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Euro-division: Why the UK Can't Get Its Euro Relationships Right

27/05/2015 12:26 BST | Updated 26/05/2016 10:59 BST

Politics, human rights, popular culture: in all these aspects of life in the UK, we seem to be at odds with our relationship with our continental friends.

Spurred on by the challenge posed by Nigel Farage's UK Independence Party, David Cameron's referendum on Britain's membership of the EU, as promised in the pre-election Conservative party manifesto, is now starting to loom closer. Another part of the manifesto is to scrap the Human Rights Act - with the further implication that if British courts are still not allowed to overrule the decisions of the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) - the UK would leave the auspices of the ECHR itself.

On a lighter, note, in last Saturday's Eurovision Song Contest, the UK came a disappointing fourth from bottom, with just three countries (our neighbours Ireland, ex-British colony Malta and the tiny micro-state San Marino) giving us points. Calls, serious and otherwise, to leave the song contest abound. Political antipathy towards the UK? Perhaps, but that didn't stop near-pariah state Russia coming second. Nope, sadly, as I've argued before - and specifically this year - it's all down to us entering a pretty rubbish song, in this case, chosen by a clandestine team at the BBC, headed by Guy Freeman.

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The logic of the UK's current antipathy to all three "Euro" institutions, each of which were formed in the 1950s in a post-war haze, goes something like this: as the home of the "mother of Parliaments", why should we give power to Brussels? As the land of the Magna Carta and a longstanding independent judiciary, why should we give credence to Strasbourg and the EHCR? And as the birthplace of the Beatles and Coldplay, why should we watch or participate in Eurovision with anything other than fond disdain? The overarching, and slightly arrogant feeling running through the veins of many a Brit, is that we're a bit better than our European friends. This arrogance is founded on a few kernels of truth (our democracy pre-dates most of our EU brethren; our record on human rights is generally excellent, stemming from the 1689 Bill of Rights and other laws before and after; and our pop music is world-class). However, the antipathy to all three remains somewhat puzzling in light of the hugely diminishing status of the United Kingdom as a world power since the end of the Second World War.

The obvious thing that Nigel Farage, David Cameron and Guy Freeman all have in common is that they are all middle-aged, white, conservative men. Despite media howls of "political correctness" and the fears of the one-armed, lesbian Muslim single mother, the UK remains overwhelmingly and nearly exclusively run by a demographic minority of privately-educated, upper middle class men who by and large grew up in the South of England. No news there. The problem is that this Jeremy Clarkson archetype (also reflected in our new Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale) really hasn't the remotest positive connection to these three things Euro-denominated - but that doesn't mean that those positive aspects don't exist. It's only leaders of small and large businesses (or SME recipients of EU grant funding) who can have a sensible conversation about the trade and business benefits of EU membership. It's only those who have their rights trampled on or taken away who will tell you the importance of the ECHR rulings (inevitably those who have won in the ECHR against the UK are either people in a minority or those with no voice: transsexuals, homosexuals, children and prisoners). And it's only people who have a view and interest in a culture outsider their own who can appreciate something like the Eurovision song contest as anything other than laughable fluff.

Of course, none of the institutions are faultless. Reform is certainly key: a reduction in farming subsidies and an increase in both accountability, direct democracy and transparency are paramount within the EU. For human rights, there perhaps is a better balance in our own judiciary's interpretation of how much they have to "take into account" Strasbourg's judgements. As for Eurovision, I'd argue that it's our own relationship that needs re-examining. There are plenty of music professionals who are fans of the contest: even if the BBC choose not to go for a full public competitive national song contest (and there are good arguments why they should not), a working group committee of music professionals - and more importantly fans of the competition - would surely do a better job. The Swedish head of delegation Christer Björkman (the Swedish equivalent of Guy Freeman - Gunnar Friberg, if you will) was not only once a Eurovision entrant but also produces Scandinavia's most popular television show, Sweden's Melodifestivalen, which gives us Sweden's entrant to Eurovision - and with four top three placings (of which two were wins) in the last five years - very often the winner of the contest itself. Are we too arrogant to learn a thing or two from them?

In all our cries of Brexit, scrapping the ECHR and leaving Eurovision, it is our cultural, linguistic, monetary, legal and fiscal independence and individuality that we are trying to protect against an onslaught of decision-makers in Brussels, Strasbourg and beyond. In a slowly homogenising world, this nationalism comes as no surprise and nor are the arguments worth dismissing without debate. However, with no easy solutions on offer, it's our collective approach to solving the issues - reforming from the inside, participating and belonging - that will ensure that the Jeremy Clarksons of the UK are kept happy.

For Farage and for Freeman, my message is the same: work the system and please, change the record.

Photo credit: Thomas Hanses, EBU