• Which Europe?

    In today’s Guardian, Will Hutton – an old friend with whom I have, sadly, now lost touch – repeats a common (and possibly deliberate) error; he insists on locating Brexit as part of a far-right resurgence in Europe; and, in so doing, he conflates (as so many do) Europe and the European Union.

    Those who supported Britain’s initial joining of the European Union have always ignored and misrepresented the initial resistance to the proposition – a resistance that had its origins not so much in right-wing or left-wing politics, as in straightforward economic calculation.

    It never made economic sense for the UK to accept an arrangement that destroyed our access to efficiently produced Commonwealth food and compelled us to pay twice over – as both consumers and taxpayers – for expensive European food and for the Common Agricultural Policy (or, in other terms, the Inefficient-French-Farming Outdoor Relief Fund); and, at the same time, jeopardised our preferential treatment in Commonwealth markets for our manufactured goods, while simultaneously opening our own market to tariff-free German manufactures.

    The entirely predictable outcome was that we gave up our one competitive advantage – our access to cheap food – and allowed our manufacturing industry to be decimated by efficiently produced German manufactures, all of which was compounded by errors in economic policy – principally by holding the value of sterling at an overvalued rate.

    It was no accident that de Gaulle (supported by Adenauer) barred UK accession until he could be sure that the twin pillars of the Common Agricultural Policy and free trade in manufactures were safely in place. The romantics amongst us, however, ignored the hard-headed facts and were seduced by the notion that they were “building Europe”.

    They failed to recognise, not only the economics, but also the politics. In post-war Europe, a defeated Germany, and a France that resented the fact that it owed its liberation to the “Anglophones”, were jointly fearful that the the UK would claim a preponderant role in re-building the war-torn western Europe. The initial formation of “the Common Market” was a deliberate Franco-German attempt to “cut Britain down to size”.

    I had a ringside view of all these forces at work, by virtue of working in the Foreign Office on post-war western Europe and then serving in the UK embassy in Brussels. Those who now lament the downsides of Brexit seem to have no understanding of the real reasons for the British disenchantment with “Europe”.

    I am happy to acknowledge, however, as an olive branch to an old friend, that there is a Europe to which the UK undeniably belongs and whose future matters greatly to us. The sooner we can shake free of the detritus of past mistakes, the better.

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