From the moment Britain first applied to join the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1962,the issue has divided the UK. The seafaring nation – which once ruled a huge empire, was proud of its unique constitutional history and parliamentary practice, had never been invaded since 1066, and was the home of Shakespeare, Dickens and cricket – just did not feel, well, European.
There was always a constituency in the UK that believed the British were innately superior to “Continentals”. The more vulgar among them even opined that “the wogs start at Calais” – a famous port on the French side of the English Channel.
Many in this nativist minority rediscovered their animal spirits in Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party (since morphed into the Brexit Party) in the run-up to the June, 2016, referendum, when a narrow, albeit 52 per cent, majority voted in favour of leaving the EU.
Going back more than half a century, this antipathy was reciprocated on the Continent. Charles de Gaulle, that giant of post-war French politics, twice said “non” to British applications to, in effect, join Europe.
Continental hostility towards Britain was also expressed in a vulgar manner, even at the highest level. Jacques Chirac, who was French president from 1995-2007, was overheard in 2005 saying: “You can’t trust people [the English] who cook as badly as that.” He also blurted out: “The only thing they have ever done for European agriculture is mad cow.”
After the UK gained membership of the EEC in 1973, ambivalence about becoming part of a supra-national entity continued to divide the major British political parties, particularly the Conservative Party, the traditional party of empire with its large Eurosceptic faction. This divide grew during the build-up to the Brexit referendum vote, and played a significant part in the tumult that has roiled the “Mother of all Parliaments” since then.
It reached a point of semi-climax over the past week, with the House of Commons agreeing to anti-EU Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit plans, but not his rushed timetable to exit the EU by October 31. Johnson isnow pushing for a December 12 election.
United States of Europe
Like Tory leaders of yore, leaver Johnson likes invoking Winston Churchill, the great British wartime leader. However, it was Churchill who first coined the phrase ”The United States of Europe”, envisioning what later became the EU. This was in September 1946, a little more than a year after World War II ended, 14 months after Churchill’s shock election defeat, and six months after he also heralded the arrival of the Cold War with these words: “An iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”
It is worth quoting Churchill on the united Europe project at some length because his speech to a university audience in Zurich, Switzerland, brilliantly captured the needs of a war-ravaged Europe.
“I wish to speak about the tragedy of Europe, this noble continent, the home of all the great parent races of the Western world, the foundation of Christian faith and ethics, the origin of most of the culture, arts, philosophy and science both of ancient and modern times. If Europe were once united in the sharing of its common inheritance there would be no limit to the happiness, prosperity and glory which its 300 million or 400 million people would enjoy.
“Yet it is from Europe that has sprung that series of frightful nationalistic quarrels, originated by the Teutonic nations in their rise to power, which we have seen in this 20th century and in our own lifetime wreck the peace and mar the prospects of all mankind.
“What is this plight to which Europe has been reduced? Some of the smaller states have indeed made a good recovery, but over wide areas are a vast, quivering mass of tormented, hungry, careworn and bewildered human beings, who wait in the ruins of their cities and homes and scan the dark horizons for the approach of some new form of tyranny or terror.
“Among the victors there is a Babel of voices, among the vanquished the sullen silence of despair. That is all that Europeans, grouped in so many ancient states and nations, and that is all that the Germanic races have got by tearing each other to pieces and spreading havoc far and wide.
“Indeed, but for the fact that the great republic across the Atlantic realised that the ruin or enslavement of Europe would involve her own fate as well, and stretched out hands of succour and guidance, the Dark Ages would have returned in all their cruelty and squalor. They may still return.
“Yet all the while there is a remedy which, if it were generally and spontaneously adopted by the great majority of people in many lands, would as by a miracle transform the whole scene and would in a few years make all Europe, or the greater part of it, as free and happy as Switzerland is today.
“What is this sovereign remedy? It is to recreate the European fabric, or as much of it as we can, and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, safety and freedom. We must build a kind of United States of Europe.”
The open sea
Reflecting British ambivalence, however, the same Winston Churchill in 1944 told Colonel Charles de Gaulle, then the voice of the Free French in exile in London: “If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea.” This meant that when push came to shove, Britain would stick with what Churchill called “the English-speaking peoples”, particularly the US.
Churchill earlier wrote: “We have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked but not combined. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.”
As the chaotic post-war years unfolded, the architects of a new Europe turned out to be the French, impelled by their need to provide energy for war-ravaged French industry and complement the German and French economies to prevent another war. Jean Monnet, a philosopher, bureaucrat and political economist, and Robert Schuman, a sometime French prime minister and foreign minister, established the European Iron Coal and Steel Community, consisting of France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries, in 1951.
Six years later this nascent supranational body expanded its remit, became a customs union, re-badged itself into the European Economic Community and pledged in the Treaty of Rome to become “an ever-closer union”. Over the following 15 years the six became the nine and then the 12. The EEC established a European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, and strengthened an already powerful, Brussels-based, European Commission.
After a period of “Euro-sclerosis” the 12 found fresh impetus in the 80s. Once again led by the French, the renamed European Union overcame chronic political constipation by adopting a system of majority voting at meetings of its Council of Ministers and formed a single market. Many British people forget that it was during the 80s that the UK prime minister, Tory Margaret Thatcher, forecast that Britain would “lead” Europe.
However, the EU’s success laid the foundations for its current malaise. British resistance to Brussels stiffened after the EU launched its ambitious plan for economic and monetary union through the adoption of a single currency and by forming a Frankfurt-based European Central Bank.
The attraction of this “new Europe” played a significant role in the collapse of the communist bloc of Soviet Union-tethered central and eastern European countries. Within 15 years the 12 transformed itself into the 27.
But it was all too much, and a giant EU, with its inner 19-state eurozone and euro, added to a deep sense of frustration in Britain. The flood of migrants from other EU countries into the UK, taking advantage of open borders further soured the mood across the Channel, giving political oxygen to figures like UKIP’s Nigel Farage.
It was at this point that then UK Tory prime minister David Cameron, fresh from a resounding election victory, took the fateful decision to hold a second referendum on the UK’s EU membership. The first in 1975, or two years after the UK gained membership, resulted in a vote in favour of continuing ties with Brussels.
The conventional wisdom in 2016 was that the second referendum would also be carried, and Cameron was partly motivated by his aim to silence the growing reports of rebellion among Euro-sceptic Tory MPs.
After the shock referendum result that didn’t go his way, Cameron resigned. He was another UK Euro-casualty. According to Robert Harris, a one-time political correspondent for the BritishObservernewspaper, and now a successful writer of historical novels, the once popular political figure is now “reviled more or less equally by both sides of our divided country – by the just under half who voted to remain (for obvious reasons), and by the just over half who voted to leave”.
The latter were “angry to discover that their preference was never adequately prepared-for and might not even be deliverable”, Harris recently wrote in the LondonSunday Times. The same plight also destroyed the prime ministership of Cameron’s successor,Theresa May, as the House of Commons resoundingly repudiated her proposed Brexit deals three times.
Now Boris Johnson, the uber leaver, is riding the Brexit tiger.
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