We do not often get involved in the Brexit circus here at TMT because it is such a divisive issue and so hard to establish the actual truth in so many of the claims made by the protagonists and opponents of the UK leaving Europe.
That said, the indignation expressed by those who would have us remain seems to have missed one of the most deep-rooted reasons for many now wanting to get off the European “Federal Express”. What they seem to have overlooked is that Britain has a long history of resisting European-based interference and that current events are simply a re-run of an earlier period in our history, although that version took a century to play out. We are referring to the 100-plus years from the decision by Henry VIII to leave the Catholic Church in 1532-34, to the English Civil War in the mid-1600s.
Effectively, the English Reformation of 1534 was a declaration that we, England, no longer wanted to be beholden to, or the servant of, an external, European-based power – in this case the Pope, together with his two strongest supporters, France and Spain. In the following decades a great deal of everyday life in this country revolved around whether you and your sovereign happened to be on the same religious team – catholic or protestant.
Things came to a bit of a head (forgive the pun), in the 1600s when King Charles was perceived to be returning to the high-handed and increasingly outdated concept of the Divine Right to rule, together with a growing tendency to impose High-Church or Catholic practises in England. A very “English” political movement in Parliament and the countryside resisted this tendency and made it clear that they would not tolerate the resurgence of catholic influence or power in this country.
The ensuing civil war was the cause of much bitter in-fighting within towns, villages and even families. In effect, in a similar manner to today’s divisions over Brexit, England became polarised, with not much room for anyone to sit on the fence between the Parliamentarians and Royalists. The king lost his head and a period of somewhat drab Puritanism followed.
It was generally regarded as being such a dull time that the monarchy were welcomed back only 11 years after Charles I was executed. His son, Charles II, had some sympathies with the continental (and Catholic) powers that had harboured him in exile, but it was not till James II, his successor, tried to re-introduce the trappings of Catholicism once again that Parliament stepped in and invited William of Orange, a Protestant, to take over.
Memories can take a long time to erase. In the late 17th century, the merest suggestion that the British become more closely linked to a continental power-base (in the form of the Pope) proved a step too far; so for many people in the 1960s and ‘70s the notion of the UK joining a Europe in which France wielded so much power was not entirely welcome. In spite of the alliance-formed between the two countries in two world-wars, it seemed a betrayal of everything England and the United Kingdom had stood for over the centuries.
But we did join, and have ever since tried to avoid the fact that our relationship with Europe as a whole has been rather less than cosy. As Mrs Thatcher tried to point out, we essentially wanted a trading agreement with Europe, and not the political alignment that seemed increasingly to revolve around a plan to create a single European State.
For some in Europe, a Federal system was a means to mitigate the risk of a third German magical mystery tour of Europe in the style of 1914 and 1939. For others it has been all about the money, with a very limited number of larger nations effectively bank-rolling the rest of Europe’s welfare, industrial and agricultural support schemes.
For the two largest continental nations, France and Germany, there are some quite specific reasons for their support of a European state. In the case of the France, it was based on a desire to prevent another invasion by Germany, coupled with a perception that this was the best way to re-establish its former pre-eminence in Europe. For Germany, or to be more specific, for Germans, it was to do with a desire to remove the stains of the past.
Post WW2, most young Germans were taught that they were Europeans first and foremost, and that there was something bad about being “German”. However, subsequent developments such as the introduction of the Euro have helped German exports and finances as a whole, as it has kept their admittedly excellent products affordable in export markets, something that was an increasing concern when the Deutschmark was around.
For its part, Britons seemed not to be bothered by many of the issues that bound the smaller nations together. Nor did they have any desire to be part of the Franco-German axis that was developing. The European Economic Area and European Free Trade Agreement seemed to provide all that was necessary. But all this was changed by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, officially called the Treaty on European Union. This made it explicitly clear that the European agenda was focused upon ever closer integration, with the introduction of the Euro an early milestone in that journey.
From then on, it seemed to many in the UK that this was the slippery-slope to the formation of a supra-national European State, with institutions such as Parliament becoming a mere provincial council charged with implementing policy dictated by a fundamentally un-elected European bureaucracy.
Whether or not this last description is strictly true is, for many people, somewhat academic. Europeans have declared war on individual national sovereignty, as has been made clear time and again by some fairly explicit statements from the Federalists:
‘A Europe of nations is a relic of the past’ Guy Verhofstadt, Federalist and Member of the European Parliament
‘The UK belongs to the EU’ Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament 2014 – 17
‘It is an illusion to think that EU states can hold on to their autonomy’ Hans Tietmeyer, President of the German Bundesbank 1993 – 99
“National sovereignty will soon prove itself to be a product of the imagination’ Gerhard Schröder, Chancellor of Germany 1998 – 2005
“We want more Europe and stronger powers to intervene’ Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany
To be fair, it is easy to take any of the above quotes out of context to make a point, and one has to allow for misunderstanding arising from poor translations: for example, did Martin Schulz actually mean to say “The UK belongs in Europe”, a much less aggressive statement. Given that so many Europeans are questioned in English, and are expected to reply in what for them is a second language, we should also be very tolerant of any potential misunderstandings that might creep in.
However, the overall drift of the European Federalist movement is still pretty clear to see. The end-game is for the establishment of a unified and harmonised European State, something that goes against everything Britain has stood for since the 16th Century. Does that make “us” right and “them” wrong? No – it does not. But we have to recognise that these sorts of issues run very, very, deep in national and individual psyches and that the “chattering classes” cannot expect the rest of the country to follow them down a completely new road purely on the basis of some intellectually smart arguments. There have to be deep-rooted and persuasive reasons for changing the habits of at least 500 years.
If, as seems likely, we leave without a deal, we must collectively and individually stand up and be prepared to put our shoulders to the wheel, for we will sink or swim as a result of our own efforts: there will be no-one to bale us out. The potential gains if we do succeed are enormous: we just now need to have the faith and determination to get on with the job.
Or, alternatively, we recognise that the world has changed and that we now need to turn our back on our past and embrace Europe more warmly. And by “Europe” one has to recognise that this includes not just the countries of Western Europe, but also those of Eastern Europe, whose approaches to so many aspects of life seem can sometimes seem so very different to our own.
However, at this point we once again become immersed in the subjective and emotive world of opinion rather than objective fact. Which is where we sign off and leave it to you, Dear Reader.