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Provocations to desire: Craig Raine delights in the nudes of Egon Schiele

Egon Schiele is candidly pornographic – but his obsession with anatomy tells the story of an artistic struggle.

Standing Nude in Red Jacket (1913) by Egon Schiele (Private Collection, Courtesy of Richard Nagy Ltd, London)

Sex and Schiele are synonymous, as Vienna is with venality. In Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, we read: “Sex is inescapable in Vienna. Prostitutes crowd the pavements. They advertise on the back ­pages of Die Neue Freie Presse. Everything and everyone is catered for.” The playwright Arthur Schnitzler confides in his journal that he has problems keeping up with the demands of his two mistresses. Ignace Ephrussi, a Jewish ancestor of de Waal, has affairs with his wife’s two sisters, plus a series of mistresses. Klimt is invoked. Schiele is invoked. Of course he is.

Is Schiele a pornographer? Of course he is. Does that mean his art isn’t art? Of course it doesn’t. It is a mystery that art and pornography are thought to be incompatible, a great either/or. Why not both?

Nudity isn’t necessarily pornographic, even if it is explicit. There is a 1917 oil by Schiele, Girl (the Virgin), which isn’t in “The Radical Nude”, the new exhibition of his work at the Courtauld in London. It is a brown study of nakedness. The girl stands facing us, four-square, sturdy, innocent and inexperienced, about as beguiling as someone at the swimming baths. We sense her sensible, burly, one-piece bathing suit just out of the picture. She is homely, wholesome and powerfully unarousing. Dull as dishwater, ordinary, unadorned, though not perhaps as sexually occluded as Bran­cusi’s great sculpture Torso of a Young Woman (1918) – which is a pseudo-pelvis, a short marble column, completely smooth, except for a brief, shallow groove to mark the theoretical divide of her closed legs. There is no point of entry, no ragged genitals, hardly even a mons. Compare these artefacts with Schiele’s more characteristic efforts and you see a step change.

John Updike has unnecessarily acquitted Schiele of the charge of pornography, on the grounds that his women are too gaunt and too ugly to be arousing. Julian Barnes, in a paroxysm of primness at the end of a piece about Lucian Freud’s nudes, claimed that Freud’s women are so mercilessly, so punitively exposed that it would be difficult to masturbate to them successfully. Really? Both writers seem to me to be lying about male interest in sexual fundamentals, in genitalia, and the role that obscenity and ugliness play in sexual excitement. Beauty isn’t a requirement and sometimes, like love, it can be a disadvantage. Look at Lucian Freud’s breathtaking and definitive Portrait Fragment (1971) and contemplate the undiluted sexual impulse. It is a painting of pure male desire in all its impurity. To the fore, a pair of open thighs and the indelicate, fundamental female thing in all its inextinguishable power. It is the business. The rest of the body – torso, breasts, the underside of the chin – is there but it’s beside the point.

There is very little Schiele in England – one drypoint etching in Birmingham and one in the V&A. So this exhibition is important. The 38 nudes on show at the Courtauld are deliberate provocations to desire – contorted, splayed, semi-clothed and often, therefore, candidly pornographic. The models display themselves to the painter and us “as to a midwife”, in the words of John Donne’s “To His Mistress Going to Bed”. In Guy de Maupassant’s great novel Bel Ami, Georges Duroy, undoing the clothes of the modest, morally muddled Madame Walter, with the nimble fingers of a maid, “left her boots on [and therefore her stockings] and carried her towards the bed”. However much we tell ourselves that sex is a straightforward activity, a healthy alternative to All-Bran, it turns out it isn’t. It’s dirtier, more difficult and profoundly absorbing. Well worth trying to paint.

Schiele had an eight-year career before he died of Spanish flu at 28. There are 6,000 drawings. How good is this porno-painting, how good is the art? Instantly recognisable, unmistakable, uncowed, courageous, striking, full of panache, with a genius for placing the image and for radical stylisation – but, in my judgement, inferior to his mentor, Klimt. Klimt has a greater range and a greater skill base. After two hours, a phrase came into my head: look, no hands. Not many feet either. And quite a few decapitations. The catalogue half-notices this tendency and vaguely relates it to the use of antique casts, the classic rubble in art schools – a typical art-historical move.

