I saw this SPD poster from the early 70s in the Willy-Brandt-Haus in Lübeck, a fascinating if necessarily selective memorial to the former German Chancellor and advocate for a new global development policy. It welcomes the UK, Ireland, Denmark and (!) Norway to the European Economic Community. Posted without further comment as UK MPs vote for Article 50 to be triggered.
I’ve had a lot of new experiences since I left academic life a couple of years ago. One has been the realisation that the ancient historians I used to research and their presentation of politics and politicians are not as far removed from the contemporary world as they sometimes used to seem. One question I kept asking myself in 2016 was ‘how would Tacitus [the subject of my thesis] and his peers have described the year’s events?’ Over Christmas, I decided to ‘reconstruct’ one possible answer – in English and Latin.
(For anyone whose Latin is a bit rusty: plays on words in the Latin version are highlighted – unfortunately it’s all but impossible to translate these literally, but I’ve marked what they literally mean in English.)
natio Belgarum divisa est in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Flandrici, aliam Wallones, tertiam Bruxellani. urbem eorum, sicut ego accepi, condidere atque habuere initio pauci Germanorum Gallorumque quod, compluribus bellis gestis, quandam concordiam in varietate petebant. hi postquam in una moenia convenere, dispari genere, dissimili lingua, alii alio more viventes, incredibile memoratu est quam facile coaluerint. sed ubi labore atque iustitia res publica crevit, nationes magnae sine bello consociatae, aemula pactio Varsoviae ab stirpe interiit, decretum denique omnes eodem auro uti, saevire fortuna ac miscere omnia coepit.
The country of the Belgians is divided into three parts, one inhabited by the Flemish, one by the Walloons, and the third by the people of Brussels. Their city, I hear, was initially founded and occupied by a few Germans and Gauls, since after several wars they were seeking a kind of unity in diversity. After they had come together in one place, with their divergent origins, different languages and individual ways of life, the story of how easily they became unified is incredible. But when their state had grown through hard work and fair dealing, great nations had joined them without any fighting, their rival the Warsaw Pact had been completely obliterated, and finally it had been decided that everyone should use the same currency, fortune began to rage and to throw everything into confusion.
It’s been another day of sweeping comparisons between the past and the present: this time, the slew of hysterical headlines responding to the UK high court’s ruling that a parliamentary vote will be required to trigger Article 50 have been seen to echo similar diatribes from 1930s Germany (and, interestingly, contemporary Poland). As I make clear every time I write about this, there are plenty of differences as well as similarities, although as 2016 goes by the feeling that we are living in a chapter of a history textbook is becoming more and more real. But the idea of ‘enemies of the people’ is not confined to Nazism: it goes back via the Russian and French revolutions all the way to ancient Rome. In that context it is often associated with the emperor Nero, who was declared a hostis publicus, or public enemy, after being deposed in AD 68 and died an ignominious death as he fled the city. But this was not the first or the most significant time someone was designated in this way.
This weekend I went to Xanten, near Duisburg in Germany, to visit its archaeological park, a large-scale reconstruction of an early Roman imperial settlement on the Rhine (the site is unlike any other I’ve been to and I highly recommend it). One of the recreated buildings juxtaposed politically-themed quotations from Latin authors with a photo of a modern parliament.
Explicit connections between past and present were not made and the visitor was left to draw his or her own conclusions: as I argued a few months ago when writing in the aftermath of Jo Cox’s murder about events in late republican Rome, it is not generally helpful to ask history to provide exact lessons for today. Developments in British politics in the last few days (and weeks, and months…) have been truly alarming, and I was particularly struck by the resemblance of Theresa May’s criticism of those ‘international elites’ who see themselves as ‘citizens of the world’ to passages in a speech made by Adolf Hitler in 1933, but once again the differences are as important as the similarities. The likelihood that the UK will go the same way as Germany in the 1930s is very low, not least as we have that awful warning. Still, at Xanten my attention was particularly drawn to the quotation quid leges sine moribus (see the picture above): what good are laws without morals? It is from the Odes, four books of poetry on a range of themes written by Quintus Horatius Flaccus (known in English as Horace) in the 20s and 10s BC.
It is not often that Portsmouth, a former home town of mine, is mentioned in the Brussels bubble, but recently it was reported that MMD Shipping, a cargo handling company owned since 2008 by Portsmouth City Council, is being investigated by the Commission for alleged breaches of EU state aid rules. The company – which handles, amongst other things, vast quantities of bananas – was taken over by the council when it was on the verge of failing and is said to have subsequently received financial assistance that could have given it an unfair advantage over competitors. Unsurprisingly, reporting has focused on the fact that this is the first competition investigation launched by the Commission since the UK referendum in June and may not be concluded before the UK exits the EU.
How has MMD Shipping fared in the eight years since it came into the ownership of the council? Not especially well, it appears. Portsmouth’s local newspaper reported in 2009 that the company was continuing to make losses. Although it seems to have broken even in 2010, employees were the subject of two major criminal investigations in subsequent years and in 2016 it has been dogged by industrial disputes. A local blogger has been highlighting a perceived lack of transparency in the council’s ownership of the company and asking some difficult questions. Portsmouth City Council’s stated intention when it bought MMD, to secure local jobs and infrastructure, was worthy, but it doesn’t seem to have made a great success of this unusual move.
[this review has also been published on the blog of the Library of the Council of the EU]
What is the best way to share information about the European Union’s institutions and activities with a diverse, diffuse and often uninterested public? This question, regularly posed over the past few decades, has in recent years come to be asked with ever increasing desperation. Bernd Spanier’s study, Europe, Anyone? The ‘Communication Deficit’ of the European Union Revisited, was published in 2012 and is based on a dissertation submitted in 2010, but many of the observations it makes are still highly relevant, perhaps even more so, in 2016.
(image from amazon.com)
Not that the EU’s problems began this year, of course. The wide-ranging chapter that follows the introduction to this work is a excellent summary of the major setbacks that beset the Union between the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 and the global financial problems of the late 2000s. The account of the Greek debt crisis can follow events only as far as 2011, but Spanier’s description of how referenda in the Netherlands and France stood in the way of the European Constitution’s ratification in 2005 is very instructive. This section includes some trenchant remarks on the unsuitability of popular votes in individual countries for deciding wider European issues, and his conclusion in passing that such votes ‘can be problematic when member states which usually adhere to a representative model of democracy suddenly resort to direct, plebiscitary models whenever fundamental decisions about Europe are to be taken’ (p. 31) looks all too appropriate today.
In the aftermath of the UK’s vote to leave the EU, there has been much debate about the consequences for how Europeans communicate. Will calls for English to cease to be an official EU language be heeded? If so, would native speakers of other languages feel less disadvantaged? Does Boris Johnson’s ability to read a speech in French make up for everything else?
However the next few months and years play out, the status of English as a common language in the institutions – and outside them, of course – is likely to endure. The erosion of the once all-powerful position of French, which began as the Union expanded north and east in the 1990s and 2000s, will not be reversed. This could ultimately mean that English, despite often being seen as the de facto working language of the EU (although in practice this varies), will not be the first official language of any of its member states.