Europe Endless: on unity, borders, and the risk of forgetting.

(NB: this was written in 2016, before I knew the results of the vote, and at a time when a strong Tory government leading an ideological Brexit was unconscionable to me (it still is, of course, but the Tories are now demonstrably weak). Political positions have shifted now, and my own position has likewise developed. I remain a committed internationalist and stand by what I have written; but I do not wish to be tarred with the single-issue #FBPE brush. With hindsight, I wish I had placed more emphasis on the violences of the EU, and had offered a critique of the conflation of Europe and the European Union. — JM, 2018.)

A 5 note with Ralf Hütter on it. [source]

In 2009, Mute Records re-issued what is popularly considered the canonical Kraftwerk back catalogue (that is, everything from Autobahn on). A friend approached me and asked if I would write some brief reviews for the publication he was editing at the time. I excitedly agreed — Kraftwerk are one of my most beloved bands — and set to work immediately.

In my review of Trans-Europe Express, I wrote:

We begin with a twinkling synth line like distant city lights: the quietly euphoric ‘Europe Endless’, at once jerky and lulling, is a sort of electronic pastoral, painting a picture of a unified, borderless Europe: no Cold War, no Berlin Wall. The album deals with the collapsing of borders both literal and figurative: the eerie ‘Hall of Mirrors’ — a precursor to late-period Joy Division — describes the merging of self and reflection (‘The artist is living in the mirror / with the echoes of himself’), and even in ‘Showroom Dummies’ (a sly, bouncy retort to a reviewer’s snipe at the band’s static stage shows), the dummies ‘break the glass’, bursting forth into the real world.
The title track, which continues on through ‘Metal on Metal’ and ‘Abzug’ uses continental rail travel, across borders, as a metaphor for unity and freedom. It’s an expansive, graceful merging of train-rhythms, stuttering and clanging, with deafening, glassy synth lines and immersive Doppler-effect sound shifts that fluxes with a screech of brakes into ‘Franz Schubert’ — more city lights, shimmering and iridescent, calm and constant.

Collapsing borders, unity, freedom — a merging of disparate elements that dissonate, that can operate against one another, and that yet form a whole. To that girl, writing in 2009, under a centre-left Labour government committed — for better and for worse — to internationalism, Trans-Europe Express was an album about the Cold War, about the lived experience of a divided Germany, about a continent attempting to piece itself back together as the blood and ashes of numberless, needless deaths soaked, irrevocably, into the soil. Never again, we all said. Lest we forget, and never again. Half resolution, half prayer. Unity had to be possible. It just had to.

Today it is the 23rd of June: the date of the EU referendum. It’s grey and muggy outside, the air thick with moisture and pollen. All the sounds of an English summertime combine in the air: aeroplane drones, the wonky chimes of an ice-cream van, the occasional squeal of a child. I’m indoors, sitting on my bed, avoiding the news, waiting until my partner finishes work so that we can go and cast our votes together. And I’m listening to Trans-Europe Express.

A peculiar thing about being a millennial (which I am, just barely: I turned 18 in the year 2000) is that one tends to have grown up immersed in postmodernism. The author is dead, intent isn’t magic; old certainties and structures and traditions are no longer something sacred and unassailable. Cultural references are social currency, and all things can and shall be reinterpreted. This is often playful and productive, but can, if we are not careful, lead us, without our realising, into a dangerous ahistoricity — which is ironic, considering the postmodernist movement’s philosophical grounding in Marxism. (Irony has always been the stock-in-trade of postmodernity.) A dangerous ahistoricity, yes: dangerous because we risk forgetting; dangerous because we risk erasing valid and important struggles and contexts; and dangerous because we risk imposing our own narratives over the top of stories and of voices that deserve to be heard.

I worry that this is what I am doing when I listen to Trans-Europe Express today — that I’m misappropriating a hymn to unity written and performed by people whose nation was not only divided and militarised, but was also still recovering from the trauma of dictatorship, and genocide, and war. What right have I to turn this into something that reflects my own fear and sadness at the possibility of Brexit? I was 10 years old when the Maastricht Treaty was signed (though, as always with the UK, with numerous special conditions and opt-outs), and I was brought up to consider myself a citizen of Europe: to reject the insular conservatism of English tradition and instead look outward, to see that “no man is an island”. How can I lay any kind of claim to these songs and their meanings?

