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October 03, 2005

Europe - What Went Wrong?

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

There is little popular support in the UK today for the "European project". Among politicians, the careers of that generation which was most enthusiastic about the project has reached its end. Prof. William D. Rubinstein - a historian at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth - asks, what went wrong with the "European project"? The views expressed in this article are those of Prof. Rubinstein, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

The death of Sir Edward Heath on 17th July 2005, together with the announcement by Tory leadership candidate Kenneth Clarke that he no longer believes in the viability of the euro, are timely reminders of a truth acknowledged too infrequently in recent British political discourse, that the European idea is dead. It is difficult to be precise as to just when it died, although 2001, perhaps coincidentally with September 11th, is probably accurate enough. Just why the European ideal died is an interesting subject for discussion, about which a range of answers might be given.

British enthusiasm for Europe probably reached its peak among many Conservatives around 1960, well before Britain actually joined the EEC, although opposition within the party remained strong for another decade or more. Support for Europe probably reached its zenith among Labourites around the time of the 1975 referendum, although opposition to Europe was certainly far stronger amongst Labourites until the mid-1980s than among Tories. (During the past fifteen years or so, the opposite has clearly been the case: most Labourites - and almost all Liberal Democrats - are far more tolerant of the EC/EU than are most Tories.) Support for the European ideal has clearly been generational.

If we accept that those born around the time of Edward Heath (1916) among Tories and, say, Roy Jenkins (1920) or, perhaps, Shirley Williams (1930) among Labourites - or the party's Social Democrat breakaway - represent the peak of support for Europe, it is striking that - with exceptions, of course - every decadal interval since those dates has seen fewer and fewer Euro-enthusiasts and more and more Euro-sceptics among politicians and political activists. Ken Clarke (b. 1940), who entered Parliament in 1970, probably represents the last Tory generational cohort amongst whom enthusiasm for the European project was not seen as unusual. After him, the tide has turned almost totally, so that even Michael Howard (b. 1941) seems to be much more of a different, Euro-sceptical generation, to say nothing of Iain Duncan Smith (b. 1954) and William Hague (b. 1961). I suppose that among the intake of 54 new Conservative MPs (this is more than the number of seats the Conservatives gained as sitting MPs also stood down) elected earlier this year, the average year of birth was around 1960 and, among them, it would probably be difficult to find those who don't spit when the word "Europe" is mentioned. Indeed, according to media reports Ken Clarke has little support among these new Tory MPs.

So, what went wrong with Europe? As was often observed when Edward Heath died, support for Europe peaked among those who fought in the Second World War or could at least remember it. Perhaps not coincidentally, support for the collectivist Labour enterprise also peaked among the same generation, while "Thatcherism" largely took hold among those too young to have remembered the War and the advanced form of socialism which it brought to wartime Britain, which set the stage for the victory of the 1945 Labour government.

For many Tories, Europe was probably seen as a replacement for the Empire. The Macmillan government's attempts to gain entry to the EEC came to the forefront around 1960, just at the moment when it was obvious that not even a remnant of the Empire could survive much longer and when, post-Suez, Britain's position as understudy to the United States was increasingly challenged and bypassed, as was any residual claims to being a great power in any real sense. At that time, hopes that Britain might be able to play a leadership role in a unified western Europe were not necessarily absurd. France had experienced decades of political turmoil and the disgrace of Vichy; West Germany and Italy recent totalitarianisms. It was not unreasonable to imagine that Britain's unbroken democratic experience, together with its nuclear arsenal and strong links to America, would entitle it to playing an immediate leadership role in Europe.

More central to the popularity of Europe then and for years to come were two other factors: the European economy appeared to be strong, growing, and flourishing at the same time as Britain's was unquestionably floundering, while an economically and politically unified Europe seemed to be the other face of NATO, which created a militarily unified western Europe (with America) to meet the Soviet threat. So long as the "European economic miracle" appeared to be an undeniable reality, side-by-side with a British economy lurching from crisis to crisis, joining the European venture appeared to be indeed a "quick fix" for Britain's economic malaise: join up, and Britain's economic woes would be cured. So long as the Cold War continued, European unity appeared an appropriate response. Both central factors probably vanished at the same time, in roughly the early 1990s, when Britain's economy turned the corner into growth and prosperity (while Europe's languished) at just the time when the Soviet Union disappeared.

