Brexit, Conservative Party, Customs Union, Negotiating, Northern Ireland, Single Market, UK Labour Party

Britain and Europe Plus ça change

This blogpost was written on July 1, 2019

marr hunt

You know a country is in deep trouble when one of its major political party appears to lose touch with social decency and economic reality. Yesterday, we had Jeremy Hunt telling a Sunday TV show that he would willingly tell people whose companies went bust after a no-deal Brexit that their sacrifice had been necessary, saying:

“At the beginning of October, if there is no prospect of a deal that can get through parliament, then I will leave at the end of October because that is our democratic promise to the British people.”

Asked whether, under such a policy, he would be willing to look owners of family businesses in the eye and say they should be prepared to see their companies go bust to ensure a no-deal Brexit, Hunt said: “I would do so but I’d do it with a heavy heart precisely because of the risks.”

As Nick Cohen, recalled in his Observer column“At no time and in no circumstances should a communist place his personal interests first,” said Chairman Mao.” As if anticipating Hunt’s later remarks, Cohen commented: “In the Conservative and Unionist party, as in the Chinese Communist party, personal interests are discarded if they threaten the purity of the Brexit cause.”

Truly, greater love for Brexit hath no politician than this that he would willingly lay down your job for his career (and votes from the 150,000 Tory selectorate who will choose the party’s new leader and potential prime minister).

Nothing of substance is going to happen with Brexit until the Tory leadership contest is finished and a new prime minister is installed in No 10. So, now is not a bad time to remind ourselves that the UK, England in particular, has never been a comfortable member of the EU. Not only did the UK never really wish to be a member, it never actually wanted the original Common Market to be created in the first place and actively tried to strangle it at birth.

The first move towards the creation of what we now know as the European Union took place on May 9, 1950, at six o’clock in the evening, when the French Foreign Minister, Robert Schuman, held a press conference to announce the establishment of a “Coal and Steel Community”. This Community would see France and Germany pool their coal and steel resources, the very stuff of war, under a transnational High Authority with the power to make binding decisions.

The announcement blindsided the UK and was the beginning of the end of it losing control over the way events were to play out in Europe. Even as the UK raged against Schuman’s announcement, France and Germany, along with Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Italy who had also decided to join the proposed Community, offered the UK every chance to become involved, which would have allowed it to steer events in a direction which suited its interests.

But the UK recoiled from participating. The position of the then Labour government was summed up in the immortal works of Herbert Morrison: “It’s no good. We can’t do it. The Durham miners will never wear it”. Plus ça change.

Today, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will not commit the party to backing a second Brexit referendum because, to coin a phrase, “Unite will never wear it”.

The European Coal and Steel Community came into existence in August 1952. The train of European unity had left the station and the UK had refused to buy a ticket.

While Labour may have been there at the start, because the Conservatives have been in government more often than the Labour Party, the psycho-drama of Britain’s tortured relationship with Europe has played out more within the Tory tribe than within Labour.

In a speech at Columbia University, in January 1952, Anthony Eden, by then the UK’s Foreign Minister after the Conservatives had replaced Labour in government, told his audience that there had been suggestions that Britain should join a “federation on the continent of Europe”. This was something “we know in our bones we cannot do”. It violated “the unalterable marrow” of the British nation. The narrative of British exceptionalism has deep roots.

It was this understanding of the nature of Britain that informed the approach of the Conservative government to the Messina conference in 1955, the meeting which began the process which resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Rome in March 1957, and the coming into existence of the Common Market on January 1, 1958.

As Hugo Young writes in “This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair”:

Whereas Schuman, though widely predicted to fail, was regarded with pragmatic affability in London once it had come to pass, Messina was designated, almost from the start and certainly by the end, for destruction with extreme prejudice”.

Strangle the nascent Common Market at birth was the order of the day. William Strath, one of the senior civil servants charged with developing Britain’s response to the Messina process was convinced that Britain should have no part in what he called “this mysticism” which appeals to “European Catholics (and) federalists…”.

Not the first or the last time that the interests of “Protestant Britain” are seen as being different to those of “Catholic Europe”. In subsequent years, Ian Paisley, the creator of the Northern Ireland-based DUP, constantly asserted that the EU was a “papist plot”. Never underestimate the continuing force of such beliefs.

For his part, another civil servant, Burke Trend, later to be Cabinet secretary, wrote in a note for ministers that it would: “…on balance be to the real and ultimate interest of the UK that the Common Market should collapse, with the result that there would be no need for the UK to face the embarrassing choice of joining it or abstaining from joining it”.

However, Trend was aware of the dangers of not engaging. The Messina participants, the six members of the Coal and Steel Community, “might go ahead without us, and they might pull it off.” Equally, they might fail, in which case the UK would stand accused of sabotage. Trying to suggest that there was no need for a new institution such as the Common Market and that matters could be handled through the OEEC (forerunner of the OECD) was not very persuasive and could lead to the Six fatally undermining the OEEC.