I think it comes back to the risk of forgetting: of failing to acknowledge that the Europe I take for granted was born out of these very same longings for unity and kinship. Trans-Europe Express connects me to that time, to those feelings; it stokes my sense of justice and collectivity, and it reminds me that this peace and freedom was not conceptualised or crafted by the UK, but rather was given to us: a gift.

The dream of a borderless Europe has never been a dream in which the UK has participated. For a start, we declined to participate in the Schengen Agreement, which took effect in 1995 (a decision which — imperialism klaxon — forced Ireland to opt out, too). Add to this the fact that, as an island nation, our borders have been clearly delineated for over 500 years — prior to the Battle of Castillon in 1453, the English nobility and monarchy held significant territories in France, a state of affairs dating back to the Norman Conquest of 1066 — and a picture begins to emerge of a national identity formed as much around those whom it excludes as those it includes.

(“We haven’t been invaded since 1066!” is the proud battle-cry of the xenophobic English exceptionalist. They are often talking about immigration.)

So British —used here, as in popular discourse, as a cypher for English — identity is constructed, then, in the negative: it is the closed door, the battened-down hatches, the presence of absence. Our national anthem celebrates not landscape or people or values, but whichever rent-a-monarch happens to be occupying the throne; our de facto second anthem, Rule Britannia, tells us not what Britons are, but what they are not (“slaves”, apparently — a statement whose class and racial implications are as broad as they are vile, which is to say very). Even the National Health Service, that beacon of post-war European values that our current government are doing their best to turn into its own absence, is repurposed as a weapon of exclusion. When Eurosceptic politicians invoke the NHS to make arguments against EU membership, the message is clear: these foreigners, these outsiders, these others are a direct threat to your wellbeing, and to the strength of the state. Even the pro-Remain camp are guilty of this, with their risibly-named “Britain Stronger In Europe” campaign — as though strength is the highest and best of values to which a nation state could aspire. As though it is imperative that the UK be the strongest; as though strength is, somehow, an identity. As though ‘strength’ means anything other than ‘power over’. (This all echoes, and strongly, the Foucauldian notion of biopower, most succinctly described — and with reference to European statehood — in his Security, Territory, Population).

With British identity asserted so forcefully as a negative, then, it is instructive to ask what is being negated. What’s lost? What’s erased? What’s forgotten?

When we think of the Second World War, we think, perhaps, of the Blitz, of ration books and absent bananas— of stoic islanders keeping calm and carrying on. We think, perhaps, of the Battle of Britain, which deterred Hitler’s Reich from mounting a ground invasion of the British Isles. We think, in other words, in terms of absences and lacks; in insular and inward-looking terms that place this tiny island at the centre of both the war and the world. As William Dalrymple writes, in his review of Yasmin Khan’s The Raj At War:

The British always liked to believe they stood alone in 1940, a plucky little island defying the massed ranks of fascists and Nazis. What we tend to forget, as [Yasmin] Khan reminds us, is that ‘Britain did not fight the second world war, the British empire did.’ Nearly 20 years ago, Antony Beevor reminded us that for most of the war the majority of German troops were facing not westwards over the channel, towards Britain and the US, but eastwards towards Stalin’s Russia… Khan performs a similar service when she points out that no less than five million citizens of the British empire joined the military services between 1939 and 1945, and that almost two million of these, ‘the largest volunteer army in history’, were from South Asia. At many of Britain’s greatest victories and at several of the war’s most crucial turning points — El Alamein, Monte Cassino, Kohima — a great proportion of ‘British’ troops were not British at all, but Indian.

Likewise, during the early years of the NHS, a significant number of medical professionals were actively recruited from India, Pakistan, and the Caribbean nations. (Enoch Powell himself (CW: racial slurs, racism, white supremacy) was an ardent supporter of this policy.) And yet, so firmly is the identity of the NHS constructed around exclusivist notions of ‘Britishness’ that in April of this year, the Daily Mail published a frothing piece of ragebait about the government’s plan to recruit just 400 doctors from India — a typically ungrateful piece that not only helped to set the dismal discursive tone for the referendum debate, but, more importantly, disavows the fundamental role of Indian doctors in the formation of the NHS.