Euro-enthusiasts in this country also failed to engender a viable popular pro-European movement of any strength. Young people on the Continent might well think of themselves as Europeans, but young people in Britain certainly do not. If at any time there was a concerted effort to produce a pro-European spirit in Britain, it has long since disappeared. I do not think that I am being inaccurate in claiming that most British people feel no more of an affinity with the Luxembourgers or Portuguese - much less the Slovenians - than with the Hottentots or Samoans, and much less than with Australians, Canadians, or Americans.

In the meantime, nearly a half century of corporate existence has seen the EC/EU and its institutions build up a vast infrastructure of elected officials and unelected bureaucrats which strikes many commentators as unusually pointless, remote, and arguably corrupt.

I would be willing to bet that not one person in fifty could name his or her Euro MEP, while not one person in two hundred has had the slightest contact with them. The European Parliament appears as remote and pointless as the Westminster Parliament must have seemed to the natives of Bechuanaland in 1925, unnoticed until it does something really stupid or sinister such as restricting vitamin sales.

The European Court and treaties like the European Convention on Human Rights appear designed to give a charter to the criminal, the terrorist, and the illegal immigrant, replacing age-old guarantees of British parliamentary rule with abstract judge-made law, always aimed at decreasing the powers of Parliament.

Most European states appear incorrigibly dirigiste and incapable of freeing up their economies as Britain and America did in the 1980s. As a result, the Continent appears to suffer from seemingly incurable high rates of unemployment, low rates of growth, and visible trade union power. Continental Europe's political leaders seldom appear to rise above utter mediocrity, and the entire continent, at least outside of eastern Europe, appears to me to have something of a death wish. It is very difficult to associate Europe today with the continent that produced Dante, Galileo, Beethoven, Rembrandt, and Einstein.

Arguably, the many demographic catastrophes and changes of the past 150 years - the mass migration of many of its most talented to America and elsewhere, the slaughterhouses of the two world wars, genocides, and mass murders, and continuing low population growth post 1965 - have simply diminished the continent's talent pool, and perhaps its long-term viability, beyond recovery.

Given all this, it is not surprising that few in Britain nowadays feel anything other than a comprehensive lack of enthusiasm for the European project which, in retrospect, appears to have been a chimera pursued by successive British governments of the 1960s and 1970s for reasons which are no longer valid. At the last European elections in Britain, about 54 per cent of those who voted, voted for parties (Conservative 26.7%, UKIP 16.1%, Green 6.3%, BNP 4.9%) which were either explicitly critical of Europe or overtly hostile to it. In this case, is it not time for Britain's politicians to trust the people?

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales - Aberystwyth.


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Whilst the "generational" point is unarguable, and as Prof. Rubinstein suggests, closely connected with personal experience of WW2 or the lack of it, there are a number of other points which can be made.

(1) The Labour Party policy in the early 1970s was to quit the EEC - as it then was - Wilson's referendum was a (stereotypically Wilsonian) device to save his own skin. There were of course anti-EEC politicians who had been adults in WW2 - Foot and Powell are the obvious names.

(2) "Europe" and the EU are two different entities. I wasn't always sure which Prof. Rubinstein was referring to. If we look at the place, rather than the political construct, I would want evidence that young people look more to the English-speaking world politically - it's probably got class overtones - do your parents have a gite or a time-share in Florida?

(3) That new cure-all of the Right, the Flat Tax, is at least as much a European as an American idea.

Posted by: Innocent Abroad at October 3, 2005 07:57 PM
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In Leonard Bernstein's Candide, Richard Wilbur and Stephen Sondheim wrote lyrics for a song 'O Happy We.' There Candide and his bride-to-be, Cunegonde, sing alternating verses imagining their lives together. All of his involve rural idylls, nights beside the fire and walks in the woods: all of hers involve balls and soirees and social whirl. The chorus, sung together, celebrates how rare it and wonderful that two lovers so completely agree (they do not agree at all).

The process of exploration, ideally before marriage rather than after, explains why the blush has gone off the European rose.

Posted by: s masty at October 4, 2005 12:29 PM
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