Interview conducted by Guilherme Becker
On the second floor of the Oeconomicum building at Georg-August-Universität, in Göttingen, Germany, during a cold and cloudy afternoon of the end of November, British Labour Party politician Michael Hindley gets ready for a very interesting talk with the “Euroculturer Magazine”.
Former member of the European Parliament (EP) from 1984 until 1999, Michael Hindley was born in 1947 in Blackburn and since 2007 acts as an expert for European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). Graduated in French and German studies at London University in 1968, he finished his Master’s Degree in Comparative Cultural Studies at Lancaster University in 1979 and a Postgraduate Diploma in International Law at the University of South Wales in 2011. Full of historical perspectives, some of which he had just previously shared in two Euroculture classes in Göttingen, in this interview he gives his views about Brexit, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Far-Right and, of course, the European Union.
Attentive, friendly, humorous and aware that the interviewer is Brazilian, he quickly broke the ice mentioning something that unites Europeans – and the whole world – in many ways: football.
– Roberto Firmino [Liverpool striker] is a great player and used to form a great duo with Philippe Coutinho. They knew exactly where each other was on the field. But now that Coutinho is with Barcelona, in England fans say that Firmino is still looking for him.
– Well, one is gone, another one stayed… In the end, it may be a kind of Brexit! – I answered.
Becker: After two very interesting lectures here in Göttingen, I wouldn’t have any other question to start this interview instead of: Do you believe in the European Union?
Hindley: Oh, yes. I have always been a critical supporter. I have always remained on the Left politics, so I am a natural reformer. I have never been romantically against the status quo, I have always been in politics to change things. The European Union (EU) is a framework which I think that has been very politically useful and which I have always been committed to reforming rather than simply admiring.
B: Reforming like…
H: Well, issues of accountability or transparency when compared to national government. Just two quick examples: the EU Commission which is virtually the administration or the civil service has much more of a public profile than in a nation state and also much power of influence than in a nation state. The other example one is the Council of Ministers, which is a kind of executive. They still meet in secret, they are not obliged to really give an account of their decision and their voting.
B: Some days ago, European leaders actually agreed the UK’s Brexit at Brussels summit. In class, you said that you still have some hope that it is not going to happen. But what do you really think of it? Is it a one-way journey or is there any way of getting back?
H: Getting back is always possible. Things change in politics. Firstly, I do not think that certain issues should be decided by a referendum. But once you have a referendum, it’s democratic and it’s logical that you have put that into effect. If the UK Parliament decides to accept May’s deal, then we have to accept it. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t, first of all, make the best deal possible with Europe. We have to work out now trade cooperation agreements which have to be beneficial to both sides. That doesn’t rule out that in some future Britain might rejoin it. Speaking as a Left politician, I think that Britain would not so much wish to join the EU as it is, but I hope in the meantime the EU reforms itself and we can return to be part of a reformed European Union. I am very sorry that the British Left will not be in the EU to be part of that reform process. Stepping out of the EU is not only diplomatically and economically negative, but it goes against my instincts, as a reformer, that you have to be inside the organization, inside the institutions that you wish to reform. Now after Brexit, we will be spectators, not the participants.
B: In one of the classes, you said that maps seem to be always equal, at least for a long period of time, but that suddenly can change as well. The Soviet Union is the best example for Europe as the European map was redesigned after the fall of the Berlin Wall. If Brexit really happens, is there any chance of Britain one day getting back to the European Union map?
H: I think so. I don’t think the UK will disintegrate, but the EU itself will change. And it is changing. So, a changed Europe could be more attractive to the British people than the present one. But getting back to my point: we are not part of that process. The problem of the EU is that in all mature democracies the institutions keep the same titles but as they mature, their nature changes. The European Union is a structure that was designed in the late fifties for the post-war, in the Cold War era. And that world no longer exists. Being positive, it needs to be adjusted. And, in many ways, EU institutions are blocking the necessary changes.
B: A changing that can actually come in an economic way.
H: Yes, yes. And the same problem you see around the world, where large numbers of people who are supposed to be represented by those institutions don’t feel much confidence in those institutions.
B: Especially in England?
