Return from my travels around Europe

I’m home safely from my European Odyssey now but what did I actually learn? Apart from the fact that I’m definitely getting too old for this kind of travel, that is. I’m afraid I actually put my back out at Tallinn airport on the way home. Oh, the indignity of having to ask for help getting my rucksack up onto the x-ray belt and of having to phone home and ask to be met at the airport back in the UK. Fortunately, it was only a muscular spasm and I recovered everything except my sang froid after a couple of days rest. However, plans are already bubbling up in my mind for an Interrail trip with my two eldest granddaughters when they reach their teens. How nice to have someone to manage all the small print on the “apps and maps” that are such a fundamental part of getting around these days and how wonderful to be able to take them to some of my favourite places while they are still young enough to believe that Grandma knows what she is talking about.

On a cultural note it was quite wonderful to re-connect with both Venice and Cordoba in such idyllic conditions. The ancient cities of neither Northern Italy nor Southern Spain make suitable destinations for lightning visits: it is too easy to have a single venue trip ruined by bad weather or crowds of tourists but I seem to have picked the perfect time of year and those two destinations alone made the trip worthwhile. On the subject of weather, I was probably taking a big chance on Northern Norway and Eastern Romania but I really loved being able to take further little bites out of two contrasting European countries for which I have developed a great affection in recent years.

Having visited twelve countries and passed through another eight, I can definitely confirm that homogenisation is continuing its relentless march across the continent. From the HUF (Hungarian Forint) to the NOK (Norwegian Krona) the non-Euro currencies are becoming almost irrelevant as every purchase (even that bane of every traveller – the coin operated public toilet) is being converted to contactless payment. Nearly all packaged goods have their ingredients and instructions listed in multiple languages; so many in fact that the print is becoming invisibly small. If Nationalism is really on the rise in the patchwork of countries in Central Europe then it is going to have to contend with an inexorable tide of Convenience.

But standardisation does not necessarily imply unity and so I was interested to find out whether the people I met in the (mostly) EU countries that I visited were fully supportive of their membership of the European Union. It seemed clear to me that while they were just as keen to have a moan about the “Brussels Bureaucrats” as we in the UK used to be, they were all completely united on one thing. “Brexit is a terrible idea”. I conversed with many people who were sympathetic to our predicament and a few with cogent theories about how it came about but not one who would have been willing to trade places with us.

Distance did, however, give me a chance to reflect on the ridiculous antics going on in the British political system, now being shown up across the world as totally ill-equipped to deal with the current constitutional crisis. The Mother of Parliaments has become a pitiful orphan of the storm. And all because a self-congratulatory group of public-school “career politicians”, the Cotswolds Cadre, played fast and loose with the electorate by calling for a referendum on EU membership without having any coherent plans about what to do next. Perhaps they overlooked the fact that they had recently declared that a period of harsh austerity was absolutely necessary for economic recovery while simultaneously defending the most egregious expenses scandal that has ever seen the light of day. Perhaps they didn’t understand just how much social mobility has been eroded since the introduction of monetarism in the 1980s. Or perhaps, safe in what has become known as the “Westminster Bubble” they knew but just didn’t care.

However it came about it must have lit a fuse under the simmering discontent of the “working poor”, the people in receipt of “in-work benefits” who struggle with “zero-hours contracts” and further “erosions of worker rights” until they cannot afford to pay their rent and have to face the humiliation of visiting “food banks” in order to feed their families. Surely all of the italicised phrases in this last sentence should be obscenities in 2019 and, even if the moneyed classes are not ashamed that such blinding inequality has overtaken the country, they should not be surprised that so many people saw Brexit as a vote for change at any cost. Of course the 51.9% didn’t have any idea of the consequences of a leave vote; neither did the people calling for the vote in the first place. It took getting away from the Brexit voters for a few weeks for me to understand what had happened to them. They may not have voted for anything other than an unsubstantial promise to “take back control” but they certainly knew what or who they were voting against. And I can no longer find it in my heart to blame most of them for what has been unleashed.

The UK did not leave the EU on the 29th March after all, nor did it leave on the first extension date of the 12th April and, when I popped across the channel to take the kids to Nausicaa on the 13th April, the Frenchman in the passport booth actually snarled at me. As we soldier on without agreement towards the European Parliament elections on the 23rd May and then a probable series of further delays until October, I think I can perceive a collective letting out of breath and a growing tendency to change the subject. If enough people want the whole thing to “just go away” without either side having to admit that they were wrong perhaps some pressing international crisis will rush in to fill the news void and we can all pretend that the last couple of years just didn’t happen.

Me, I’m off to the USA later in the month to see how to really dismantle a democracy in a couple of easy stages.

Categories: Britain, Europe

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