Holiday Thoughts From Abroad

A fabulous fortnight in sunny Umbria prompts me to return to the topic of Europe.

Driving through Europe, you cannot help noticing how different some things are across the channel. First, the price of fuel is considerably less than it is here – a point made quite vociferously by the fuel protesters last year. However, using the excellent French motorways we paid about £30 in tolls to get from Calais to the Italian border, which more than cancelled out the saving in fuel costs – a point the protesters overlooked.

In Italy, the cost of the tolls was significantly less – but the quality of the roads was poorer as well. As Charlie Kennedy kept reminding us during the last election, you get what you pay for. The quality of any country’s infrastructure and public services depends crucially on the amount of money individuals and businesses contribute in tax. For several decades we in the UK have been trying to persuade ourselves that the less tax we pay the better.

The appalling state of our public services – health, education, social services, the police – have caused many of us to wonder whether a little more tax and rather better public services might not provide a better quality of life for us all. What is the point of yet another penny off income tax if you can’t get hold of a doctor when you need one, if you don’t feel safe walking the streets at night, if schools are starved of funds?

I have written here before about the pros and cons of the euro. For now, let me just say that when we next travel across Europe our journey will be made considerably easier by the fact that all the countries we visit will require only one currency, instead of the four we took with us this year. From January 2002, the euro becomes the official currency of France, Italy, Germany and all the other EU countries which opted to join the euro zone. By the end of March, a dozen European currencies including the French franc and the German mark will cease to exist.

As the pound continues its fall against the euro, the British find themselves on the fringes of Europe as usual. We complain that we don’t like being bossed about by Brussels, but we turn down every opportunity to get stuck in and have our say. We relish a diet of myths about bent bananas and metric martyrs, while the rest of Europe gets on with the things that are really important.

The most bizarre of our self-delusions about Europe is that the less we have to do with our neighbours the stronger we will be and the more influence we will have.

But our chancellor has no say in the future structure of European finances, because we do not belong to the euro zone. The chancellors of France, Germany and the rest of our continental colleagues will have their say, however, in matters which will affect us deeply. So much for British sovereignty!

We stand back because we don’t want Germany (or France, or whoever) to take over. Other countries take a more rational view. It’s no great secret that the Italians don’t like the Germans very much. Many villages in Italy have their ‘Martyrs’ Street’ as a daily reminder of war atrocities which the older generations can still remember, and which many find hard to forget. But they figure that the best way to ensure that is Germany never tempted to repeat the mistakes of the last century is to work with them for a common future.

This does not mean that they will lose their ‘Italianness’. They will still eat pizza and spaghetti, they will still talk as much with their hands as with their voices, they will still drink grappa, go to the opera and watch the Palio. This side of the channel, for some reason, many of us seem to believe that our nationhood is tied crucially to our currency. Personally, I find the notion that who I am might be defined by the money in my pocket quite ludicrous.

We have dispensed with the groat and the angel in the past, we have been tied to and freed from the gold standard (monetary union by another name!), we have lost the farthing, the half-crown, the sixpence and all the rest. Have those changes really diminished our Britishness? One French hotel owner had an answer; looking for my photo in my passport, he said “Ah yes, you have yours in the back, not in the front like everyone else. But then, if you didn’t do things differently, you wouldn’t be British, would you?”