These amputations represent an artistic problem for Schiele. Hands are difficult for any artist. Dürer’s solution was to paint the hands on their own, so that they could upstage nothing. Modigliani found them an unmanageable distraction from the main composition and concealed them or morphed them into nondescript paddles. Schiele is a cleverer artist, adept at accommodation and compromise. His faces, for example, are often the minimalist faces you find in fashion plates – pinhole nostrils, simplifications, a kit, a routine – and he did do some fashion drawings. When you look at Schiele’s female faces, you confront a certain formulaic automatism, inoffensive and nearly invisible. There are, after all, other things to look at – pudenda, for one.

In Sneering Woman (Gertrude Schiele) of 1910, we find, as usual, many things to admire, touches that solicit the viewer’s attention almost peremptorily. His sister is wearing a huge dun hat. Nipples half-hidden, her breasts sag just above her folded arms and Schiele has caught brilliantly the way the line of one breast, the left, starts higher than the other. There is an overlap – an imperfection, an asymmetry so familiar it is moving. But it is the arms and the hands we need to look at, despite the distractions on offer – that sneer, those breasts, the great brown-paper gasometer of a hat. On the arms there is a lot of fussy pencil work to suggest hair or wrinkles or mass. It isn’t clear what Schiele intends. Neither hand is drawn particularly well. Both are fudge-brown with pencilled nails and knuckles – a fuss and fuzz of wrinkles.

Girl Kneeling on a Red Cushion (1913), (Leopold Museum/Manfred Thumberger)

In Girl Kneeling on a Red Cushion (1913), the hands to the left are a blather of pencil, whereas the hairless fanny is beautifully secure in its drawing skills. Standing Nude in Red Jacket (1913) chooses a pink, divided jacket and a red, divided vulva. It omits all potential difficulty. No feet, no hands, no face. Better, Schiele had already calculated, to leave out the hands altogether. Or set up a pose in which, say, they are wrapped around the sitter’s body or head so that only the ­fingertips show.

These weren’t his only solutions to the hand job and its intractable artistic task. Even looking at only 38 paintings, you notice a repeated stylised hand – the reddish claw that he handed out to nearly everyone. It isn’t a hand with the hand’s attention-­seeking plethora of finicky detail; it is the sign for a hand. And he knew he mustn’t overuse it. So he evolved a marvellous strategy. He foregrounded the difficulty.

Suddenly there were pictures, mainly of male subjects – himself and the mime ­artist Erwin Dominik Osen – in which the real subject is Schiele’s struggle with the hand. These hands are enormous and ­elongated, candidly unrealistic in their realism (something that is partially explained by Osen’s profession). Each hand is like a marionette. After a time, it becomes clear that Schiele’s drawing is based on the studio skeleton, with its separate phalanges. He has done his homework, gone back to basics. Dem bones, dem dry bones – but whimsically coloured red, lavender and green.

Feet also present a difficulty. Male Lower Torso (1910) has four fingertips at the top of the picture and two feet that are so long that they almost forbear to finish. Without instep arches, toeless, they belong to some prehistoric creature, almost longer than the calf from the knee to the ankle. Broadly, Schiele’s solution is to guillotine the feet and their pertinacious complications, substituting shoes and boots instead, which he can deliver with effortless bravura.

The other thing in this exhibition worth noting is Schiele’s incomparable skill with hair – pubic and cranial. All varieties of pubic hair are here – magnetised iron filings, sparse, thick, fuzzy, wiry, black burning bushes. The hair on the head is even more astonishing: Standing Nude with Stockings (1914) may not have solved the nipple problem (an orange limpet with beading around the edge like a lace doily) but the hair could not be improved. It is black and Schiele has used the wooden tip of the brush to score its density. It and Schiele’s other triumphantly successful hair exploit the contrast between delicate uncertainty and the firm, deliberate line surrounding the anatomy. At the edges of the hair, he uses a starved brush, as he does frequently for his green and pink touches to the texture of the body. With a starved brush, deliberation is impossible. The procedure is always chancy. The artist never quite knows how much pigment will be left behind. A continuous outline is impossible.

