Never Closer Union?

“DETERMINED to lay the foundations of an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe…, RESOLVED by thus pooling their resources to preserve and strengthen peace and liberty, and calling upon the other peoples of Europe who share their ideal to join in their efforts, HAVE DECIDED to create a European Economic Community…”. 

The Treaty of Rome, 25 March 1957

Ever closer union?

December 2nd, 2020. Will the EU ever become ‘Europe’?  On the eve of the Portuguese presidency of the Council of the European Union, Portugal’s Prime Minister Antonio Costa last week gave a speech.  Costa highlighted the main fissure which has cut through the EU for most of its history: is the EU a vehicle for the eventual creation of a European super-state or simply a super customs union designed to protect European states from the vicissitudes of the world economy?  As Costa said: “This distinction is very important because the lack of understanding of this certainly led to the departure of the UK, which saw the EU as a platform for generating value, but not something that resulted from sharing fundamental values”. The tension between the two visions of ‘Europe’ also explains why the EU has always been part geopolitics and part domestic politics, and why the British have had such a tortured relationship with the idea of ever closer union. 

Costa was being a little kind in suggesting a “lack of understanding” on the part of the British.  The seeds of the forthcoming Brexit finalité (as much as there will ever be one) were sewn on 1 January 1973, the day the UK acceded to the then European Economic Community (EEC).  The prime minister of the day, Edward Heath, was never wholly honest with the British people about the political ambition inherent in the EU’s founding instrument, the Treaty of Rome.  That is why London routinely referred to the EEC as the “Common Market”.  Former diplomat Sir Crispin Tickell, who was intimately involved in the negotiations, put it this way, “Heath knew the EU would evolve towards a political union, and wanted to make certain the UK contributed to the way it was shaped. There was a realisation during the negotiations that we were setting out a direction of travel, and making certain that we had the right stops on the journey – but we didn’t have great arguments about the ultimate destination [finalité]”.  Only those opposed to Britain’s membership cast the EEC in the light of a political project and the ‘nightmare’ prospect of some future European super-state. 

The geopolitics of Europe

For Heath the emphasis in 1973 was geopolitics and preserving the influence of a declining, post-imperial Britain through the aggregated economic and political power of the EEC. However, Britain’s concept of geopolitics always differed from that of, say, Germany.  For Germans the domestic and the European were pretty much the same and their security could be realised only through the effective alignment of the two within the wider framework of the transatlantic relationship. At the time there was an inner-German border and on the other side the massed ranks of the Red Army. For centuries the British, or rather the English, had seen the purpose of geopolitics in Europe as preventing the emergence of any one single dominant power on the Continent.  For London the aim was precisely the opposite – to prevent the European dominating the domestic.  By joining the ‘European Project’ London hoped to ensure the EEC remained precisely that, an economic community of nation-states.  That was also the reason Britain was a fan of ‘widening’ the European institutions rather than ‘deepening’ them. This dichotomy caused a profound tension in Britain’s membership of the EEC from the start, because London was both part of the European journey and a brake on it.  In other words, Britain’s membership was not to promote an ideal but to ‘win’ a power struggle and was as much mired in the past as looking to the future. 

Interestingly, the power struggle implicit in the campaign for Scottish independence led by Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon also involves Europe.  Indeed, it would be immediately recognisable to any Scottish king prior to the 1603 Union of Crowns.  As such, it not only reflects an at times cartoonish Braveheart distrust of an imagined England (Edward Longshanks in a bowler hat?) in significant parts of her party, but also the re-emergence of Edinburgh’s age-old strategy of playing Europe against the ‘auld enemy’. Scottish independence may or may not happen, and Brexit may or may not be the cause, but it is hard to believe that given politics and history it would have been LESS likely had the UK remained in the EU. 

The ‘new’ euro-sceptics

Now that the British brake has been removed is euro-scepticism gone with them? No. The problem for the euro-federalists is that Britain was never alone in its euro-scepticism.  Indeed, when I worked for the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris some twenty years ago I can recall having regular conversations with diplomats from several EU member-states who would routinely tell me that their countries supported the British position on this or that, but could not say so publicly. Consequently, with Britain no longer there to take the euro-federalist flak, new euro-sceptics have emerged.  The most obvious and aggressive of the new euro-sceptics are Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki who object to what they see as the interference of Brussels in their internal affairs.  Put bluntly, Budapest and Warsaw under current management take the view that they did not escape the Soviet star to be shackled by the Brussels star (I will not refer to the colour of said stars for obvious and unfortunate historical connotations).  

There is also the so-called Frugal Four – Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden.  Their immediate and primary objection is to the planned €500 billion European Recovery Fund and the implicit debt mutualisation therein. Until May of this year the Frugal Four were the Frugal Five, as they were led by powerful Germany.  However, Germany’s decision to support the Fund seemingly left these fiscal conservatives marooned, although it is far too early to tell if Germany’s ‘defection’ is permanent as much of the German population remains deeply opposed to the debt mutualisation that would be needed to create a real European bank of last resort. Such a bank would be a sine qua non for any United States of Europe worthy of the name.   

