Reclaiming Britain's Commodity of Liberty

While more than enough is happening domestically to keep Americans fully occupied, it will not have escaped the attention of many of them that the political tectonic plates of Europe are currently moving in ways contrary to the direction in which America has sought to steer them since the end of World War Two.

What is called today the European Union was very much the brainchild of the United States. By means of it, America sought to prevent further internecine conflict in Europe, as well as to enmesh Germany within an alliance that would prevent it falling under Soviet influence. In the project of European integration, America has always viewed Britain’s participation to be a vital ingredient. This is so, despite the fact that, when plans for it were first drawn up, their country’s participation in the project was very much contrary to the wishes of the British people and their political leaders.

No matter, through considerable covert US funding of various propagandistic organizations such as the European Movement, Britain’s political leaders eventually became persuaded their country had little alternative but join in the project of European integration, half-hearted though its people have always been about so doing. The current Euro-crisis, plus the prospect of much deeper political union among the seventeen countries within the Euro-zone to solve it, has re-awoken in the British people their deep antipathy towards their country’s membership of the EU.

Earlier this year, to prevent support for his party hemorrhaging any further to the United Kingdom Independence Party which calls for Britain to withdraw from Europe, British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged that, if returned to office at the next general election in 2015, a future Conservative government would seek to repatriate powers from Europe and then offer the British public an in-out referendum on Europe based on the outcome of these negotiations.

The prospect of leaving it to the notoriously Euro-sceptical British public whether Britain remains in the EU proved too much for President Obama. Along with Vice President Joe Biden, outgoing American Ambassador to the UK, Adam Boulton, and Phillip Gordon, Assistant Secretary of State responsible for European affairs, the President promptly let it be known that America wants Britain to remain in Europe. In response to that disclosure, not a few Britons will be inclined to tell those who have divulged it to go tell it to the Marines.

The British people have had enough of Europe and want out. To understand why, President Obama and other Americans who want Britain to stay in the EU should read David Charter’s superb book which engagingly recounts “the story of Britain’s detachment from the EU.” It also explains “how we got to the point of [British] departure from the EU, what Britain’s options are now, and what it would mean to say “au revoir Europe.””

Having spent five years before writing the book in Brussels as European correspondent of the London Times, Charter knows well that about which he writes. The tale he tells is not a salutary one. Right from the start, dissimulation was needed to disguise from the British the true nature of the project so as to make them amenable to it:

The organisation that Britain joined in 1973 was… then called the European Economic Community… In British popular debate… the Common Market. It made the EEC sound disarmingly like a simple trading deal… and masked the true political and constitutional implications of membership…[which were that] control over large areas of national jurisdiction had been ceded to a supranational organisation… But British leaders were reluctant from the start to spell out to the British public that national legislators and courts would necessarily be subject to a higher authority… During the accession process, the government chose to emphasise the economic case and play down the constitutional implications.

In masterly fashion, Charter recounts how the full constitutional implications of Britain’s accession to the European Community became ever more apparent through  five successive treaties subsequent to the Treaty of Rome of 1957 in which the original six-nation-strong EEC came into being:

 The first of these treaties, the Single European Act, came along in the mid-1980s… To get the single market that Britain coveted, [Margaret] Thatcher would have to consent to a whole raft of European social and political powers that were shovelled into the treaty… The treaty also ended the right of national veto in a dozen key policy areas… by switching from unanimity to qualified majority voting (QMV) … eventually… synonymous with the erosion of national sovereignty.

 The Maastricht Treaty [of 1992, the second of the five treaties] contained even more measures towards the goal of “ever closer union” and made further claims on British sovereignty… [It] changed the name of the EEC to European Union, [and] also made all Britons “Citizens of the Union”… In all, national vetoes were reduced… by extending QMV in thirty policy areas.

Under the premiership of Margaret Thatcher’s successor John Major, Britain succeeded in relegating to an annex of that treaty the so-called “Social Chapter.” This accorded to workers a whole raft of social rights that all the other member states had been willing to include in the treaty and to which they had all signed up, despite Britain’s opt-out. Not least of these was the infamous Working Time Directive which limited the working week to a maximum of 48 hours. This directive was subsequently foisted upon Britain by means of QMV after it was claimed to be called for by considerations of health and safety, an area of policy subject to decision by QMV.

Another policy objective incorporated in the Maastricht Treaty from which Major was also able to obtain a British opt-out was monetary union. This opt-out has spared Britain the deflationary excesses to which so many other debt-laden European countries have been subject during the current recession.  

The third EU treaty since that of Rome was signed in Amsterdam in 1997 shortly after New Labor’s electoral victory in Britain. Several further areas of national sovereignty were ceded to the EU, particularly over social legislation:

Much to the delight of his continental partners, Blair… reverse[d] Major’s Maastricht opt-out from the Social Chapter… The treaty also introduced or moved twenty four more policy areas from decision by unanimity to QMV.