The civil service advised ministers that there were four reasons why the UK should rule out membership.

  1. It would weaken Britain’s relationship with the Commonwealth and the colonies.
  2. Britain was a world power, and the Common Market would run against world trade.
  3. Membership would lead to further integration, and perhaps federation, which the public would not accept.
  4. British industry would no longer be protected against European competition.

Like “British exceptionalism”, the self-image of “Global Britain”, Britain as a world power, also has deep roots.

Throughout the “Messina negotiations”, which were actually conducted in Brussels, the Six were represented by their Foreign Ministers. The UK chose to send a mid-ranking official, Russell Bretherton who was, by all accounts, quite a brilliant economist, but no Foreign Minister. Legend has it that, under instructions from London, Bretherton ended Britain’s involvement in the Common Market discussions with the immortal words

“Gentlemen, you are trying to negotiate something you will never be able to negotiate. But if negotiated, it will not be ratified. And if ratified, it will not work”.

As the Common Market began to take shape, with the UK on the outside, British officials came up with a counter move. The UK would take the initiative is setting up a European Free Trade Area (EFTA). EFTA would be trade without the politics. The UK would pitch this to European nations as an alternative to the Common Market.

Trade among EFTA members would be tariff-free but there would be no common customs barrier or commercial policy and each member would be free to do its own deals with non-members. Agriculture would be excluded, leaving the UK free to continue to trade with the Commonwealth countries on existing terms. EFTA would cover industrial goods only.

So, what was being proposed was a “customs arrangement” between the UK and the EU with the UK still free to do trade deals with non-EU members. Now, where did I hear that recently?

Harold Macmillan, soon to be UK prime minister after Eden resigned following the Suez debacle, worried that the Common Market would come into existence with the “Free Trade Area never following”.

Macmillan told a colleague:

We must not be bullied by the activities of the ins and outs… We must not be bullied by the activities of the Six… We could, if we were driven to it, fight their movement… we must take the lead, either in widening their project, or, if they will not co-operate with us, in opposing it.”

Later, Macmillan was to plead with General De Gaulle, now back as French President:

The Common Market is the Continental System all over again. Britain cannot accept it. I beg you to give it up. Otherwise we shall be embarking on a war which will doubtless be economic at first, but which runs the risk of gradually spreading into other fields.

No stone was left unturned to kill off the Common Market idea. But De Gaulle, who himself was hostile to the Common Market as conceived, was never going to bail out the British and saw their absence as a chance for France to seize the leadership of Europe. The Common Market was then made largely to a French blueprint.

But if politicians like Macmillan persisted in believing that “Europe” should not move ahead without the UK, others were not so convinced. A senior civil servant, working in Brussels, wrote:

“I think it is vitally import for us to rid ourselves of the feeling that the Six cannot do without us… The consequences for them of the United Kingdom being excluded are far less than the consequences for the United Kingdom of being shut out of Europe”.

An early rebuttal of the “they need us more than we need them” argument.

Influential voices within the civil service began to make the case that EFTA would always be second best and that the UK needed to join the Common Market. But joining would not be easy. Frank Lee, who was to play a seminal role in nudging the UK towards joining, wrote that the UK must:

“put out of our minds” the idea that we could “secure our objectives on the cheap” Realism demanded “difficult and unpalatable decisions”, including the contemplation of some surrender of sovereignty”.

There goes the “cake and eat it” argument as well.

EFTA failed to take fire and by the early 1960s the UK, reluctantly, very reluctantly, decided that it had to join the Common Market. But nothing so degrading as actually applying to join. No, the UK decided to open negotiations with the Six to see if acceptable terms for joining would be on offer if it did apply to join. In other words, “make us an offer” and we will then decide if it is good enough.

Many years later, Theresa May was to ask Angela Merkel to “make the UK an offer” over Brexit terms. When Merkel said that the UK was the one that was leaving so the EU did not need to make it an offer but the UK needed to state what it wanted, May is reported as replying “make me an offer”.

Even after the UK did open negotiations in 1961, the belief persisted in London that the “economic advantages of full membership of the European Economic Community” could be obtained by an association “with no manifest political content”.

Now, however, the UK, which had tried to sabotage the EU from the beginning, found itself in a position of weakness, asking to join after the fact. Policies had already been negotiated among the Six, often arrived at by torturous compromises, and they were not going to be unpicked for a supplicant. That applies today, with even more force, for a leaver, a soon to be ex-member. No cherry-picking. Not then, not now.

That time around, the UK never did get to know if the terms that might have been on offer would have been “acceptable. The General said “Non”.

The UK’s “Song for Europe” has never really changed over all the long years. Even the words are the same. No wonder it is always “null points”.

One thought on “Britain and Europe Plus ça change

  1. Tom,

    An excellent piece of work although very depressing.

    Ecclesiastes 1:9
    What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.


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