Andrew Glencross, writing in opendemocracy (his essay is reproduced on the website eurozine) asks who in this period of crisis (this time it’s Brexit; it always seems to be something) speaks or can speak for Europe. Henry Kissinger, it is widely believed, once had a similar problem. “Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?” he is supposed to have asked. In fact he doesn’t remember using those precise words and no one else can come up with where he said them but he has admitted that it’s “a good phrase”.
Glencross actually means something a little different from Kissinger: not so much “who has sufficient authority to give me Europe’s position?”, more “who is speaking for Europe and Europe’s interests on the vital question of Brexit?”. A British exit would, after all, impact on actors other than the UK itself, not least perhaps ourselves in Ireland. So why is everyone, on the Continent in particular, being so quiet?
Glencross identifies at least two factors which militate against any major intervention from Brussels or other continental capitals in the British referendum debate. First, many leaders fear, and with some justification, that any such demarche might be counterproductive, or, in diplomatic speak, “not helpful”, particularly given what the British press would tend to make of it. Second, appeals to the EU’s “foundation myth”, unity and supranationalism for the sake of peace in Europe, tend to fall on deaf ears in Britain. The twentieth century European story of economic collapse, mass unemployment, descent into totalitarianism, the rise of national hatreds, war and destruction then followed by patient rebuilding based this time not on competition but on co-operation, “fundamentally contradicts [writes Glencross] the twentieth-century island story of pluck and Anglo-American partnership in the face of German militarism” (where does the Red Army come in to this story?).
In 1952, Anthony Eden, at the time British foreign secretary, spoke of possible future membership of a European confederation as “something which we know, in our bones, we cannot do”. Arguably he, rather than Edward Heath, who took Britain into the EEC, was most faithfully expressing the spirit of his nation. (Churchill of course thought European unity was a great idea – for Europeans.) Squaring the circle, succeeding UK governments, Glencross writes, “have responded by explicitly approaching European integration as a purely pragmatic and utilitarian foreign policy. James Callaghan, who as foreign secretary oversaw the renegotiation of Britain’s terms of membership in 1974-75, encapsulated this logic by referring to the EEC as a ‘business arrangement’. David Cameron’s attempt to do away with Britain’s treaty commitment to ‘ever closer union’ is just the latest manifestation of this tendency.”
Consequently, Glencross adds, those in Britain who wish to speak on behalf of Europe are obliged to engage in cost/benefit argumentation and to move onto the ground of hypotheticals and counterfactuals: is the UK, as the sceptics maintain, really being held back by “Brussels”? Would it thrive if “set free”, or would it perhaps founder?
The British were not offered a referendum on joining the EEC. They did get to vote on staying in just a little while later (in 1975) after the incoming Labour government renegotiated the terms of entry. French president Charles de Gaulle had twice vetoed the UK’s application to join the European Economic Community during the 1960s and in fact there was a referendum on whether the UK should get to join; this was held in 1972 – in France.
On that occasion the French voted 68 per cent in favour (Ireland and Denmark were of course part of the deal too). How would they vote now?
“The only notable pro-Brexit French outburst to date,” writes Glencross, “has come from former prime minister Michel Rocard. More typical … is the position of leading newspaper Le Monde, which used the two-hundredth anniversary of Waterloo to publish an English-language op-ed aimed at persuading UK voters to stay in the EU and avoid their own epic defeat.”
A recent survey of European opinion on Brexit conducted by researchers at Edinburgh University found a majority in favour of Britain remaining a member in each of the six states surveyed. There is a significant variation in the percentages from country to country, however: (Remain/Leave) Spain 81/19; Poland 80/20; Ireland 79/21; Germany 73/27; Sweden 67/33; France 56/44. There are various factors at play here in the different jurisdictions (and also, as some of the detail shows, between generations in particular states, notably France). In Ireland’s case the clear and strong majority against Brexit clearly reflects the perception that our economy could not but be damaged by Britain leaving. On the other hand, in France, a rather high 33 per cent of respondents who think that the UK would suffer by leaving the union would still like to see it leaving (and presumably suffering).
Andrew Glencross suggests by way of conclusion that the most comparable referendum experience to the forthcoming one might be the vote on Scottish independence in 2014, where businesses and public figures from the rest of the UK found it hard to engage with the Scottish debate because the meaning and value of unionism, its affective charge if you will, had been seriously eroded in the face of an increasingly confident Scottish exceptionalism. “When the British in/out vote is itself understood as a manifestation of political exceptionalism,” he writes, “it is obvious why outside voices find it difficult to put forward a positive vision about the UK’s European vocation.”
There is undoubtedly a lot in this, and exceptionalism has long been a strong feature of the British mindset. However, if the Yes camp, or even the pro-European camp if such exists, are in search of stirring British sentiments from the past that might help their cause they might do worse than go back to 1988 and some words spoken to an international gathering in an historic city in the heart of old Europe:
We British are as much heirs to the legacy of European culture as any other nation. Our links to the rest of Europe, the continent of Europe, have been the dominant factor in our history.
For three hundred years, we were part of the Roman Empire and our maps still trace the straight lines of the roads the Romans built.
Our ancestors—Celts, Saxons, Danes—came from the Continent.
Our nation was … “restructured” under … Norman and Angevin rule in the eleventh and twelfth centuries …
Visit the great churches and cathedrals of Britain, read our literature and listen to our language: all bear witness to the cultural riches which we have drawn from Europe and other Europeans from us.
We in Britain are rightly proud of the way in which, since Magna Carta in the year 1215, we have pioneered and developed representative institutions to stand as bastions of freedom.
And proud too of the way in which for centuries Britain was a home for people from the rest of Europe who sought sanctuary from tyranny.
But we know that without the European legacy of political ideas we could not have achieved as much as we did.
From classical and mediaeval thought we have borrowed that concept of the rule of law which marks out a civilised society from barbarism.
And on that idea of Christendom ‑ Christendom for long synonymous with Europe ‑ with its recognition of the unique and spiritual nature of the individual, on that idea, we still base our belief in personal liberty and other human rights.
Stirring words. Britain at the heart of Europe, receiving influence and influencing in its turn. The way it should be for all members of a community or union. Thank you, well said, Mrs Thatcher.