Europeans should take stock

Photo © Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons

The uncertainty caused by Brexit and the transition period is over. We now have certainty. Britain’s ties with the European Union (EU) have been considerably weakened.

Whilst the practical implications of our new relationship with Europe are still to be fully realised, one thing is clear. The European Union must look to building a future without the involvement of the UK. In doing so Europeans should reflect that although Brexit is done, it is not the end of euroscepticism. Whether it be France’s Front National, Hungary’s Fidesz party, Poland’s Law & Justice Party, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, or Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, euroscepticism and nationalism are to be found in political parties throughout Europe.

Given the UK’s long history as an unconquered state, there will always be a significant section of the British population who seek to defend what it perceives as British sovereignty. Similar nationalistic sentiments are replicated across the continent.

It is often claimed that the increase in support for the nationalist and populist parties of the far right can be attributed to austerity but does that claim stack up?

The Treaty of Rome which established the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957 states in its preamble that the signatories “determined to establish the foundations of an ever-closer union among the European peoples”. In looking towards a post-Brexit post-Covid world it is perhaps time for all Europeans, including the British, to debate what the term ‘ever-closer union’ means. Did the six leaders who signed that treaty envisage a single European nation? I doubt it.

In time it is likely that there will be an increasing acceptance that Brexit was a mistake. Eventually there may be a debate as to whether we should seek to rejoin the EU. However, the best possible deal we could have is the one that we have just walked away from. It was a bespoke arrangement that is unlikely to be repeated. That would mean it would be necessary to sell the concept of the UK joining the eurozone, which would be difficult if not impossible.

It has been suggested that a two-tier EU might accommodate Britain. In reality that would mean a three-speed Europe: a European Free Trade Area (EFTA), an EEC Mark 2 with a European parliament, customs union, and optional eurozone membership (which would suit the UK and some other European nations) and the inner core of nations in the eurozone who are also committed to fiscal and political union. However, such an arrangement would go against everything that Churchill argued for in his 1948 speech to the Congress of Europe at The Hague.

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“This is not a movement of parties but a movement of peoples. There is no room for jealousies. If there is rivalry of parties, let it be to see which one will distinguish itself the most for the common cause. No-one can suppose that Europe can be united on any party or sectional basis, any more than any one nation can assert an overweening predominance. It must be all for all. Europe can only be united by the heart-felt wish and vehement expression of the great majority of all the peoples in all the parties in all the freedom-loving countries, no matter where they dwell or how they vote.”

By 1950, it is clear from his speech concerning the Schuman Plan that Churchill did not endorse the concept of a federal Europe.

“The hon. Member for Coventry, East (Richard Crossman), last night asked the Tory Party whether they were in favour of the federal union of Western Europe. Such a tremendous step as the federal union of Europe as something like a United States of Europe is not a matter which rests with us to decide. It is primarily one for the peoples of Europe. In our European Movement we have worked with federalists, and we have always made it clear that, though they are moving along the same road, we are not committed to their conclusions.”  

(The Schuman Plan culminated in the Treaty of Paris and the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community which eventually evolved into the EEC.)

Churchill’s earlier Zurich speech in 1946 in which he proposed building a kind of United States of Europe to address the nationalistic quarrels that had resulted in military conflicts between European nations contains a warning.

“The League of Nations did not fail because of its principles or conceptions. It failed because these principles were deserted by those States who had brought it into being. It failed because the Governments of those days feared to face the facts and act while time remained. This disaster must not be repeated.”

Given all that has taken place throughout Europe since the Lisbon Treaty: the rise of far right nationalist parties and now Brexit, it does seem reasonable to ask whether the Europe that has been built is one which does indeed have the heartfelt support of the great majority of all its peoples.

The greatest way that British Europeans can make amends for the difficulties that our country has caused for our fellow Europeans is to encourage and participate in a pan-European debate that will lead to a European Union with which few will find fault. One where all Europeans can feel at home.

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