I passed this street sign whilst walking from my hotel to the station following a meeting at Den Helder in The Netherlands last week and could not resist taking a photograph. Anton van Leeuwenhoek was the Dutchman credited with the invention of the microscope (see “The Invention of microscopy”). When I visited Delft, his home town, I was surprised at how little there was to commemorate him (in contrast to the celebration of the life of his friend Johannes Vermeer), so it was nice to see him remembered in another part of The Netherlands.
I was in Den Helder to attend a meeting of European ecologists responsible for implementation of the Water Framework Directive, the first such meeting since UK’s referendum vote to leave the EU back in June and, not surprisingly, a lot of the discussion over mealtimes and during coffee breaks centred on the implications of this. At dinner time, I sat with a group including Poles, an Estonian, a Lithuanian and a Hungarian, all of whom saw the European Union in very different terms to those expressed by UK’s “Brexiteers”. All of those countries have been invaded twice in the last century and they see the EU as a source of security and prosperity, rather than in the negative terms that were expressed during the UK referendum debate. The Estonian and Lithuanian had been part of the “Baltic Chain”, a peaceful protest that was part of the movement for independence in the Baltic States. I had the sense that these people knew rather more about oppressive stifling bureaucracies than any of the politicians and journalists who had led the “leave” campaign in the UK.
That these conversations were held over dinner in a converted fortress, Fort Kijkduin, only added to my sense that the UK public had been duped by a group of politicians with a selective – and distorted – view of history. The fort had been built on Napoleon’s orders, using local labour and Spanish prisoners of war. At the entrance there is a diorama depicting 18th century Dutch soldiers repelling a British landing party. Downstairs in the museum there is part of the wing of a Messerschmitt 109 shot down in the vicinity. States and empires ebb and flow through small countries such as The Netherlands, in a way that an island nation such as the UK can barely understand and this, in turn, shapes a sense of purpose for the European Union that the narrow-minded politicians of the British Right will never comprehend. There is no lack of national pride among my European colleagues, but what they have that many in the UK lack is a sense of the EU as a bulwark not just against outside threats, but also against a worst-case-scenario that emanates from within. Almost every EU State has been occupied or controlled by another State within the lifetime of its oldest inhabitants; many of those occupiers came from other EU States. That the UK has not feeds, I fear, a theory of British Exceptionalism within politicians of the Right, but also means that many in the UK simply don’t “get” the EU in the same way as most of my European colleagues.
The same group of people also expressed anxiety about the future of the EU without the UK’s participation. Much of my own engagement with the EU over the past decade has involved finding consensus among Member States on the implementation of the Water Framework Directive. Countries come with different positions on the correct interpretation of the wording of Directives, and argue their case vigorously at meetings such as these. Some of those to whom I spoke were concerned that the exit of a large and vocal country that generally adopted moderate standpoints on environment policy would put smaller countries such as theirs at a disadvantage. Several, too, suggested, optimistically, that Brexit might never happen …
Traveling back towards Schiphol Airport on the train, I reflected ruefully that Brexit is not just the cause of great economic uncertainty (which hit me with every purchase made during my short time in The Netherlands) but also reputational damage to the UK. It was hard not to leave The Netherlands without feeling that many in Europe now think that ours is a small island with some Very Silly Politicians.
Fort Kijkduin, near Den Helder in The Netherlands.