Britain’s disputes with the European Union are part of a long historical narrative
There is the old joke about British reports of ‘Fog in the Channel - Continent cut off.’ The ‘fog’ is now thicker and perhaps even more hazardous than it was. David Cameron’s veto last December during the Eurozone crisis gave it an unhelpful and familiar ‘Britain versus the EU’ dimension as Europe faced its darkest economic moment since the Great Depression. While Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy tried to pump blood into the collapsing veins of the euro, Cameron’s demands for City of London safeguards appeared self-centred and anti-communautaire.
The French hit back. Sarkozy told Le Monde: ‘There are clearly now two Europes.’ No code there: there is the EU and there is Britain. Merkel was more emollient, telling the Bundestag that it is ‘beyond doubt that Britain will remain an important partner in the EU’. As long as the euro survives this crisis will be put down to experience, like others in the EU’s past. What Cameron asked for was neither unreasonable nor unexpected to those in the know, it was just that he asked for it undiplomatically and at the last moment. The real fallout from these events is that they reaffirm a damaging and distorted history of Britain and Europe. But there is another story to tell.
Let us first reprise the tired narrative of Britain and Europe. Of the contenders for the title ‘Father of Europe’, a short French economist, planner and statesman, Jean Monnet (1888-1979), stands tall. He laid the foundation stone of the EU after the Second World War and wanted the British in from the beginning. Alongside Charles de Gaulle, Monnet travelled to London amid the drama of June 1940. He took with him a proposal for ‘indissoluble union’ between Britain and France, but the plan fell with Petain’s submission to the Nazis. Preventing future Nazis was in part the stimulus for Monnet to write the Schuman Plan of 1950. Named after Robert Schuman, then the French foreign minister, it called for a coal and steel union in western Europe to neutralise historical enmities. Monnet ensured that the British received an invitation to join, but they demurred. One of Monnet’s compatriots recalled the British saying: ‘You in Europe have been defeated, you have been occupied; that is not our situation.’