Sir Peter Marshall was Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General 1983-88 and UK Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva 1979-83.

We may not say, along with Henry Ford, that “history is more or less bunk”. But in the management of our affairs we often seem to behave as if that was our opinion.

Brexit is a prominent case in point. Let us therefore take a cold look at the facts

i.The EU has lost its way

At the outset, in the days of the European Economic Community, “l’esprit communautaire” had a specific significance: it expressed the community spirit, the complement of, but also to some extent a check on, l’acquis communautaire, the accumulation of EEC treaties, laws, precedents and powers.

L’esprit communutaire has all but vanished, for a number of reasons including:

  • The replacement of the Fourth Republic in France by the Fifth Republic. under de Gaulle. Gaullisme could scarcely be described as Atlanticist, positive-sum or UN-minded.
  • The quasi-gratuitous decision at the Stuttgart Summit in 1983 to add the words “and Member States of the Community” after “peoples” in the formula “an ever closer union among the peoples”.
  • The raft of treaties initiated or adopted in the Delors era, which greatly increased the size of l’acquis. It was a fuite en avant, ignoring the step-by-step approach insisted on by Schuman; and above all…
  • …The transformation of the 2001 Convention on the Future of Europe, set up by the Declarations of Nice and Laeken, from what was supposed to be a stock-taking and consultative exercise into a vehicle for drawing up a constitution.

This was the opposite of what was wanted, and immediately rejected in referendums in France and the Netherlands.  Nonetheless, EU enthusiasts served up the text again, largely unchanged, but in the optically different guise of “reform”, rather than “further transfers of sovereignty”, status allegedly not requiring member state approval by referendum.  The resulting Lisbon Treaty effectively type-cast the EU as an inward looking inflexible bureaucracy

Sadly, the EU has lost its way.

ii. British failures

The British enjoy a deservedly high reputation for their positive and constructive role in the work of major international organisations in general. Our participation in the EEC/EC/EU is the sorry exception.

Ministers of whatever political stripe seemed as unwilling to explain the benefits of membership at home as they were to take a constructive part in the management of affairs in Brussels.

We were market-takers instead of market-makers. We embraced a passive and deferential “Anglo-Brussels Orthodoxy”, of which the central message was that, in the end, we have to do what Brussels says.

Our years of membership can be roughly divided into periods of Catch-up, Opt-out and Cop-out, corresponding approximately to the Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Blair/Brown premierships.

Three great British failures:

a) Stuttgart.

We failed to challenge the addition at the Stuttgart Summit in 1983 of “and member States”. In his memoirs, Geoffrey Howe, who led the UK delegation as the very newly appointed Foreign Secretary, subsequently noted that “we attached less importance than we should have done – to this blueprint for the future”. .

(b) Nice and Laeken

No-one grasped the golden opportunity offered by thsi stock-taking exercise to introduce greater flexibility into the EU. Had we done so, we would have had a much less turbulent 21st Century to date.

(c) The Lisbon Treaty

Nonetheless, all might not have been lost but for our third failure: not to have gripped the specious “reform” process, ending up as the Lisbon Treaty. Inexplicably, the Blair administration indicated they would go along with it, subject to a few “red lines”.

III Elaborate European constructs go against our national grain

Dispassionate study of our relationship with our European partners since 1945 suggests that the balance of the argument rests with the Leavers. Thus:

(1) The first post-war weighty expression of British opinion on the subject was Churchill’s Zurich speech in September, 1946. He saw Britain’s role in the uniting of Europe as support from the outside.

(2) Having just conducted an extensive programme of nationalisation, the Labour Government was not enthused by the Schuman Declaration (1950), nor minded to take part in the proposed Coal and Steel Community. When asked whether Britain was part of Europe or not, Attlee replied “we’re semi-detached” –  a meaningful phrase on this side of the Channel, but not having the same useful associations on the other.

(3) The European Defence Community (1954) foundered because the French were unwilling to join unless the UK did so as well. This was not a starter. The problem was solved by Anthony Eden’s inspired idea of Western European Union (WEU)

(4) In spite of pressure for the other side of the channel, we declined to commit ourselves to the idea of European Economic Community. We stood aside from the Treaty of Rome (1957)

(5) It did not take us long to realise that this was a mistake, at least in economic terms. We applied for EEC membership in 1961. By the end of 1962 it was generally assumed that we were coming up the straight. On January 14, 1963, at one of his Olympian-style press conferences in the Elysee, de Gaulle unilaterally and without the slightest warning, declared we were not fit for membership, thus effectively vetoing our bid.

(6) It was not until de Gaulle’s departure in 1969 that we could hope to seek membership with any real hope of success. We achieved this in 1971, and actually acceded on January 1, 1973.

(7) But the terms on which we joined we so onerous that Mrs Thatcher a decade later insisted on, and secured, a substantial rebate. “We want our money back”.

(8) (6) and (7) do not constitute an ideal basis for an enduing warm relationship.

IV Conclusion: “this dance can no longer go”

In Walpole’s famous phrase, “this dance can no longer go”.

We have to face the possibility that our EEC venture was doomed from the start by the brutality of the de Gaulle veto, and the harshness of the entry terms. The impact of the former in particular was near-toxic.

We have to face the fact that the EU was unable or unwilling to meet David Cameron’s plea in 2015, to the President of the European Council, for the flexibility to achieve “a new settlement for the UK in a Reformed European Union”.

The EU was, and is, headed in a direction which is against our nature. But we are part of Europe. We must find a positive-sum relationship with our partners which corresponds to both realities.

We need to rekindle l’esprit communautaire, on both sides of the channel. It is at the core of the Prime Minister’s proposal, in her Florence speech, for “a new era of co-operation and partnership”. Our future relationship should be a Positive-Sum Game.