The question of Europe

J. Alan Smith on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union

Current discussion on Europe concentrates on whether there should be a referendum in 2017 to decide, after some adjustments to the constitution of the European Union (EU), whether the United Kingdom should remain in the EU or leave. It would be prudent to discuss what Europe is, what the EU is, and what we would like it to be.

For Hilaire Belloc: ‘The Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith’; for him, and for others, Europe is a set of peoples and states with a Christian culture. Without that unifying culture, Europe would be little more than a sub-continent of Asia.

British law

The British Isles are geographically part of Europe and culturally part of Europe at least since the southern part of Britain became part of the Roman Empire in 43 AD. Before 1492, the British Isles comprised a group of offshore islands on the north-west edge of the known world. Our subsequent success has derived to a great extent from our ability to trade with the rest of the world, not merely continental Europe. Canning’s words from the nineteenth century find an earlier resonance here: ‘I called the New World into existence, to redress the balance of the Old.’

The British Constitution has evolved over more than a millennium. We have a legal system that started with the unwritten common law and has since been changed by statute as and when necessary. If we think that the law is wrong, or that judges’ interpretation of the law is wrong, we have the power to  change it through the Queen in Parliament. It is said thate do not have a written constitution: this is true to the extent that it is not written in a single document. However, it is written in countless statutes and legal judgements. Our critics see a vast assembly of trees and do not recognize it as a wood.

Transfer of power

The EU, under a number of different names, has existed since the Fifties. At that time the view of the British establishment was: ‘The United Kingdom has no future outside but, if we join, we will dominate it.’ As a private view it was dubious; as a public statement it was disastrous. To enter negotiations while publicly proclaiming that we have no alternative left little room for manoeuvre. However, we must now start from where we are.

First we must realize that the EU is not simply a political system to which changes to make life better for the peoples of Europe may be discussed in a rational manner. In fact, despite lip-service being paid to the concept of Subsidiarity, under which decisions should be evolved as far as possible, it is rather an ongoing process to transfer sovereign powers from the nation states that comprise the EU to the EU itself. Questioning this end, while not actually illegal, is in very bad taste. Consider the possibility of a proposal to transfer a significant function from Brussels to the nations of Europe. The very idea calls to mind a cartoon in the style of H.M. Bateman: ‘The man who said that some powers should be transferred from Brussels.’

Expressing our views

Nevertheless, at the risk of making ourselves unpopular (well, all right, then, more unpopular) we should state clearly the future of the EU that we should like if we are to remain within it. We should make the point that we are not seeking special conditions simply for ourselves but for all the nations of the EU.

It would be necessary to abandon the utopian vision of an ever-closer union and assert that the EU would move forward through steps of evolutionary change that were acceptable to the peoples of Europe. We want l’Europe des Patries, a Europe of Nations.

The main elements of sovereignty should remain with the nations: the right to make laws; the control of the armed forces; and the control of the money supply. We have already seen in the Eurozone how a common currency necessitates the centralizing of financial controls.

Looking ahead

There are other areas worthy of consideration such as the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy, the latter being a consequence of the United Kingdom’s inept negotiating stance in the Seventies. It is rumoured that a memorial is to be erected to the UK Prime Minister at the time: in one of our former fishing ports comprising a simple stone tablet: ‘Edward Heath: ‘Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

It is possible, of course, that, left to the processes of evolutionary political change, Europe in, say, a thousand years’ time might bear some resemblance to the ideas of the federalists. This could occur through a series of small changes, each of which had both the prior consent and the post-implementation acceptance of the peoples of Europe. If this were to happen then so be it. But it would be wrong for those in positions of power in the twenty-first century to presume to determine what would be good for the peoples of Europe in the thirty-first century. What has posterity ever done to us? ND

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