H: In Britain, yes, but everywhere the voting numbers are coming down. And certainly in Europe where the interest, the identification with Europe has actually gone down. The voting figures go down. The number of people who feel part of those decisions and have some influence on those decisions goes down.
B: Especially among the oldest ones, doesn’t it?
H: No, not that especially. I wouldn’t say that.
B: But in the case of the British referendum, the youngest ones voted to stay.
H: In Britain, well, yes, that’s true. But I think that’s because, as I was trying to say in the lecture, the younger generations have a practical experience of Europe. They are not idealistic Europeans. They are not Europeans because they remember the Nazis or World War 2, nor have they seen nationalistic campaigns which are destructive. They are Europeans because they have German girlfriends, they work in Denmark, they have personal experience of ordinary life in Europe. When I was growing up it was as overwhelmingly people in academia who studied or lived in other European countries.
B: These youngsters grew up in a unique, united continent already.
H: Yes, indeed. They have that flexibility and that mobility that has been created by the EU. So that sense in Britain of being European rather is ability, facility that they have grown up with. And it means that they are disappointed when they see their chances being stopped. It doesn’t mean that they have identification with the EU and its institutions. Europe is the world that they have grown up in.
B: On the other hand, there are older generations that haven’t grown up in this kind of world. Perhaps the Brexit referendum was actually decided by these oldest voters from the countryside of the UK that still have a feeling of England being its islands and its empire, thinking that “ok, we are still England and we have so much to do instead of taking care of or being part of Europe”, for example.
H: There is no question about it. It’s older people who are worried – those who have retired or coming up to retirement who have seen the steady prospects that they grew up with, like jobs for life, like decent pensions, vanishing. Large areas of the country – former industrial areas – are wasted. It is the discontented in working class areas who swing the vote. The “left-behinds”. They had more or less accepted membership of the EU. But recently, as more decisions seen to be made in Brussels, more they blame Brussels for their lack of success and lack of prospects. They are the ones that only go abroad for holidays. But they do have nostalgic nationalistic memories, you know, British winning the war, Britain having an Empire – it’s more a class issue than a geographical issue. After Brexit the big shock was Trump. He and other populists have succeeded where mainstream politicians had failed, or given up. That was to motivate the discontented, the “left-behinds”. Traditional working class Labour voters gave up voting Labour because they felt their party had abandoned them. But the populists managed to motivate those people. So the huge challenge for conventional parties, across the board, and certainly the progressive parties, is to reconnect with the electorate which once had their confidence.
B: Still speaking about the UK, but going a bit up, Scotland voted against the leaving and right after the Brexit referendum there was a strong feeling of separatism there. I don’t think that there is any chance of this happening in a near future. But what would you say about it?
H: The major reason for the rise of support for Scottish independence, in recent years, has been disappointment with what England has done, or failed to do for Scotland. Scotland has contributed massively to Britain’s success and also to the expansion of the British Empire. Administrators, engineers, soldiers and so on… So certainly the political elite, as you may call it, in Scotland, more or less not only came to terms with being part of Britain but succeed within it. Scotland’s industrial working class was the strongest bastion of Labour votes. The anti-Englishness could be also channelled in party political terms. Labour was a natural home for many working class and progressive Scots. What rapidly happened in what is called “New Labour Period” was the perception in Scotland that even a Labour government was not doing really much for Scotland. The discontent was not simply against the British political class, but also against Labour in power. Labour didn’t seem to be doing anything to reward Scottish Labour voters. Scotland is still poorer than Britain. If you have been to Scotland, you have noticed that.
B: Unfortunately, I have never been there yet.
H: You must go! The Scottish nationalists started appealing to that discontented Labour voters. The SNP’s (Scottish National Party) became more of a Centre/Left party appealing to Labour’s disillusioned core voters.
B: It’s a kind of self-criticism of you on the Labour Party.
H: Yes. Also, certain elements in Scotland had always identified with Europe as a way of being anti-English. The last great rebellion of the Scots against the English rule, in 1745, was lead by the clans, the Scottish aristocracy who believed they could count on support from France.
B: Which didn’t happen.
H: Same with Ireland. England’s continental enemies, Spain, France, offered support and hope for independence from England.
[To be continued…
The second part of this interview will be published shortly.]