In the 1910 work Seated Female Nude with Raised Right Arm (Gertrude Schiele), Schiele has already worked out several techniques and strategies: her hands are shielded behind her head; her left arm hides half her face; her wonderful, totally convincing hair is a mixture of pinks and browns (for auburn) and bleeds a fraction beyond the vague, uncertain, multiple black crayon outline so we know for certain that this hair is buoyant, springy, dense.

The worst painting in the show is The Dancer (1913), an alleged self-portrait done in gouache and pencil. It is an action painting, striving for kinesis, but resembles a flayed portrait of musculature for Vesalius, defaced by a vandal. The face is disguised with paint and lines. The gouache is arbitrary. The pencil line is everywhere jerky, overemphatic and wayward, creating a hectic multitude of mistakes. The catalogue claims it is one of the “most remarkable of all Schiele’s works on paper”. It commends “a high degree of animation”. The catalogue is wrong. When it says, “Some lines serve to delineate the principal contours of the figure, others seem little more than a kind of frantic scribbling,” the catalogue is right.

The greatest single work here is Sick Girl (1910). Its means are spartan in their restraint. It is primarily a drawing in black chalk with local colouring, beautifully judged. She is supine. Her hands are folded and raised to her mouth, masking it and hiding their own distracting detail. The gesture is almost prayer-like but equally anxious and simply tense. The simplification of the face is completely appropriate. The nose is two tiny, clean nostrils; the eyebrows are so fine they are nearly invisible; the expression in the black eyes is heartbreaking, withdrawn, patient, waiting for things to improve, single-minded and self-absorbed.

And the hair! In its way as fine as the eyebrows – close to the head, blonde, with two strands escaping. The gouache is sparse white on the stomach, tinged with lightest apricot at the vagina, forked at the top with two tender lines, almost invisibly rounded at one side of the base. It is a drawing all frailty, untouched by sexuality. A great masterpiece. The catalogue advises that it may be influenced by Edvard Munch’s morbid, melodramatic paintings of the children’s sickroom. The catalogue is wrong. 

Until 18 January 2015

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Twilight of the postwar era

This Brexit-focused election is just one milestone in a long and complex relationship between the UK and the EU.

On 25 March the European Union celebrated its 60th birthday in Rome. Of the 28 members, only the United Kingdom declined to attend, signalling, to quote one senior EU diplomat, that it didn’t think the occasion was “appropriate for us”. The Daily Express called this a blatant “snub” to Brussels.

On 29 March Theresa May sent her “Dear Donald” letter – not, of course, to that dear Donald but to “President Tusk” at the EU in Brussels. It was delivered by a senior British diplomat with an antique and strained politesse reminiscent of his predecessors in Berlin in August 1914 and September 1939.

On 18 April the PM declared that it was in the national interest to hold a snap general election on 8 June, having five times in person or through official sources denounced the idea of going to the country before the set date in 2020.

On 29 April, a month after the PM’s letter, Donald Tusk secured agreement from the remaining 27 member states for the EU’s negotiating guidelines.

The following day the press reported a total face-off between May and Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission, and EU negotiators at a Downing Street dinner. She was living “in a different galaxy”, Juncker is said to have exclaimed. May dismissed the story as “Brussels gossip”. But then, on 3 May, in an address outside 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister hit back, accusing senior EU politicians and officials of meddling in the British election campaign.

Whom you believe depends, as usual, on which side of our national chasm you are standing. Of one thing we can be sure. The spin and the propaganda will go on remorselessly, day after day, for years to come, as this country tries to talk its way out of a European union in which it has never felt at home. To keep our bearings amid the dizzying intergalactic spin, it is worth taking a longer view. Because history matters in this debate and few of our “leaders” seem to have any historical perspective.

***

At 60 the EU is a senior citizen – rather stiff in the joints, grossly overweight and often a bit of a bore. It’s hard now to recall the heady hopes that its birth aroused. After two ruinous wars in three decades, many western European leaders were determined to escape from the vortex of belligerent nationalism.

Six countries signed the original Treaty of Rome in March 1957 to set up the European Economic Community. The EEC was a common market and customs union between Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and two defeated Axis powers from 1945 – Italy and West Germany. Britain could have been present at the creation; in fact, most of the six wanted us to join. But then, as now, the message was: “We don’t think it is appropriate for us.”

