Yesterday Spain voted “Si” to the EU Constitution. When asked, some Spanish voters indicated that they plumped for a “Yes” vote because “it is good for Spain to be a part of Europe”. To be fair there wasn’t really a danger of Spain being thrown out of Europe if a majority had voted “No”. It does make you wonder if the 42% of Spaniards who bothered to vote knew this. No one has yet polled the Spanish to ask them “Did you understand the question?”
A photo of the Nou Camp recently featured a massive fans banner saying, “Catalonia is not Spain”. The Guardian rather enjoyed replying facetiously, “Actually I think you’ll find, if you look at a map, that it is. It is Colchester that is not part of Spain”. Hardy-ha-ha! Sr. Zapatero, the Spanish premier, was asked about the significance of the fact that all of Europe’s participating countries have to be in favour of the constitution for it to pass, and that France and the UK would both be conducting referenda on the subject. He indicated that the UK referendum was the most in doubt and that the French was the most important. Technically any of the countries that could vote No would be equally important, of course. But the point he was making was about the character of the two countries. The French will do what is best for France (and they have a clear idea of what that is); the British will do what’s best for themselves. The French referendum is most important to proponents of the Yes vote because you cannot tell a Frenchman anything about democracy – they invented it. The UK referendum is the hope of the No vote because they understand something about the mentality of Britons. We’ll come to this later. Suffice it to say, The European Project has always been close to France’s heart because it is culturally Napoleonic. The constitution is a document that professes the French revolutionary values of liberté, egalité et fraternité more than anything so far produced in the Union.
What’s this got to do with Arsenal? Well UEFA – which is decidedly not an institution built on basic EU principles of freedom of movement and trade - offered the opinion the other day that it would like to introduce a rule insisting that at least four players in a football club would be from the clubs country of origin and eventually eight players (at least four of them coming through the youth development process). Arsenal Football Club have a Director on the board of the FA who convinced the national body to offer the only dissenting voice to this, amongst unanimous approval for the rule from the other European Associations. And in the same week Arsenal, managed by a Frenchman, put out not one, but two consecutive teams featuring not one Englishman (the second of these had one Englishman on the bench as reserve keeper or we’d be saying “two squads”). And there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments in the shires and in Grub Street. The most interesting aspect of this debate is that it is the FA only, on behalf of a few Premier League clubs, who have opposed UEFA. Other countries clearly feel even more strongly than we do that protectionism is justified. But I can only talk about the reaction in the UK because I have no idea whether such a quota system would be good for the Danish game. Very much brighter and more knowledgeable people than I have already pointed out how ludicrous any specific criticism of Arsenal is in this debate. But I’m interested in the visceral reaction from old boys like Paul Merson. Why do they feel so strongly about this? Why would all those logical arguments not get their support?
‘Firstly’, I thought, ‘I have to figure if I’m for or against “Yerp”’. The reason is that it is European employment law that has permitted the situation at Arsenal and other clubs to arise. What do it think about Yerp? Well, I don’t want any more European wars. Even before a formal written constitution was proposed, the Union itself was primarily the vehicle for preventing conflict on the continent and it has been largely successful in this. I am also against barriers to trade – but believe that trade should be fair and compassionately and sensitively conducted. That means regulation; because I also believe people are basically bad, not basically good, and more likely to do the right thing if placed in a half-nelson. (Not to get too deep into the moral philosophy and wander too far from the point, as I am often prone to do, but I watched a movie the other day, where a girl proffered her flat keys to a friend with an offer to stay there, whenever she was abroad. Her friend noted with interest that she had her name and address on the key fob. The friend thought this was too dumb for words. The girl replied that, “if someone found the keys, well, then they’d know where and who to return them to, wouldn’t they?” Her friend made a facial expression that suggested she thought our girl was dumber than a bag of mute Labradors. What do you think? Exactly. People can’t be trusted)
We need regulating, or else, I figure. It’s just that so many regulations are crap, written with crap dispensing fountain pens on crap paper by crapulent crap-wits with shit for brains. We elected these people of course so it’s our fault. Unfair? Just remember we elected them because of the bullshit that came out of their mouth and not because of their proven ability to formulate laws that would prevent the unwanted ills arising from the actions of citizens in a free society. Case in point: Britain bans fox hunting after years of debate between crusty muddied hunt sabs with pictures of dismembered foxes who used to be cute fluffy orange dogs versus toffs on horses who own land. Toffs on horses say “We’ll hunt anyway because the police aren’t going to chase us on horseback are they?” The law is worded so badly that said Toffs are allowed to go out on horseback, with trained foxhounds, race about the countryside pissed, and if foxhounds pick up scent of poor Reynard and give chase, are expected only to “Make a reasonable effort to stop them”. I have enough experience of trying to stop one well-trained guide dog from sniffing my crotch on a tube train to know that such is an absolute impossibility. I wanted fox hunting banned because, when I visit my Gran, it can take an hour to drive the 3 miles between Tregaron and Bronant behind 35 Isuzu Troopers full of kids following the Lampeter hunt on a Sunday morning, and that really pisses me off.
