week 124 The EU Referendum

 

With less than a week to go before the EU referendum I wanted to use 'life in the arts lane' to reflect on whether to stay or to go. 

Before I step off the precipice and express my opinion I want to reminisce. In 1971, at the age of 9, I was horrified to find that my large handsome brown pennies had been replaced by measly tiny decimal pennies. Decimalisation had arrived and the sweets in my local shop seemingly doubled in price overnight. My 'd' turned into a 'p', and I felt sad. A half crown in pocket money seemed a substantial and useful sum, and a crown seemed untold wealth and very occasionally I would be given a fortune in the form of a 10-shilling note. I never, ever, got a whole pound. But then 10 shillings turned into 50p and a crown into 25p and my proudly held half crown was a mere 12 1/2p. It was the dawn of the move towards Europeanisation. I was 9 and it seemed a real cheat to me. My horizons were narrow then - what I wanted was sweets at 4 for a penny and to buy my favourite comics. The heavy coins in my small sticky hand were treasures, and the replacements seemed insubstantial and bogus.

 A tale of two pennies, and two portraits of our Queen - 1965 and 2015

A tale of two pennies, and two portraits of our Queen - 1965 and 2015

 

I am now 54 and we have been in Europe since 1973. My so-called grown-up work life began in 1985 when I joined Mallett but my broadened understanding of Europe had began earlier when I first noted that my parents kept a shelf of jam jars full of small denomination coins from countries all over Europe. In 1990 I started travelling to buy for Mallett and it was a full-time job orchestrating travel, invoicing and shipments for goods coming from one or more European countries at once. I once bought in Belgium a pair of Chinese porcelain figures and too late realised that I had worked out the exchange rate wrong. The exchange rate from Belgian Francs to pounds was 60:1. The Chinese figures cost 10 times more than I thought. Luckily they were very nice and Mallett managed to sell them. Gradually Europe has changed. The progress that has been made has been slow and painful and yet now I can travel and both buy and sell anywhere in Europe as if I was here in England. I know that the system is imperfect. There are places where they still want to be paid in cash or fiddle the figures on the invoice. There are places where people say one thing and do another. There are also countries within the EU where the rules for the movement of goods differ. But everywhere, even though it has been at a snail's pace, things have become easier. Of course, for me, my Euros still feel a bit unreal, but now I pay with a card or via an app on my telephone - cash itself is becoming a rarity.

 Good old traditional Danish bacon, the staple of a hearty English breakfast. 

Good old traditional Danish bacon, the staple of a hearty English breakfast. 

 

I can remember the 1980s when the UK economy was in real trouble and many went abroad to find work. The television series "Auf Wiedersehen, Pet" chronicled that time. When people complain today about economic migrants coming to the UK from Europe they are forgetting a time when travel in the other direction was to our benefit. To the art trade European business integration brings huge benefits and consequently Leave would set us all back. Times are very tough already in our business, confidence is increasingly hard to find - consequently if I should find myself inhibited once more by issues of currency, travel and the movement of goods it could result in me and others all having to find proper jobs.

 

 Mashed potatoes at Brasserie Lipp in Paris. The potato brought from America in the 16th century and made into a national dish of most of Europe.

Mashed potatoes at Brasserie Lipp in Paris. The potato brought from America in the 16th century and made into a national dish of most of Europe.

 

In the end, for me, the EU debate is not about money and the ability to do business. I know that there are a raft of strong arguments to be made for why Europe is better for us 'In' rather than 'Out'; a plethora of experts from the world over have expressed their firm opinions that Britain should remain. No one seems to pay any heed to expertise, they even suspect. In any case, in the end I believe it has to be an emotional decision. No one can see into the future, one has to just jump - the archetypal leap of faith. As I drive around the countryside and I see vast signs in fields encouraging us to LEAVE, I find it incredibly depressing. What sort of host would I be to put up a sign saying 'Leave' to welcome all my guests? Britain is an island, separate from Europe anyway, but the principle of 'Leave' is so aggressive and so adamant that it makes the antisocial, xenophobic feelings behind the sign hard to mask. We have a wonderful tunnel now under the channel and it is as easy to get to Paris or Brussels as it is to get to Leeds or Manchester. We are part of Europe now and so we should take the long view and appreciate all the international progress that has been made; rather than throw in the towel we should get deeper into the heart of Brussels and work to make the system better for everyone not just for England. We narrowly avoided breaking the union with Scotland last year, thankfully, and now we need to pray that people will have the vision and the hope for the future to see that in 50 or even 100 years a joined up commercial and social union for Europe has got to be better than being on our own. I hear many arguments from people about ceding control of our sovereignty to Brussels or - for some even worse - to Berlin. But my instinct is to urge everyone to think about how much Europe suffered during the 20th century; the peoples of greater Europe can remember both the world wars and their countries being conquered and overrun. If the primary urge of the EU were to promote international harmony and integration and simultaneously dilute partisan Nationalism, I would say hurrah to that. By working together towards commonality we must be helping to build a better world for future generations, even if on the way we encounter frustrations over sausage regulations or too many unfamiliar faces for a few years.