In part, the motives behind founding the EEC were economic. Hard borders and high tariffs would hamper recovery after the war. Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands had already formed the Benelux customs union in 1948. They were also natural trading partners with Germany, sharing the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt Delta, and Germany had vied with France for decades over the mineral resources of the Saar and the Ruhr. Now the six countries decided to pool these vital assets. The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) of 1952 was a stepping stone to the Treaty of Rome.

None of these states had abandoned the pursuit of national interests; rather, they were going about it in less confrontational ways. Electorates, still haunted by the Depression of the 1930s, now expected their governments not only to ensure order and security but also to stimulate growth and provide welfare. In these circumstances, some erosion of national sovereignty seemed necessary, even desirable. Prosperity wasn’t a zero-sum game, built on hard-nosed “us first” policies, but would be fostered by calculated yet enlightened interdependence. For the modern state, in short, absolute sovereignty could not be an end in itself.

That said, the essential imperative of European integration was not economic but political. For France and Germany, 1914 and 1939 were just the most recent manifestations of their bloody past, a cycle of wars that stretched back to the days of Bismarck, Napoleon and Louis XIV. Sedan 1870, Leipzig 1813, Jena 1806, Valmy 1792, Turckheim 1675 – the victories were emblazoned on public monuments and celebrated in school textbooks, the defeats quietly forgotten. ­European integration offered a chance for the French and the Germans to break free from centuries of tit-for-tat conflicts; a belated acceptance of the dictum “If you can’t beat them, join them”.

The Benelux countries were caught in the jaws of that Franco-German antagonism: whenever the two big beasts bit on each other, the three little ones felt the pain. ­Italy, the other founding member, was – like West Germany – desperate to jettison its pariah status from the Fascist era. So Rome 1957 served as a belated peace treaty, drawing a line under the Second World War for western Europe.

This zeal to transcend hard nationalism is seen most strikingly in the life of Robert Schuman, the man now celebrated as the “Father of Europe”. Born in 1886, Schuman grew up in Luxembourg but was educated at German universities and practised law in the city of Metz, in Lorraine – then part of Germany thanks to its victory in 1870-71. When the next war broke out in 1914, he was conscripted into the kaiser’s army: only medical problems saved him from having to fight against the French.

In 1919 France recovered Alsace and Lorraine, so Schuman became a French citizen and got into French politics. From 1942 to 1945 he fought in the wartime Resistance and then, amid France’s postwar kaleidoscopic politics, served variously as finance minister, prime minister and foreign minister. It was Schuman’s celebrated declaration of 9 May 1950 that paved the way for the ECSC and the Treaty of Rome.

Today the “Schuman roundabout” lies at the heart of the EU quarter in Brussels – an apt memorial, because his experience of the (un)merry-go-round of belligerent nationalism inspired his commitment to European integration. He was not alone. The West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer (born 1876) was a Rhinelander from Cologne who served as that city’s mayor from 1917 to 1933, until he was sacked by the Nazis. Over the years he had in turn chafed at Prussian domination of the Rhineland, feared French annexation, and endured two stretches of British military occupation.

The Italian premier Alcide De Gasperi (born 1881) had started his political life in the Austrian parliament before 1914, when his homeland, Trentino/South Tyrol, still belonged to the Habsburg empire. After the region was transferred to Italy in 1919, De Gasperi resumed his political career not in Vienna but in Rome, opposing first the Fascists and then the Communists.

The early lives of these three men along the shifting borderlands of war-torn Europe brought home to them the suicidal futility of hard nationalism. They also shared a profound sense of Catholic Europe, extending back through the Holy Roman empire to the era of Charlemagne.

It was from this historical platform that Schuman approached European integration. “If we don’t want to fall back into the old errors in dealing with the German problem,” he said, “there is only one solution: that is the European solution.” Coal and steel were an ideal starting point because they were double-edged – vital for industrial growth but also for waging war. Surrendering national control over these critical assets could enhance prosperity and peace.

***

The British approach to “Europe” was very different. In the mid-20th century Britain still saw itself as a global power. The sterling area took half of all British exports: western Europe, struggling to recover from the war, less than a quarter. In 1951 British industrial production equalled that of France and West Germany combined. And although Britain worked closely with France in 1947-49 over the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty, its engagement with the Continent had clear limits.

