The Mad Men of Smith Square A Lonely Battle To Save Europe in Britain
Contempt for Europe is rising all across Britain, driven by politicians and media who blame Brussels, often absurdly, for everything from the declining economy to male impotence. A small group of pro-Europeans are waging a bizarre campaign against the country's agitated majority.
A group of men, all clad in dark suits, have gathered in a central London conference room to save Europe. They have responded to an invitation proclaiming that "the fight back begins" -- and the seriousness of the situation is reflected in their faces. It is late on a Wednesday afternoon a fortnight ago -- one week after British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that a referendum will be held on Britain's membership in the European Union. That has opened the door for the country to exit the EU, which is something that the men in this room want to prevent at all costs. Ever since the day when Cameron said it was time to "settle the question" of Britain's relationship with Europe, these men have had a mission.
The building in which they are forging their plans is Europe House -- a political flashpoint. Up until just a few years ago, this was the Conservative Party's headquarters. Margaret Thatcher once planned her attacks against Brussels here, and Cameron used to have an office on the premises. Now, the building on Smith Square houses the offices of the European Parliament and the European Commission. The mass-circulation Daily Telegraph has dubbed it the "propaganda headquarters." This should actually be a good place to defend the European ideal against its adversaries, but it's a lonely place -- the last bastion.
Fight, Battle, War
Not many people have come to the meeting, 150 perhaps, and they can all easily fit into the windowless room. Members of the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party are attending the event. This is a cross-party movement primarily of older men with thinning hair, and very few women. The event was organized by Peter Wilding, who now grabs the microphone. Wilding, who has the charisma of a brush salesman, is the director of the Center for British Influence through Europe, a newly founded group that is lobbying for Britain to remain in the EU. He shouts into the room: "Help us to win, help us to fight back."
He says he wants to assemble an "army of supporters" to fight Europhobia in Britain. Wilding's voice has the pitch of a general who has to lead his troops into a decisive battle.
A young, bald-headed political scientist named Petros Fassoulas is attentively listening to him. Fassoulas understands this battle just as well as the man on his right, a former journalist named David Gow, and the man a few steps further away, an independently wealthy millionaire by the name of John Stevens. All three men are veterans. Fassoulas, Gow and Stevens started the fight for Europe long before this evening, each on his own front, each with the knowledge of how quickly this battle can be lost. Fight. Battle. War. These are the unfortunate terms of this conflict, which has taken on such importance because it has to do with Europe, that mighty idea, and Britain, which is overwhelmed by the sheer might of this idea. Why have Britain and Europe drifted so far apart?
That's a question that Fassoulas, 36, asked himself early this month when he headed for Bristol, a two-hour train ride west of London. Fassoulas is the chairman of the European Movement UK, an association that was founded in 1948 in The Hague, under the chairmanship of Winston Churchill, to help the nations of Europe reconcile their differences. World War II is long over, but Fassoulas sees himself in the same situation as when his organization began its work. He travels throughout the country to help the British reconcile their differences with Europe. He, a Greek, tells them that Europe is good for Britain.
Fassoulas grew up on Zakynthos, a Greek island in the Ionian Sea. In the late 1990s, he went to Wales to study political science, and he now lives in London, but his English still sounds as if he were lampooning a Greek. Audiences boo when he counters his opponents' arguments during a panel discussion. A guest at a debate forum once compared him to Comical Ali, Saddam Hussein's head of propaganda during the Iraq War, and during a radio show a politician once asked him: "Why does a foreigner tell us what we have to do?" Fassoulas tries to laugh off such attacks. Perhaps it would be better if a Briton spoke out -- but there are practically none willing to do so.
With the donations from the some 1,500 British members of the European Movement UK, Fassoulas has just enough money to pay for his train tickets, but it's not enough for a small salary. Three months ago, he had to close the movement's office because it was too expensive. The interns at the association now work from home. Serving as association chairman is Fassoulas' hobby, so to speak. He earns a living from his day job as a consultant for a consortium of tax experts.
He has brought along support for his appearance in Bristol. Sitting next to him on the stage is an official from the European Commission, a woman from the city administration, and three members of social initiatives that receive EU funding. They serve as witnesses that things are going well with Europe, better than the British think they are. Fassoulas gazes at the audience -- three dozen people, some of whom are even under the age of 40. For an event titled "The Legacy of EU Funds in the Regions" on a Monday evening in the southwestern part of the country, that's not bad. He asks the man from the European Commission to approach the lectern.
The official arranges his notes and begins to talk about what the EU has achieved. He says that over 25,000 jobs in Britain alone have been created with aid from Brussels, and nearly 1,000 projects have received support. Then he lectures on cohesion policy and labor market mobility, but puts the audience to sleep as if he had distributed Valium. After 20 minutes, the next witness steps up to the lectern.
'I Am Convinced We Will Win'
Fassoulas says he's convinced the issue has to become less emotionally charged and more levelheaded again. Reasonable arguments are based on facts and, indeed, he intends to fight the Europhobes with figures. "I am convinced we will win," he says. When his opponents become hot-tempered and attempt to fan people's fears, Fassoulas remains calm.
But it doesn't help his position any that his adversaries are at an advantage in most debates. They call for change, which always appeals. Fassoulas argues by citing the budget of the EU Cohesion Fund, while his rivals point to the centuries in which Britain has repelled every invasion. Fassoulas sounds like an accountant; his opponents sound like patriots. The opponents have the advantage that their goal means change, even if they do nothing but evoke the politics of the past. Fassoulas says it's easier to promote change than to maintain that the status quo should be maintained.
Even today, some in Britain are still delighted about an event that occurred roughly 8,000 years ago. Rising sea levels in the North Sea washed away the land bridge that had existed until then. Britain was free, an island in the sea. This was the origin of all differences with the Continent. Britain was a forerunner in introducing constitutional rights and its own religion. A maritime nation that created an empire that stretched from Canada to India and as far south as New Zealand, it overcame every dictatorship, every revolution and every disaster that caused the Continent to go up in flames. But while the British Empire was collapsing, Europe was uniting to become a major power bloc.
In Bristol, three women from the audience stroll by Fassoulas on their way to the juice buffet. They are wearing red polo shirts emblazoned with the name of their employer, an aid organization that helps disabled and socially disadvantaged individuals to establish their own companies. The project is partially funded by the EU. The three women were already fans of Europe before they entered the room. Most people here are in a similar situation. They are fans of the EU because it distributes money that the British government no longer has. The woman from the city administration says that London would be better off staying on the sidelines.
Rewarded with Money for their Faith
That evening in Bristol, Fassoulas, the missionary for Europe, was preaching to people who had already been converted because they had been rewarded with money for their faith. The figures that Fassoulas uses in his bid to win the country over to Europe are also rather depressing: The British economy continues to shrink, the banking sector is in ruins and the national debt is higher than ever. The Scots are currently considering seceding from the UK, and the big question is: Who is responsible for the whole mess?
Back at Europe House, in central London, event organizer Peter Wilding says it's necessary to form a front against "them," so "they" can't claim the union jack for themselves, because "they" are not the true patriots, but rather the men and women in Europe House. He closes with the words: "Help us strike back." If this were all a movie about the end of Europe, a string quartet would now play Bach, followed by a round of applause.
- Part 1: A Lonely Battle To Save Europe in Britain
- Part 2: Hopelessly Out-Gunned