• After Forty Years, Why Not Debate Europe?

    In 1964, I joined the Foreign Office and was assigned to Western Organisations and Co-ordination Department, the department responsible for our relations with Europe.

    Eighteen months later, I was sent to Brussels on my first overseas posting. I was briefly involved in the arrangements for the Brown/Wilson tour of European capitals – an effort to circumvent the Gaullist veto that was frustrating our renewed attempt to join what was then the Common Market.

    Throughout this period, I accepted the prevailing consensus that what was already described as “Europe” was Britain’s destiny. But by the time I returned to Britain and began to think of a political career, I had begun to think again.

    I was not immune from the pervasive sense of idealism and internationalism that animated the enthusiasts for the Common Market. But, as I learned more of it, I realised that it was not “Europe” but a particular and practical economic and trading arrangement which could hardly have been less in our interests.

    It required us to give up a powerful advantage in an increasingly competitive post-war world – our ability to set food prices according to the lowest world levels. We instead had to raise food prices to the levels required by inefficient European production, and pay a subsidy to boot to those inefficient producers.

    In addition, we gave up our preferential access to Commonwealth markets for our manufactured goods and had to face up instead to direct competition from our most dangerous competitors in Europe.

    And, as the Common Market became the EEC and then eventually the European Union, even these economic considerations were dwarfed by other issues. As the new Europe took new powers, admitted further members, developed its own institutions, and moved inexorably to become a nascent super-state, it became increasingly necessary to ask questions to which warm fuzzy feelings about the rightness of our European future did not provide adequate answers.

    Was this “Europe” or just one version? Was it what the people of Britain and Europe really wanted? As power moved upwards to European institutions, what would happen to our democracy? What power to determine our own economic policy would be left to us in a single European economy? Above all, could the whole top-heavy arrangement possibly work?

    We can now begin to see what the long-term answers to those questions might be. Yet, over the four decades of our membership, those who dared to ask these questions were decried as “anti-European”, drummed out of the ranks of the bien pensants – and, at times, treated as moral delinquents or intellectually deficient.

    I vividly remember at the time of the 1975 referendum being interviewed by the BBC’s excellent political correspondent, Charles Wheeler. When I expressed concerns about some aspects of our membership, he accused me of being – like other “anti-Marketeers” – ignorant and prejudiced. When I mentioned that I had spent years in the Diplomatic Service on European issues, and had taught constitutional law at Oxford – also covering European aspects – he had the good grace to apologise immediately.

    Things have not changed greatly since then. While there has been a sea change in public – and even business – opinion (and who could be surprised in view of recent developments), the political and media establishment remain determined to deny the need for any re-consideration.

    The Observer, for example, opines that the case for review has no basis since opinion polls demonstrate that people are not concerned about Europe as such and are focused much more on issues of the economy, employment and public services. But people are not as silly as that.

    They do not see Europe as a discrete issue that is separate from their other concerns. They rightly recognise that it impinges on all of the issues – the economy, our democracy, our international relationships, the environment – that they think are important. It is surely not surprising that, after 40 years’ experience of membership and understanding that the whole project is now in danger of foundering, we might wish to pause and consider whether a top-down, top-heavy Europe imposed by a political elite is what we want.

    This is especially so when it is clear that Europe’s leaders have learned no lessons from the current difficulties. They insist that it is not their blueprint, but the people, that are at fault.

    The issue is, as it has always been, not whether Europe but what sort of Europe. The often posed question as to whether or not we are “part of Europe” has always been a nonsense. We are of course in every sense – geographically, historically, culturally, economically, politically – part of Europe.

    It is not anti-European to say, as part of that Europe, that our European partners are going wrong, and are in reality destroying the chances of effective European cooperation. It is not anti-European to insist that Europe should be democratic, not just in the formal sense that elections are held, but in the substantive sense that people should consent to be governed by the institutions to which they elect representatives.

    It is no longer possible to keep a lid on this debate or to frustrate it by describing those who want to participate as knaves or fools. It is time to seek – and provide – the answers we should have had all along.

    Bryan Gould

    27 October 2011