The fourth and fifth EU treaties since Rome were Nice in 2003 and Lisbon in 2007. The former transferred regional crisis management from the Western European Union to the EU and in 2004 also led to the creation of a European Defence Agency, presaging a European military force long wished for in some European quarters. The latter treaty was, essentially, a mere incorporation into pre-existent EU treaties of practically all the provisions of a previously proposed EU Constitution that had been rejected by both the French and Dutch electorates in national referenda.

Prime Minister Tony Blair had been the first EU leader to promise his electorate an opportunity to vote on that proposed Constitution. After its rejection by the French and Dutch, however, the Labor government argued the need for a British referendum on it was redundant.

Although palmed off as a mere “tidying-up” exercise by the Labor Minister responsible for Europe, the draft EU Constitution had been anything but that. Neither, therefore, was the Lisbon Treaty. By being presented, however, as a mere modification of pre-existing treaties, further need for any referenda was obviated before its ratification was possible by member states.

The British public did not take kindly to this brazen piece of deception and sidelining   by the Labor government.  To cause it maximum embarrassment, David Cameron pledged, shortly after becoming leader of the Conservatives in 2007, that his party would in office put any further EU treaty changes to the British electorate in the form of a referendum. Cameron was able to honor that pledge, after a fashion, upon entering into coalition with the Liberal Democrats following the 2010 general election. Their administration enacted legislation in 2011 guaranteeing that any future treaty changes will be subject to national referendum.

It is precisely because Cameron has so committed his party that he made the recent gambit he did. He believes further treaty changes inevitable in light of the current Euro-crisis. By making his most recent pledge, he hopes to win back electoral support for his party, as he also believes he shall be able to win back from Brussels sufficient powers to enable him to secure a referendum victory for a revised treaty incorporating them.

It is an adroit move by an increasingly desperate prime minister. However, he has as much chance of persuading an increasingly Euro-sceptical British electorate to fall for it, as he does that of persuading his European counterparts to cede to Britain the powers he is seeking to repatriate.

It is precisely because of the extreme unlikelihood of any such desperate gambit as Cameron’s present one succeeding that Charter has written his book. What he primarily seeks to set out in it are the various possible future options available to Britain in its future dealings with the rest of Europe, as well as the best possible estimate of how well or badly Britain would fare should it take the fateful decision to leave the EU.

The chapters dealing with these several topics are all clear, comprehensive and up-to-date. None of Britain’s future options is easy, argues Charter. Without declaring a preference for any one of them, he leaves it clear that, in his opinion, Britain must shortly leave the EU, but that there will be life after its doing so, albeit probably a slightly less prosperous one than it might otherwise have enjoyed had it remained a member.

Charter makes it unassailably clear that, in his estimate, Britain shall be able to live quite comfortably with any decision to leave, as it also will, if a little more awkwardly, with its European neighbors, with whom , he argues, Britain shall have to continue to have close dealings, even as a fully independent country. Hence, in his view, Britain is destined only to be bidding them au revoir, not adieu.

As to Obama’s suggestion that American interests would be imperiled should Britain withdraw from the European Union, along with accompanying veiled threats of marginalizing it as an ally should it, one can only suggest that, if seriously meant, the President and his like-minded acolytes should pay a little more attention to history. For well on now a century, Britain’s been America’s firmest ally, and America is highly unlikely to find a more loyal or supportive one elsewhere in Europe.

While America may have thought that, in constructing the EEC, it was making an ally, that might not have been how the constructs saw the matter. Consider what West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer reputedly told the French Prime Minister Guy Mollet at the height of the Suez crisis, when threatened military reprisals by America against France and Britain were enough to make them discontinue their incursion into Suez after Egyptian President Gamal Nasser had nationalized the Suez Canal:

France and England will never be powers comparable to the United States and the Soviet Union. Nor Germany either. There remains only one way of playing a decisive role on the world; that is to unite to make Europe. England is not ripe for it but the affair of Suez will help to prepare her spirits for it… Europe will be your revenge.

[Keith Kyle, Suez, Second Revised Edition, London and New York: I.B.Tauris, 2003), p.467]

With benefit of hindsight, it is clear Adenauer underestimated Britain’s loyalty to America, notwithstanding the latter’s treatment of Britain at the time of the Suez crisis. Despite this brief falling out, the general reason America and Britain have remained the closest of allies was made clear two hundred and fifty years ago by Edmund Burke , in an address to the House of Commons in 1775 on the eve of the American Revolution. In it, he vainly sought to persuade fellow parliamentarians that conciliation with the American colonies was called for, not war, and that Britain should drop its unreasonable and illiberal tax demands. Burke there told his fellow MPs:

 My hold of the colonies is in the close affection which grows from common names, from kindred blood, from similar privileges, and equal protection. These are ties which, though light as air, are as strong as links of iron. Let the colonies always keep the idea of their civil rights associated with your government— they will cling and grapple to you, and no force under heaven will be of power to tear them from their allegiance… As long as you have the wisdom to keep the sovereign authority of this country as the sanctuary of liberty… wherever the chosen race and sons of England worship freedom, they will turn their faces towards you. The more they multiply, the more friends you will have… [U]ntil you become lost to all feeling of your true interest and your natural dignity, freedom they can have from none but you. This is the commodity… of which you have the monopoly.

President Obama and his American friends should go chew on this.