We need regulation, but bad regulation is worse than none. And this comes from someone who makes a good living interpreting convoluted, confusing and weirdly worded nonsense legislation and who will probably be the first one up against the wall when the revolution comes (with Jeremy Clarkson in the role of Joan of Arc). That said, Britain is actually a major contributor to law-making in Brussels. In my own area of Health and Safety, we have a permanent UK presence over there; civil servants arguing in favour of legislation to protect such things as workers rights, freedom of association and free trade. Ironically, it is often HM Government that actually turn their back on their own civil servants – the Working Time Directive being a classic example. My point is, for all the Sun and the Mails’ hysterical reaction to the latest “crazy” euro-law, some part of Britain is already close to the heart of Europe and busy influencing it in our favour.
This country is divided on Europe for one very simple reason. British people, once a law is made, want to see it enforced. We think the outcome of the foxhunting debate being a toothless unenforceable law is ridiculous. The Italians on the other hand would see it as a very elegant and diplomatic way of handling a dispute. My personal view about Europe is that it is divided north and south. The southern, mainly catholic, countries have a view that laws are inevitably going to be broken and that there is always the doctrine of confession and repentance to give you a second chance. The upshot of this is that no one seriously pays any attention to the law unless, like Silvio Berlusconi, the bastards won’t leave you alone. Southern Europe has an oral tradition – stories and advice are passed from one to another by talking, things are remembered (and avenged), the spoken word has authority. Northern Europe has a written or legalistic tradition and is more puritanical. Puritans don’t trust anyone to get anything right or survive any encounter with temptation and therefore tend to hold to a more ascetic philosophy. They like documents and contracts. The protestant countries prefer to try and control people and use prescriptive law making as a tool of the trade. This means ever increasing complexity in legal systems to try to unify two distinct groups of people. We want to make laws but half of Europe wants to spend ages wording them exactly right so that the other half of Europe can seemingly choose to ignore them at will. In Britain we have to cope with the principle of precedent as well (or in layman’s terms, endless interlocking loopholes), something which doesn’t really feature so much in “Roman” legal systems. Britain’s sits off the coast and is even more contrary than the rest because we don’t even have a national constitution, we don’t have citizens (we’re subjects or servants of her majesty) and hardly any of us actually own land or even the property we’re living in. Europe is weird but we’re weirder.
One thing Europe has done is to try and say that, no matter the different national arrangements, no one member should gain unfair advantage over the others, because that’s how wars start. Let’s not go too deeply into how a free trade area in Europe is deeply harmful to the Third World for now. Suffice to say that the EU is in the business of discouraging restrictive practices within its market by “equalisation”. If someone has a policy that is good for everyone in its country, but suffers a trade disadvantage as a result, then why not make it a common policy, so that no one loses out? And if someone introduces a rule that hinders a citizens freedom to live and work in another member state, that breaches European Employment law because it creates an artificial trade barrier. So why do UEFA want to impose the rule. Interestingly, they’ve never stated why. They say they’ve consulted with member associations and that the current ruling represents a “compromise”. It’s not a solution to an identifiable problem that UEFA are willing to state for the record. It’s actually addressing an inchoate perception that there are just “too many foreigners”. Hmm…interesting.