The geopolitics of three

Critically, Britain lost the geopolitics of the EU.  The EU did not banish state competition in Europe, it merely created a new arena for it and like all international institutions helped ensure such competition did not morph into strategic threat.  In that light France is perhaps the most interesting and paradoxical of those now calling for ever closer union.  When Britain joined the EEC in 1973 it was after a decade of French objections and fears in Paris that British membership would be the thin end of an anglosaxon wedge.  Apart from the April 1969 resignation of President Charles de Gaulle, what seemed to shift the French position was the emergence of West Germany in the last 1960s as the economic powerhouse of Europe.  If the British wanted to ‘balance’ German power by joining the EEC, for all the post 1963 talk of a Franco-German axis, France also wanted Britain ‘in’ as insurance to balance growing German power. After all, 1973 was only thirty-three years after the Wehrmacht had paraded in victory down the Champs Èlysée and many of the heroes of the French Resistance were still in power.  Ironically, there were a few in the then West German capital, Bonn, who also wanted Britain to join the EEC, precisely to balance France. 

The French paradox? For all President Macron’s current rhetoric France never has, and never will have any intention of becoming some form of disaggregated ‘departement’ in some form of European super-state. Paris’s contemporary political aim is more about the exploitation of Germany’s budget surplus than the political architecture of the EU.  As such, Macron’s demarche must be seen as the latest iteration of France’s by and large successful European geopolitics and its far more pragmatic (ironic?) view of power and sovereignty than London.  For example, even though President Mitterand shared Margaret Thatcher’s concerns about the 1990 reunification of Germany, Paris moved rapidly to reinforce its embrace of the new Germany and firmly anchor it in what in 1991 became the European Union.  Britain, on the other hand, opted out of the very instruments in the Treaty of European Union designed to tie Germany in. 

Therefore, in the cold light of contemporary history the tragi-comic British experience of ‘Europe’ was not just the result of a profound gap that for so long existed between London elite’s understanding of its utility and the narrative they afforded the British people. It was also because Britain lost the geopolitics of the EU as the big three became the Big Two. The consequence? The new geopolitics of a Europe in which the German-centric EU is the gravitational political core is also one which sees three important losing powers on its periphery – Russia, Turkey and now Britain. As the Brexit negotiations conclude Berlin and Paris need to be aware of the implicit danger therein. Whilst Britain will never make common cause with the likes of Putin’s Russia there is a strategic imperative for the EU implicit in Brexit: how to ensure relations with important Third Countries on the EU’s periphery are not seen by those powers and their peoples as an attempt to dominate or damage them.  That will never work and I, as a Briton, would never accept it. Indeed, even if the UK becomes the rump UK that will still represent over 92% of the population and wealth of Great Britain and ‘England’ will continue to dominate the British Isles and carry weight elsewhere.  Something that Scots might also wish to ponder. 

Never closer union?

With Britain now gone from the EU euro-scepticism will not die, but adapt.  And, as Costa suggests, there is a further struggle about how to ‘manage’ power in Europe.  At its core is the eternal search for political balance in Europe.  On one side there are those who believe in top-down Europe in which member-states are essentially subordinated to supranational authority in the name of efficiency. On the other side there is bottom-up Europe in which power can only be legitimate if it remains close to the people. For that defining reasons the nation-state remains the essential guardian of political legitimacy, not least because it remains the locus of political identity. For one group, the member-state is effectively an instrument of Brussels, for the other group Brussels exists only to serve the member-state.  

The real challenge for ‘Europe’ thus remains what it has always been: how far distant can the power of the people become from the very people in whose name it is exercised?  This leads to the final twist in the Brexit story.  Since the creation of Simon de Montfort’s Parliament of 1265 a constant theme running through English history has been the distrust of distant, unaccountable power that also informed the English Civil War and the American Revolution. In 1534 the first Brexit took place when Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church and created the Church of England and appointed himself as head. In Europe the age-old tension between church and state has been replaced by the struggle between state and super-state. 

The solution?  The solution is also implicit in the fissure that Costa identified: the search for ever closer union must never become a finalité for it is the very process of ever closer union which is the essential guardian of political balance in Europe. Indeed, if there ever is a finalité the EU could well be destroyed for once again there would be winners and losers and in the long history of Europe ‘winning’ tends to be merely the harbinger of ‘losing’. Given that, and even though I harbour profound concerns about Brussels and its political culture, the reason I campaigned against Brexit and believe it to be an historic mistake is because Britain can never absolve itself from Europe’s eternal search for political balance, because Britain is part of Europe.  Some Britons see Europe as the detour from Empire. In historic terms, Empire was Britain’s temporary detour from Europe. 

And, as the French rightly say, ‘les absents ont toujours torts’. 

Julian Lindley-French