“Our policy should be to assist Europe to recover, as far as we can,” senior British civil servants advised in 1949. “But the concept must be one of limited liability. In no circumstances must we assist them beyond the point at which the assistance leaves us too weak to be a worthwhile ally for USA if Europe collapses . . .”

“Limited liability” was a philosophy rooted in Britain’s experience of the war – also markedly different from that of the Six. In May and June of 1940, Germany conquered France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, with Italy jumping in to grab some of the spoils. That summer is now engraved in British national mythology. It was immortalised in David Low’s Very Well, Alone cartoon for the Evening Standard, depicting a pugnacious Tommy breathing defiance to the world from a rock in storm-tossed seas.

Victory was eventually achieved not with the Continentals, who seemed to be either foes or failures, but in alliance with those whom Churchill called “the English-speaking peoples” – above all, the United States. From this perspective, “sovereignty” clearly worked: we successfully defended our iconic southern border, the white cliffs of Dover, and gained ultimate victory. Only those who had been defeated (in 1940 or 1945) would imagine surrendering any national powers to a higher authority.

In 1950, therefore, when the Labour cabinet decided that the Schuman Plan was not appropriate for us, it was following the majority view in Whitehall and Westminster. Ernest Bevin, the ailing but still doughty foreign secretary who had led Britain’s drive for closer intergovernmental co-operation with France in the 1940s, had no time for the dread word “federalism”. In his inimitable phrase, “If you open that Pandora’s box, you never know what Trojan ’orses will jump out.” Pressed by the Americans to take these ideas more seriously, he questioned how he could go to his London dockland constituents in Woolwich, blitzed by the Luftwaffe in 1940, and explain that the Germans would help them in a war with Russia. As for France, he sniffed, “the man in the street, coming back from a holiday there, was almost invariably struck by the defeatist attitude of the French”. Great Britain, he exclaimed, was “not part of Europe”; she was “not simply a Luxembourg”.

This was a bipartisan attitude, endorsed by the Tories when they regained office in 1951. Churchill conjured up the image of three overlapping “circles” of global power, with Britain involved in each but not confined to any: the Commonwealth and empire; the “English-speaking world”; and, as he put it to the cabinet in November that year, “United Europe, to which we are a separate, closely and specially related ally and friend”. He and his successor Anthony Eden welcomed European integration for “them”, not “us” – as a way of reconciling France and Germany. After the Six embarked in 1956-57 on talks in Brussels about further integration, the British sent not a government minister but a Board of Trade official, and then merely as an “observer”.

The accepted wisdom in London remained that Britain’s trading interests were global and that a protectionist European bloc would be dangerous. Yet that kind of common market was not a foregone conclusion. Britain had a powerful potential ally within the Six in the form of West Germany, and especially its influential economics minister, Ludwig Erhard.

Almost as much as London, Bonn’s trading interests were global: 40 per cent of its exports went beyond Europe and much of West Germany’s European trade was outside the Six, with Austria, Scandinavia, Switzerland and the UK. Like the British, Erhard wanted a reduction of global tariff barriers to promote free trade, rather than the high-tariff, protectionist bloc favoured by Paris to defend France’s flabby economy. Yet a common market was inconceivable without the French, and Chancellor Adenauer – focused on postwar reconciliation – insisted that politics mattered more than economics. Erhard was told to get the best deal he could as long as France was “in”.

So that left the French able largely to dictate their terms. Among these were a steep external tariff, inclusion within the EEC of France’s overseas territories, acceptance across the Six of France’s high welfare payments and the development of a Common Agricultural Policy (Cap), which subsidised inefficient farming. By 1970 the Cap consumed 70 per cent of the EEC budget. But, as a senior Italian official observed ruefully, “Europe cannot organise without France and, to get her in, prices must be paid which may seem exorbitant.”

What would have happened if Britain had been fully engaged in these negotiations from the start? Might it have strengthened Erhard’s hand and helped forge a strong
Anglo-German axis in favour of a looser, more open free-trade area? That would have put pressure on Paris to accept London and Bonn’s terms, or be left out in the cold. In which case European integration could have developed along very different lines, with a Franco-German-British triangle operating in creative tension at the heart of the new Europe in an EEC that, in effect, would have been 3 + 4. A tantalising “what if”, but it would have required a very different attitude
in Britain towards its future and its past.

