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Reluctant European: Britain and the European Union from 1945 to Brexit by Stephen Wall

This book could also be called “Life as a Continuous Negotiation”. It shows with great clarity that when Britain entered the European Economic Community, as it was then known, the advocates of joining indulged in wishful thinking, as more recently did the advocates of Brexit.

There was no love affair before this marriage, no honeymoon after it, and the divorce is proving pretty painful too.

In 1979 Helmut Schmidt, an anglophile German Chancellor, asked Oliver Wright, the British Ambassador in Bonn, why the British had spent the six years since we joined haggling like Italians about sums of money which ought to have been beneath our notice.

There had been years of haggling before we joined, and there was a lot more haggling to come, for Margaret Thatcher was only just beginning her campaign for the British rebate.

Stephen Wall, who joined the Diplomatic Service in 1968, saw much of this haggling at first hand, for he was an adviser to five Foreign Secretaries and three Prime Ministers, and also served for five years as the UK’s Permanent Representative to the EU.

How did he stand it? This book is intended mainly as a dispassionate account of Britain’s European policy over the last 75 years: an aim it more than meets.

But it also offers hints on how to survive official life. One method is to enjoy the comic side of things. Here is one of the best anecdotes with which Wall enlivens his text:

“My father-in-law [Norman Reddaway], a young diplomat in the post-war British Embassy in Rome, had accompanied his Ambassador in 1950 when the latter, on instructions from London, called on the Italian Foreign Minister to persuade him of the ill-advised nature of the proposed Coal and Steel Community. The Minister, Count Sforza, listened politely. At the end of the Ambassador’s reasoned case, Sforza smiled tolerantly. ‘My dear Ambassador,’ he said. ‘There are times at the opera when you should enjoy the music and not worry about the words.'”

There is much to be said for the Sforza approach. Enjoy the music and don’t bother to translate the lyrics.

It was not, however, an approach which Wall and his colleagues felt able to adopt:

“We British worried intensely about ‘the words’. With no overarching written constitution, the words of Parliamentary Acts were all we (and the courts which interpreted them) had to rely on.”

One detects the note of suppressed hysteria which runs through the story of Britain’s relationship with Europe. It mattered desperately to get it right: here is the principal, and entirely honourable, motive which drove so many members of the Diplomatic Service to devote their careers and very considerable minds to the problem.

And yet, as Wall’s account brings out, brains were not enough to arrive at a solution. He starts in the Frick gallery in New York, staring at the Holbein portraits of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell.

Here are “the two sides of the schism that was the Reformation”: Cromwell “the piggy-eyed, clever thug”, versus a representative of European civilisation:

“More was a Renaissance scholar… He was the friend of the Dutch philosopher and scholar Erasmus. They both saw themselves as part of an international, and especially European, cultural and spiritual order: that of Christendom. For More, the son of a lawyer, and himself the most senior guardian and dispenser of the law in the England of his day, the Church and State were umbilically linked and the laws of God and the laws of Man had to be in harmony. When Henry VIII sundered that harmony by declaring himself Head of the Church and breaking from the authority of Rome he was not, in More’s eyes, simply rebelling from a pontiff who was more of a temporal ruler than a spiritual one. Henry’s action was, as More saw it, an assault on the very foundations on which the English state was built.”

Wall is descended rather wonderfully from Norman foot soldiers who settled in Derbyshire, where their name “gradually morphed from Du Val to Wall” and they became yeomen farmers.

His mother was a Catholic, he was brought up as a Catholic, and he points out that the EEC was “largely conceived by Catholic Christian Democrats”, who signed the Treaty of Rome on 25th March 1957, the Feast of the Annunciation:

“For Britain, on the other hand, the idea of a supranational authority – beyond the control of national parliaments – was, and remained, conceptually alien and politically nigh on impossible to contemplate. We live with that political reality to that day.”

Wall is too intelligent and fair-minded to suggest that all virtue lies on the European side of the divide. He describes how the six founding members of the EEC created, “in an act of pre-emptive and ruthless self-interest”, the Common Fisheries Policy, before the British, the Danes, the Norwegians and the Irish, all of whom had large stocks of fish, were allowed to join.

The budget was likewise rigged against the British, who found themselves paying for a system of agricultural support for French farmers, an injustice which took many years of haggling to put right.

In 1987, Julian Bullard, the British Ambassador in Bonn, wrote a dispatch to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which included the words:

“I would plead that at least more thought should be given to the style of British policy in Europe. The plain speaking of the House of Commons does not translate well into Continental languages, especially in countries that live by coalition and compromise.”

Over 30 years later, what Bullard said remains true. Abrasive language of the kind often heard in Westminster just doesn’t register in Germany: is politely discounted as simply not serious.

Yet if one adapts one’s tone to take account of German susceptibilities, one is liable to make no impact, and to lose one’s British audience.

Wall admits that Margaret Thatcher made a remarkable impact not only in Europe, especially in that part of the Continent still held by the Soviet Union, but in the United States:

“A visit to Washington by Prime Minister Jim Callaghan rated a few lines in The New York Times. The first visit of Thatcher as Prime Minister, for which I was the gofer late in 1979, dominated the headlines and the TV news. Her address to both Houses of Congress electrified the audience. I spent the first ten years of my Foreign Office career doing my bit to represent a country in visible decline: widely seen as the sick man of Europe. All that changed with Thatcher.”

Tony Blair emerges less well from this account than one might expect. He contributes a single, mendacious paragraph to his memoirs on the subject of joining the euro, is heard by Wall agreeing to misrepresent Jacques Chirac’s views about Saddam Hussein, fatefully promises a referendum on a new European treaty, and pretends that he shares the vision of the EU’s founders.

The moral of this admirable book is that forms of words, however carefully chosen, are not enough to bridge the divide that runs through Britain, and has done since the Reformation.

So although Wall says almost nothing about Boris Johnson, for whom he never worked, he does draw the impassable chasm into which any Prime Minister is in danger of tumbling: one to which the present occupant of Number Ten sometimes seems, with his carefree insistence that politics should be enjoyable, to be applying the wisdom of Count Sforza.