But lets pretend that fielding a club side with no Englishman in it harms the national team and hinders young English players development. Obviously ludicrous. Numerous cogent arguments have surfaced to highlight what arse-guff that is. Just to recap:
Chelsea’s billions, gained on the back of downtrodden Russian peasants, have further artificially inflated the prices of English players. Those prices were already getting beyond the level where any but a small handful of clubs could afford them. Are English youngsters so damn good that their price is at a premium? If so, that is an argument in favour of the foreign influence. In fact they are over-priced simply because clubs want to repay the inordinate cost of schooling them. If you then decide to pick your academy wholly from English kids, you limit the pool of talent you are spending punters hard earned, and hard spent, money on - reducing the possibility of obtaining a few world class players for your £4m a season. The top clubs run academy’s that basically supply 97% of their output to the lower leagues. We currently have the best crop of young English players in years in the national side. This is because the competition within academies is fiercer and the standard has gone up because of, yes, foreign players. It was our exclusion from European competition due to hooliganism that cost our national side the most. Isolated from Europe we couldn’t put together a world-class 5-a-side team in the 80’s. We are getting back to our best under Swedish management with young players playing every week in multi-national teams. The Foreigners are good for the national side. Oh, and just so you know, Liverpool contested the league cup final in 1986 with not one Englishman on the pitch and no one gave a monkeys. And it just so happens Arsenal have more than a handful of top class English internationals, but they were ill, injured, suspended, on loan, or a bit too young on the day in question.
There is a much more obvious reason for the outrage in these islands to Arsenals latest league squad and the current of support for UEFA intervention, and it has nothing to do with the success of England at the next World Cup. We are chauvinists. We are an island nation, insular and sullen and paranoid. We are also coping with once being the Worlds greatest imperial power. It would be ridiculous to explain to an alien visitor to Britain now that the country “it” finds itself in, used to run the whole place. But hey, that’s earth! Fucking weird. Our paranoia stems from the fact that we always kept getting invaded and some of us think that complex technical jargon has replaced the longship and the Dornier. We are seen by Europe as needlessly reactionary because Europe is saying “You lost an Empire, why not have a part share in a potentially even greater one?” They don’t understand why we wouldn’t find that a very enticing offer. Fact is, we don’t trust them as far as Fatima Whitbread could throw one of them. We want to be protected. And football, as the nations no.1 sport, provides a signal example of this.
Basically foreigners cheat. It doesn’t matter where they come from – if they’re not British, they are obviously up to something. We know that Argentineans venerate the brilliance of getting away with a handball, invading a tiny remote part of the Commonwealth without warning, or sneakily getting anal sex instead of normal coitus when they have a lady at the point of no return. We know that Jurgen Klinsmann learned not to dive in England and was rehabilitated and loved for it and was allowed to open fetes. We know that Machiavelli, Rasputin and Radziwill are not good English names. We know now that Napoleon’s spies knew Wellingtons’ every move and we also know Robert Pires can’t stay on his feet if he’s breathed on. It’s hardly surprising that the most un-English of teams, Arsenal, are routinely accused in a sing-song fashion of “always cheating” even by the likes of Sheffield United. Ironic though that it was they who were witness to one of the few genuine acts of sportsmanship in the modern game when we offered to replay a cup match we’d already won because two of our “foreigners” didn’t understand an unwritten custom of the “English” game. Britons think football is a contact sport, played by tough uncompromising yeoman and that diving is a crime. Like the French and democracy, you can’t tell us anything about Football – because we invented it. You won’t find more dogma in an Englishman talking about any other subject. A team playing with not one Englishman is basically, common wisdom presents, a team with not one upstanding, honest, loyal, hard working professional in it. Where is the “balance”? Outrageous.
There is also a belief that Arsenal, and others, are “English” clubs. They’re for “English” people. Because they were founded more than a hundred years ago in England, therefore, they MUST have 4 “English players” in there squad by 2008 or else. Now I grant you, there’s a certain gratifying one-upmanship if you were born in Islington and were given your first Clock End season ticket at the age of 5 by your old Dad, no question. But the modern AFC are so much bigger than that. They are the 6th biggest football team by income in the world, with global appeal. It isn’t only churlish, but commercially reprehensible, to deny access to the greatest of sporting brands to all, but a handful of people in a North London borough or even the country. And I should also point out at this stage that this is the club that bought a Japanese player just to sell merchandise in Tokyo. They didn’t keep him. He wasn’t good enough. I don’t care who you are, you can teach the current Arsenal board absolutely ser-weet FA about hardheaded commercial realism. Arsenal FC is a commercial enterprise. It’s not yet a franchise, but it would be pretty simple to register the club in another country if you wanted. I’m not saying I approve of that idea. But I love Arsenal for many more reasons than the fact that they’re “English”. I noticed that I quite easily recognised the team playing the other night against Palace as being genuinely and wholly Arsenal.
