Thursday. 31/12/2020

The Monocle Minute

Image: Younes Klouche

Opinion / Christopher Cermak

Going it alone

It has always struck me that, when British friends referred to “the continent” or “Europe”, they were rarely referring to themselves. That lack of a shared identity was the simplest explanation for Brexit in my mind: fewer Brits saw themselves as European than do citizens of other EU nations. And now, as I prepare myself mentally for the end of the Brexit transition period – it’ll be a strange feeling returning from a holiday at home in Austria to London on Saturday – I find myself wondering: where does the UK’s identity go from here?

For answers it’s worth looking towards Austria’s Alpine neighbour. We’ve written a fair amount about Switzerland in this newsletter over the past year, often highlighting city initiatives and its attempt to strike a middle-ground between health and economic concerns. But I’d like to focus on a different aspect: what Switzerland can teach the UK about forging a new identity.

A trade identity: It’s notable that the UK sought a “Canada-style” or “Australia-style” deal rather than looking closer to home. Despite its cherished independence, Switzerland will now have a closer trading relationship with the EU than the UK does – and one that will likely be more lucrative on a per-capita basis. A member of the border-free Schengen zone and the EU single market, Switzerland has realised that adhering to some of the EU’s rules can be mutually beneficial.

A foreign-policy identity: Switzerland has built a reputation as a neutral global arbiter. This has brought it clear benefits in the way of international institutions and multinational corporate headquarters. The UK might not be neutral but over the past few decades it has played arbiter between the US and Europe. Will that still work in 2021 and beyond?

A national identity: Switzerland’s multilingual mix of German, French and Italian regions and interests are carefully managed by a (rotating) federal council – but all still see themselves as Swiss first. The UK needs to think harder about forging a common identity between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, not to mention preserving its multicultural identity.

I can only wish my UK friends good luck in the new year; this European, for one, will be rooting for you.

Image: Getty Images

Geopolitics / Europe

Unity of purpose

The EU might be the world’s largest economy and second-largest spender on defence (behind the US) but this has never quite translated to comparable geopolitical clout. Which is why it might be worth reviving an idea proposed by Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel in 2019: a European Security Council to co-ordinate policy and put the bloc on a more equal footing with the US and China. “Europeans need to take more responsibility for themselves in the world,” Mark Leonard, founder and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, tells The Monocle Minute. “That’s not going to happen without getting people together at the very highest levels of government to work out how they see the world and align behind a series of goals.” Leonard notes that EU nations bicker over domestic issues, such as rule of law and migration, but there’s more agreement on foreign-policy goals. That includes the UK, which could even be invited to join if it so desired.

Image: Getty Images

Defence / Russia

Force of habit

Russia’s involvement in regional conflicts this year has meant that top military brass are once again eager to muster its defences. Moscow has recently been pushing ahead with an army recruitment drive that had been on hold during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, hiring more than 250,000 recruits this year in a bid to bolster the country’s one million-strong force.

“The Russians have historically been reliant on conscripts but they aren’t much use in missions in Nagorno-Karabakh, Crimea or Syria,” Mark Galeotti, author of We Need to Talk About Putin, tells The Monocle Minute. “The country’s leadership also has very real security concerns, including radical Islam in the former USSR and Russia’s vast land border with China.” Moscow’s military might is a distant cry from the three million troops at its disposal at the height of the cold war – but modernising its armed forces appears to be the order of the day.

Image: Juho Kuva

Society / Finland

Saying power

Those seeking to improve public discourse in the new year should keep their eye on Finland. Hyvin Sanottu (“well said”) is a five-year project, a collaboration between Finnish national broadcasting company Yle, the president’s council, the parliament, the military and countless sports and grassroots organisations. Its goals are to encourage people to express their opinions freely and, in so doing, to eradicate hate speech and aggression. It starts with a series of discussion events across the country in 2021. “Thanks to a set of rules we have created, participants know that they won’t be attacked,” says Laura Arikka, one of the organisers and CEO of the Finnish Timeout Dialogue Foundation. “But that doesn’t mean that everyone will have to think alike. We can disagree but we can do so in a respectful way.” It’s a laudable goal but it remains to be seen how the campaign will reach the wider public – not just those who are already wired for improvement and least likely to rant anonymously online.

Image: Jamie McGreggor Smith

Transport / Europe

Night riders

Europe’s federal railways are betting on 2021 being the year of the night train after the Austrian, Swiss, German and French networks joined up to revive premium pan-European overnight rail services. The move harks back to the Trans-Europ-Express (TEE) that ran from 1957 to 1987. It was the rise of cheaper airline tickets that diminished the desire for long-haul train travel, leaving Austria’s ÖBB as the sole operator of night trains in recent years but the search for sustainable travel has resulted in others slowly getting back on board. “This is a good day for the climate, our customers and the growing together of Europe on rails,” said Richard Lutz, chairman and CEO of Deutsche Bahn, when announcing the TEE 2.0 partnership earlier this month. The first joint routes from Vienna to Paris and Zürich to Amsterdam will be launched in 2021. By 2024 we can look forward to catching a train in Zürich and waking up in Barcelona the following morning.

M24 / The Stack

The Stack: Best of 2020, part 1

We highlight some of the best interviews from this year on ‘The Stack’.

Monocle Films / Slovenia

Alpino special: Slovenian ski-makers

With hi-tech production at the heart of its business, Slovenian brand Elan has carved a reputation at the forefront of ski design. Monocle films headed to the mountains to visit its factory and learn about its past, present and future.

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