I am, God knows, no economist. I claim no expertise in any specialty though I have considerable experience in law, politics and broadcasting. I am also an enthusiastic amateur historian. Of some importance, I think, I am a lifelong citizen of a large mass of land with many and diverse peoples with different languages and origins; a country with two official languages, namely French or English. It is significant to note that in my part of the country the only French you see on official signs is on Federal edifices and where live there is far more evidence of Asian cultures than French. This experience of life gives, I submit, a clear looking glass through which to view the European Community a look which is unique and I hope accurate.
In September, 1946, with the Second World War a mere year gone, Sir Winston Churchill made a speech in Zurich which is seen by many as the moment of conception for what is now the European Community. That previous March, Sir Winston coined, or at least re-coined, the phrase Iron Curtain. These two speeches, if they didn’t launch the European Community, certainly gave it a foundation upon which to build.
(These speeches can easily be heard through Google or any search engine and, in my view, ought to be heard.)
What is, to me, one of the causative factors of the present difficulties in which the EC finds itself, is the utter misunderstanding of the Zurich speech. Sir Winston went to some pains to dissociate Britain from any involvement in a United States of Europe as he called it. He carefully spoke of “world groupings” of which Britain and the Commonwealth were one. He spoke of support for a US of Europe by The Commonwealth, by the United States, and, hopefully, by the Soviet Union. He spoke of the “European family” in a manner which clearly did not include Great Britain. He spoke of the reconciliation of France and Germany as being the “first step” in the partnership of Europe. That he, the greatest Briton of his time, not to have Britain included in this reconciliation and “first step” speaks volumes.
In 1967 then French president Charles de Gaulle vetoed Britain’s application for membership saying at a news conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, attended by more than 1,000 diplomats, civil servants and ministers as well as journalists, accusing Britain of a "deep-seated hostility" towards European construction.
He said London showed a "lack of interest" in the Common Market and would require a "radical transformation" before joining the EEC. "The present Common Market is incompatible with the economy, as it now stands, of Britain," he said.
According to the BBC report, he warned France's five partners that if they tried to impose British membership on France, it would result in the break-up of the community. He went on to list a number of aspects of Britain's economy, from working practices to agriculture, which he said made Britain incompatible with membership. De Gaulle also pointed out the UK’s Commonwealth ties and its friendship and ties to the US (de Gaulle will scarcely be remembered as a fan of the United States.)
In 1973 de Gaulle said “England in effect is insular, she is maritime, she is linked through her exchanges, her markets, her supply lines to the most diverse and often the most distant countries; she pursues essentially industrial and commercial activities, and only slight agricultural ones. She has in all her doings very marked and very original habits and traditions …”
Britain did in fact join the EC in 1973 but here’s the rub – it never really did join heart and soul. As a frequent visitor to Britain and sometime recorder of the opinions of the powerful, I can tell you that at the best she was a member “however …” The UK is not in the Euro and refuses to help bail out poverty stricken members. That is the essence of the matter, for it indicates that she may opt in for the benefits but never for the obligations and this goes back a very long way. Indeed, the UK’s relationship with Europe shadows her relationship with Ireland – in for the good, nowhere to be found when it’s no fun to be around.
This looks a lot like Canada – all together when Canada is playing the US in an Ice Hockey Championship but at each others’ throats when provincial or regional (not always the same thing) issues emerge. During one of the common fights by Ottawa for a share of Western Canadian energy revenues, the common bumper sticker on Alberta cars read “Let the Eastern Bastards Freeze in the Dark” – and they weren’t kidding.
The proposed pipelines from Alberta through BC to the coast, and the consequent tanker traffic down the coast have all the earmarks of serious violence. The big difference between Canadian inner strife and the UK’s relationship with the EC is that Canada has nowhere else to go.
To make matters worse, the economic collapses within Europe (not helped by Britain watching from the sidelines) make it difficult to keep the inner politics from turning self destructive. Keeping Germany and France supportive of, if not happy, with various bail-outs of distressed members has been difficult enough but now there has been a sea change in French politics raising the critical question whether or not these two countries will fall apart on this issue. If, as I suspect, there is great pressure on Britain to get into the game, this will greatly provoke even more Euro-scepticism there.
Sir Winston Churchill, unquestionably the man of the 20th century, foresaw the problems of Britain moving away from its traditional partners. He knew from his grasp of history and politics that his nation had often been “with” Europe but never part of it. It’s Britain’s centuries long policy of treating the Channel as a god given moat is a habit, I would submit, is impossible to eradicate.
The EC is sort of a “ponzi” scheme in reverse. Where in the traditional version the schemer takes money from the new sucker to pay off another, here the new players have got the money and the original players are the ones taking the financial bath.
De Gaulle was right to see Britain as unsuitable as a member of the “club” or even an associate member. It isn’t a question of whether Britain “should” step in, become a Euro nation and join in the bail-outs (with more no doubt to come) for, like all nations – and most people – it will put self-interest first. That won’t kill the EU but will ensure it has a bad case of what my mother called the “collie-wobbles” politically and economically for the foreseeable future.