Britons, under the same system that brings us an array of quality players from all over Europe and elsewhere, are free to go and work abroad. But most of them don’t and many of them think that they can’t. Michael Owen did. British observers of La Liga are outraged that Owen is not starting ahead of home-grown Raul based on form. Are they suggesting Luxemburgo has some sort of prejudice against the English? How hypocritical can you get? Be that as it may, monolingual hide-bound Britons aren’t taking advantage of this golden opportunity to increase our quality of life and work in droves. And the irony is that it is often the most intelligent, talented and well-educated of us who are in demand abroad who actually do go. (And, by the way, there is nothing to stop you – yet - if young Johnny shows a bit of promise as a left back, from getting him schooled at Ajax, PSV, Juventus or wherever else looks like a nice place to spend a few years). Meanwhile, we express apoplectic rage about relatively small numbers of people seeking asylum from other countries in the UK, conveniently forgetting about the stacks of menial jobs that we lazy Britons can’t face (usually involving cleaning up after ourselves) that we allow legions of Portuguese and East Europeans to do; pick leeks and clean toilets for us. And we have the nerve to complain that our island is too small to accommodate them. This place was always chocker – that’s what is good and bad about it. People have always wanted to come here. As soon as there are no more toilets to clean or leeks to pick, that will be the day when some of the manifold inequalities across Europe have hopefully been ironed out.
I used to love the story about Britain being a net contributor of tax to the EU and Spain being a net recipient of grants. And as they have a siesta in Spain and as Britain had so many fine civil engineering companies, there were afternoons when, effectively, the British taxpayers were paying the Spaniards to build roads, schools and hospitals for them, while they had a kip. That can sound like injustice and I used to think it was. In fact, though, it is eminently sensible. As with football, they are playing the modern game properly, whilst we are sitting there, getting steamed up to the point of a rash tackle. The impression we have is that we are upright citizens being cheated by sneaky foreigners (and I think Europe knows, from bitter experience, that such a view is, for a minority, the starting point for some pretty unpleasant views). The truth is that we do not take (and most of us have never taken) enough of an interest in Europe to find out where our money goes and ensure it is spent for the general good of everyone. Despite not participating in the Euro, our trade with Europe hasn’t suffered nearly as much as many economists suspected it would. We’re doing very well indeed as it goes. We’re taxed less for starters. We have never paid back the Marshall plan money whilst the Germans had to absorb the mess that was the former GDR. And southern Europe had economies skewed towards tourism and horticulture and had never developed the number of different income streams that we have. Other Northern European powers were just too small as nations to have the critical mass necessary to diversify, take new industrial opportunities, or simply provide a urgent domestic demand that is the starting point for international success. Only France is a serious competitor for most successful European nation. We still innovate enough in services to keep ourselves afloat, despite decimating our own manufacturing sector, and we’re very good with money so the rest of the world is happy to let us look after it for them. We may pay a bit more of our tax to Europe than we get back in grants, but as long as we continue to be one of the most successful economies in the Union we should expect that.
But still we think we’re being robbed. And the rest of Europe thinks we’re childish and faintly ridiculous. We fail to participate in Europe, but snivel “it’s not fair” every time we lose out on something. And we persist with this because of our own perverted self-image. Our chauvinism is completely unfounded. We’re not the best people in the world, though I concede some of us have our moments. We don’t have a god-given right to win the World cup or host the Olympics just because of who we are. An all-English team may never again win the league and we have to suck that one up as well. We don’t have a monopoly on righteousness, honesty or fairness.
What we do with this information is up to us. But my advice is to become citizens of the world and start to compete in it. The Britons who built the empire didn’t need a leg up or someone to arbitrate in their favour. Admittedly, they took advantage of the situation that was already in their favour at the other fella’s expense (usually someone of a different colour, actually). The chickens have come home to roost now. The people of earth no longer recognise the Brits as their lords and masters and are competitive and hungry and keen to get on. Our response is either to turn inwards and try and preserve this island as a museum to backwardness. Or it is to get stuck in ourselves. By that I mean, learn a foreign language; go on holiday to a place abroad that doesn’t serve sausage and chips to sunburnt tattooed skinheads; consider working abroad for a while (or take a look at the youth development set up in PAOK Salonika). And, above all be honest about the fact that, sure, the world can appear to be a bit unfair on you at times, but it is a world that is far, far, far more unfair on many millions of others, and has actually been set up to be as equitable as possible to you as a citizen, so quit your fucking whining and appreciate it. Don’t beg for someone to artificially tip the pitch in your favour. Play the game that you have exactly the same right and chance to win as any other European.
As for the referendum on an EU Constitution, actually I’m voting “No”. And that’s because I do understand the question. Britain has never had one. Europe works well enough without one. I only have to look at Cesc Fabregas to know that.