How easily we forget.

There are many opportunities for well-founded leftist critiques of the European Union as it exists today (see, for just one example, this article, in French, or a rather poor-quality translation here). The free movement of labour and capital sit at the heart of the neoliberal project, and must be challenged and resisted at every opportunity. There is a creeping sense of anti-trade unionism within current EU labour law. The patrician attitude of the Northern nations towards the Southern nations, most acutely reflected in Germany’s shameful treatment of Greece, is disgusting, anti-democratic, disempowering and more than a little racist. The most powerful nations in the Union (again, I’m looking at you, Germany), are headed by centre-right neoliberal parties, which doubtless inflects the tone and content of debates within the corridors of power.

None of these are excuses or defensible reasons to have voted leave today. I have encountered a not-insignificant number of (invariably white, male, and middle-class) self-proclaimed Marxists who have proudly and loudly declared their intentions to vote leave, on vague, abstract principles of anti-imperialism or international solidarity. This fails the two central ‘tests’ of any putative Marxist position: it is both ahistorical and anti-materialist. What do I mean by this? Marxist thought takes an approach known as historical materialism, which, simply put, asserts that we can learn much about the material (for Marx, primarily economic) conditions of the present by examining the material conditions of the past — their development, their crisis-points, how they have been defeated or redirected. A ‘Marxist’ leave vote fails to apply this analysis in two ways: firstly, it fails to look at material conditions prior to the UK’s entry to the EEC and eventual signing of Maastricht; and secondly, it fails to conside how material conditions might change were the UK to secede from the Union. A good example of this is in the field of workers’ rights —though they’ve never gone far enough, EU directives have nonetheless introduced important protections like limitations on working hours, health and safety legislation, measures to safeguard workplace equality, and employment rights for agency workers, as well as strengthening extant UK laws around maternity leave, equal pay, paid holidays, and disability. Under UK labour laws, workers have no statutory rights to a written contract; under EU law, however, a written contract must be agreed and signed within 28 days of the start of employment. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) states that:

Since the mid-1970s, the European Union has played an important role in protecting working people from exploitation and combating discrimination. These EU rights have provided an important counter-balance against pressure for the UK to adopt a US-style hire-and-fire culture where there is an absence of statutory employment rights…
In some cases laws that resulted directly from EU directives are now well accepted, for example around sexual orientation, age and religion or belief discrimination. But other rights would have been difficult to secure in the UK and would still be particularly vulnerable to attack if the UK were to vote to leave the EU. For example, UK governments strongly resisted equal treatment rights for agency workers, working time limits, and rights for workers to receive information and be consulted on changes in their workplace that could affect their jobs or terms and conditions.
As well as improving standards in EU Member States, EU employment law has sought to create a level playing field so that workers’ rights in one member state are not undermined by lower levels of protection in another. In the absence of these safeguards, it is likely that the single market would have resulted in a ‘race to the bottom’, with countries seeking to compete against each other on the basis of lower pay and reduced employment protections for workers.

To cast a vote in support of some abstract theoretical principle, rather than in support of improving the structural and material conditions of those whose cause you claim to uphold — particularly when there is so much at stake — stands counter to the principles of solidarity and compassion that are (or ought to be) central to any coherent leftist position. For many of us, the European Union is our last line of defence against exploitation and abject poverty. It is our lives that are at risk when you practice forgetting.

The EU is not perfect — how can it be? It is, in many ways, a merging of disparate elements that dissonate, that often operate against one another, and that yet, somehow, form a whole. Trans-Europe Express is more current, or perhaps timeless, than it might have seemed to me, back in 2009. The continent, and indeed, the Union itself, is — as Ralf Hütter sings on Europe Endless — composed of “real life, and postcard views”. The two extremes can co-exist: the material realities, ever shifting, ever dissonant, ever in need of negotiation and resistance; and the “postcard views” — the idea, the dream, the gift of a continent exhausted from centuries of war and division finally calm, finally whole; at peace, at last.

The risk of forgetting is too great; and so I listen, to remember.