Martin Whitlock - political writings 2001-2004

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Time to say "yes"

7 June 2004

Public attitudes are so poisoned that for British governments there can be no such thing as a successful policy on Europe.

Start with something technical-sounding. Call it the European Coal and Steel and Community. Then call it - because it's easier - the Common Market. Then how about the European Economic Community (EEC for short)? But that word "economic" in the middle doesn't have quite the right feel. European Community sound better; it's chummier, somehow. But if a community's good, surely a union is better? European Union: now that has just the right ring.

Has nobody in Great Britain spotted what is going on? The original Coal and Steel Community treaty of 1951 contained in its preamble several choice phrases, including:

For an organisation intended to manage coal and steel production, principally in the borderlands of France, Belgium and Germany, these were ambitious words. But they echoed with some clarity the sentiments of the Schuman declaration of the previous year, in which the French foreign minister stated:

"By pooling basic production and by instituting a new High Authority ...this proposal will lead to the realisation of the first concrete foundation of a European federation indispensable to the preservation of peace."

The treaty that established the Coal and Steel Community, did, in fact, exactly what it said it would. It laid the bases of institutions capable of giving direction to the future common destiny of Europe, and those institutions have been developing that capability with energy ever since.

The institutions that have become the European Union, therefore, were founded for political reasons. The union, that is to say the "de-nationing" of the European states, was their objective. When Britain joined what was then the EEC in 1973, this was not an aspect of the project that it wished to emphasise. Prime minister Edward Heath, is a speech in Brussels to mark the accession treaty, was already sounding a warning note:

"Just as the achievement we celebrate today was not preordained, so there will be nothing inevitable about the next stages in the construction of Europe... Clear thinking will be needed to recognise that each of us within the Community will remain proudly attached to our national identity and to the achievements of our national history and tradition. But, at the same time, as the enlargement of the Community makes clear beyond doubt, we have all come to recognise our common European heritage, our mutual interests and our European destiny."

The preamble to the treaty of 1992 (the Maastricht Treaty) contained a flavour of this subtle realignment. For example:

"to deepen the solidarity between their peoples while respecting their history, their culture and their traditions"

But it still

"resolved to mark a new stage in the process of European integration undertaken with the establishment of the European Communities."

All in all there is no getting away from the fact that the E.U. is an integrationist project. A Europe of Nations, a Europe of "fatherlands" as some call it, a vast zöllverein or free trade area, it is not. The Europe of nations or fatherlands was characterised by war; in the new, integrated Europe war would not be possible because the differentiation of interests between nations would not exist. The national interest was consigned to history, to be replaced by interest groups that took no notice of the old boundaries.

The reason why the debate on Europe that has dominated British politics for the past thirty years has been so divisive and yet so sterile is that British politicians have not managed to accept this. They persist in presenting the relationship with the E.U. as a form of contract from which maximum national advantage must be extracted. And because this is the language of the engagement, the public naturally see the relationship in these terms, so they score their political leaders on the basis of how well they play that game.

The problem is that the rules of engagement in the E.U. do not fit with the language that the British have adopted. The decisions taken there concern not nations but people, irrespective of the country in which they reside. Instead of "competing national priorities" there are just "competing priorities".

The arguments over agriculture, for example, and the much-criticised common agricultural policy, reflect the competing priorities of small scale and large scale farmers, of environmentalists and of consumers. If France fights the corner of small farmers it is reflecting not national interest but the interests of small farmers, many of whom are French. This group has particular electoral influence in France, so, by supporting them, the French government is acting representatively. Small farmers throughout Europe are beneficiaries of that, even if they are not aware of it.

France, which (in effect) founded the E.U., understands the rules of the game so well that the French Government can represent specific interests with an openness that many British observers find distasteful. It is not, of course, immune from national pride; its likes to have French people in key places and it won't give up the European Parliament sessions in Strasbourg even though many people wish that they would. But these are attributes of the French drive for influence in the European project. They signify not nationalist zeal but a commitment to larding the integrationism with French ideas.

Who benefits? Not France as a nation; not even the French people exclusively, but the larger group of people of all countries in Europe who agree with those ideas. Everybody has their own idea about what mix of social, economic and political theory is appropriate in Europe. What the French understand is that the system that wins this debate is the system that the whole of Europe will come to live with. Contrast that with the British approach, which is to counter any development with which it is not in sympathy by attempting to exclude itself. The British "red lines" in the European Constitution debate are just like this. By seeking to exclude foreign, defence and fiscal policy from the European remit the British government is losing influence over how these policies may develop.

For develop they will. The E.U. is constituted to carry out the tasks of government at an appropriate level. That is the principle of subsidiarity, whereby decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizens to whom they relate. Foreign policy, defence and corporate taxation all fall into the category of decisions best taken for the whole of Europe; the latter because it creates a level playing field for European business and the former two because a single, agreed position is much more than twenty-five times more powerful and effective that twenty-five separate positions. For governments that understand the integrationist essence of the European project it is only a matter of time before decisions in these areas begin to integrate in their turn.

British politicians are deluding themselves and deceiving their electorate if they believe that the ability to say "no" constitutes real political power in relation to Europe. The true nature of the European project was stated at the outset, and has been frequently reiterated. To deny this does not make it less true; but it does neuter political leaders whose every action has to reflect their denial, rather than the truth.

What this means for British governments is that there can be no such thing as a successful policy on Europe. No policy can bring positive gain; Britain cannot, for example, use its disproportionate military and diplomatic influence to mobilise a powerful common European policy if it doesn't think there should be such a policy in these areas. All the benefits that flow from Europe turn to ashes in the charnel house of the British "Europe debate"; relative success for a British minister in Europe consists of managing to stop some integrationist development of which the Eurosceptic media might not approve. It is a world of no positives where acceptance of anything must be grudging at best.

For British politicians to recover power in this area they need to do one of two things. Either they own up to European integration, celebrate it, sell it and make the most of it, exercising real power in the affairs of 400 million or so people; or they quit that wide and challenging sea to make what seem like bigger splashes in a much smaller pond. Is that a choice? Not really; Britain joined the Common Market for economic reasons that remain incontestable. It chose to ignore the political small print because, like a hire purchase agreement, it knew it would have to sign anyway and trusted that no one would ever read it. Thirty years in denial of that small print have belittled political debate in Britain and hamstrung British influence in Europe. It didn't have to be like that. It doesn't now. But first the truth about integrationism in Europe must be admitted and embraced.



©Copyright Martin Whitlock 2004