’ll have a coffee break now, have been on my feet for hours. Good luck.” And with a sunny smile off she went.

Several of us applauded her and instantly bonded. I told my new best friends about a recent BMA study, which revealed that 76 per cent of black and Asian NHS staff had had similar, demeaning experiences. We went on to talk about racism, a subject too often avoided or denied. Bigots do have their uses.

Yasmin’s pick

We went to Osterley House in west London recently. The beautiful 18th century house is managed by the National Trust. NT properties really do beat winter blues. You should go.

Funded by members, this beloved institution is now being pursued by reactionary hounds with more bark than bite who object to it acknowledging slavery and other uncomfortable historical truths. They put up candidates for the governing council and were smashed.

NT members, it turns out, are thoroughly woke. More bad news for Sunak’s Tories.

This is In Conversation with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a subscriber-only newsletter from i. If you’d like to get this direct to your inbox, every single week, you can sign up here.

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