***

And so the EEC was born on New Year’s Day 1958 with six founder members, not seven. The British had been completely wrong-footed. In 1950 they expected Schuman’s pipe dream to go up in smoke; they were equally complacent about the Brussels talks in 1956-57; and they repeated the mistake yet again in assuming it would take years for the EEC to become a reality. Instead, not only was the EEC now a fact, but the Six made rapid progress in dismantling tariff barriers and agreeing the basics of the Cap. By 1961 they were seriously debating political union, or at least a common foreign policy.

London struggled to believe that those despised Continentals, who in their various ways had botched the Second World War, could bury the hatchet and work together. British complacency, even arrogance, has aptly been called the “price of victory”. And we’ve been paying the bill ever since.

Once the Six was up and running, there was a grave danger of Britain being marginalised. The European community threatened
to become “the only Western bloc approaching in importance the Big Two – the USSR and the United States”, a senior Whitehall committee warned in 1960. Aside from the economic damage that would ensue, “if we try to remain aloof from them” Britain would “run the risk of losing political influence and of ceasing to be able to exercise any claim to be a world Power”. The economic case for membership was still finely balanced: commercial and emotional ties with the Commonwealth, strengthened by the war, remained strong. Yet, for Harold Macmillan, like Adenauer in 1956, politics took precedence over economics. In August 1961 his government applied to join the EEC.

But the price of victory kicked in again. Charles de Gaulle had not forgotten or forgiven Roosevelt and Churchill for treating his Free French as second-class members of the wartime alliance. A fierce nationalist, he accepted the European project but sought to turn it to France’s advantage, or his conception of this. Crucial to his strategy was keeping Britain out of the EEC.

“My dear chap, it’s very simple,” the French agriculture minister told his British counterpart. “At the moment, with the Six, there are five hens and one cock. If you join, with other countries, there will be perhaps seven or eight hens. But there will be two cocks. Well, that is not so pleasant.”

Determined to rule the roost, de Gaulle blocked first Macmillan’s application to join and then Harold Wilson’s. By the time he retired and Edward Heath had negotiated terms of entry, 15 years had elapsed since 1 January 1958. The original deal-making among the Six had set hard, to their advantage. Any new member had to accept the club rules as given: the “acquis commun­autaire”, in Eurospeak. Worse still, in 1973, just months after Denmark, Ireland and the UK had joined the community, the bottom fell out of the world economy with the oil crisis, recession and stagflation, making it nigh impossible amid all the crisis management to force the EEC into reform as Heath had hoped. The good ship Europe had been launched on the high tide of postwar prosperity. But as the Six became the Nine, that tide began to ebb. We have never had it so good – ever again.

Since the 1970s and Britain’s “entry” into Europe, successive prime ministers have tried to undo the damage caused by their aloof predecessors. Most have done so “alone” – in 1940 mode – rather than working to form alliances with reform-minded colleagues on the Continent. In particular, as in the mid-1950s, they failed to build creative partnerships with the Germans.

Margaret Thatcher was a notable example. Her cantankerous “handbagging” secured rebates on British budget contributions in excess of what probably could have been obtained by “normal” diplomacy, but it alienated many of her European colleagues. And her visceral suspicion of the Germans, dating back to the Second World War, poisoned relations with Bonn. “She doesn’t really believe that there’s any such thing as useful negotiation,” observed Sir Nicholas Henderson, a high-ranking British diplomat. “She doesn’t see foreign policy as it is, which is a lot of give and take.”

Yet Thatcher was only the extreme case. Even prime ministers who were more “pro-Europe”, such as John Major and Tony Blair, were hamstrung by domestic politics – meaning both the rooted Euroscepticism of Tory backbenchers and also the tabloids’ determination to treat every encounter with “Europe” as a replay of old battles. Woe betide any British PM who returned from Brussels without being able to proclaim victory in another Waterloo (though the 1815 battle was won in tandem with the Germans, plus Dutch and Belgian support).

The Brexit frenzy is only the latest round in that story. Even on the Remain side, the Cameron-Osborne campaign – a breathtaking blend of arrogance and incompetence – chose to make its case almost entirely by economic scaremongering about the dangers of Leave (through “Project Fact”, aka “Project Fear”), rather than highlighting positives of the European project, especially its enduring contribution to postwar peace.

Of course, the EU has often been its own worst enemy. Reform has been slow: the Cap, for instance, accounted for 73 per cent of total EU spending as late as 1985 and did not fall below 40 per cent until 2013, still a remarkable figure for one of the most industrialised regions of the world. Institutionally, the bureaucracy is flabby; financial control is weak; decision-making is ponderous; the European Commission frequently locks horns with the European Council (the heads of government); and the persistent “democratic deficit” has exacerbated a popular sense of alienation.

Repeatedly, too, politics has trumped economics, particularly over the question of enlargement. In the 1980s the Nine ­became 12 in order to embrace three underdeveloped countries that had recently thrown off authoritarian regimes: Greece, Spain and Portugal. In the 1990s the euro was driven not just by the ambition of Jacques Delors but by the determination of François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl to anchor the financial and industrial power of a unified Germany firmly in European structures – updating, if you like, Schuman’s vision. And since 2000, the EU has welcomed in from the Cold (War) those countries of eastern Europe that were anxious to escape the Russian bear hug. All these politically inspired moves have come at an economic price. To be sure, the EU28 is far more truly “European” geographically, but the original Six (apart from southern Italy) had a coherence as developed economies and functioning democracies that today’s mixed bag of members conspicuously lacks. Yet the EU project has continued to be animated by aspirations for close economic and political union that date from the 1950s.

***

Sixty is a ripe age. Many institutions do not survive that long and the EU (like Nato, founded in 1949) is painfully aware of the need to think imaginatively about its form and direction. The “Future of Europe” was firmly on the menu even at the Rome birthday party. On 29 March 2017 the UK, by contrast, began Year Zero – reborn into a brave new, Britain-shaped world, if you believe the Prime Minister; tumbling into the abyss, if you heed remaindered Remainers. Now Old EU@60 is about to meet New UK@0 for a long and bruising battle.

The stakes are high on both sides. Brussels is in no mood to let Britain off lightly: an easy exit would encourage other waverers and jeopardise the whole European project. Across the Channel, if May puts politics before economics (“control” of borders over access to the single market) her hard nationalism could alienate Scotland, undermine the Irish settlement, rupture the United Kingdom and end in no deal. A “full English” Brexit might prove very expensive.

The tabloids will doubtless report it as a replay of 1940 and “Our Finest Hour”: an earlier Brexit moment. Attentive as ever to them, May has embraced the description of herself as a “bloody difficult woman” who is eager to “fight for Britain”, in Churchill-Thatcher mode. Is her snap election intended to pave the way for a hard, nativist Brexit? Or does she just hope that a bigger majority will give her more room for manoeuvre in battling Brussels? No one knows, probably not even May herself. Current negotiating strategies, like battle plans, will not survive the first encounter with “the enemy”.

That is why it is important, amid the daily barrage of spin, sneers and aggro, to keep the bigger historical picture in mind. Because we may be entering the twilight of what can be called the postwar era, which began in the decade after 1945, when the horrors of belligerent nationalism prompted a fervent effort to make peace and build truly international institutions. The UN, Nato and the EEC were all products of that creative moment; likewise the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This fabric of postwar internationalism is now ageing and strained – often in need of radical modification – yet in a world where nationalism, protectionism and racism are on the rise, it provides some flimsy protection against the law of the jungle. If Brexit is handled belligerently, it could help to pull the threads from that thin tissue of coexistence and co-operation.

Our leaders show little awareness of what is at stake historically. According to US Vogue’s recent interview with Theresa May, “She says she doesn’t read much history and tries not to picture how things will be in advance.” Jeremy Corbyn seems to live in an ideological time warp of his own. Boris Johnson does have historical sensitivity, but of a typically self-serving sort: see his entertaining little (auto)biography of Churchill.

This Brexit election is just an early milestone on a long and painful road. It took the UK over 11 years from first applying to joining the EEC. It may take as long to complete a full, legally watertight exit from the EU. Certainly, for the next few years, at a time when so many global problems are crying out for creative policymaking, the EU and the UK will confront each other obsessively to the exclusion of almost everything else. A dysfunctional union and a disunited kingdom – each captivated by its contrasting past – will struggle and muddle towards divergent futures.

David Reynolds’s books include “Britannia Overruled” (Routledge) and “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster)

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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