The trouble with the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union (EU) is that it wants the EU to be like the UK; whereas the EU sees itself as more like a European version of, or counterpart to, the USA. If the EU were like the UK, it would see itself as a sort of commonwealth (indeed, Common Market) of separate nations agreeing to abide by common rules and loose conventions designed to promote the fair conduct of international trade, economic development and cultural understanding.
But the EU isn’t like that. The EU sees itself as the expression and as yet only partial realisation of a will to forge a united Europe: one that definitively overcomes all the divisions and conflicts that have pitted European nations against each other throughout the millennia. The ultimate manifestation of this victory over divisions between nations will be when all fundamental legal and political differences between the nations of Europe are abolished, and they freely unite – ‘pool their sovereignty’ – within a new supra-national European sovereign body or state with its own parliament, legislature, judiciary, monetary system, social policies, bill of rights and . . . constitution – among other things.
Many people in EU member states share this vision in its broad outlines without always realising the extent to which its logical outworking will be a complete political union, most likely in the form of a federal state. I say this based on the fact that several countries voted in favour of the EU constitution, either in uncontroversial parliamentary votes or in referenda – when we were still allowed to call it a constitution, that is. It should be borne in mind that many European countries were part of, or made up of, European empires, or confederations of nations or regional principalities, until a relatively recent period in their history: until the First World War in many instances. This applies both to many smaller states, such as Ireland or the Central European nations that were part of the Habsburg Empire, and larger ones such as Germany and Italy: made up of a large number of distinct principalities until as late as the second half of the 19th century. For these countries, then, the idea of a Federal Europe not only does not seem a disturbing prospect, but probably seems like the most rational, inevitable and comfortable arrangement to govern the relations between European states that, in the absence of such a Union, have too often pursued their rivalry with each other through military means.
By contrast, the nations that rejected the EU constitution in referenda – France and the Netherlands – are countries with a long tradition of unified, centralised states that were also at the heart of global empires, again until recent times. The UK, which would certainly have rejected the constitution (and almost certainly would reject the present Reform Treaty), is another case in point. Perhaps the French and Dutch people rejected the constitution ultimately because they felt it was moving too far in the direction of creating a European federal state that would do away with their cherished independence and national political institutions.
In the UK, we like to think that things like the abolition of trade barriers; the free movement of goods, services and people between nations; and the harmonisation of regulations, social policy and environmental action that the EU has brought are the real benefits of EU membership: that they’re what the EU is for. But in reality, these things flow from the core project behind the EU, rather than being the things that in themselves define what the EU is and should remain; and they are but stepping stones towards the complete realisation of that project. In other words, as the real goal is the political and legal unification of Europe, then the abolition of trade barriers, geopolitical borders and differential treatment of (discrimination towards) citizens of other member states compared with one’s own nationals can all be seen as integral, necessary characteristics that a supra-national Euro-state would have to have. It’s because the aim is to bring about the unification of European nations in a super-state like this that these things have been introduced, and not simply because the goal is to create a . . . Common Market for the promotion of trade and economic growth on fair competitive terms.
This core EU project is advanced by gradually extending the areas in which national sovereignty is ‘pooled’ at a European level, i.e. that sovereignty is effectively transferred to EU institutions. The current Reform Treaty is a big step in that direction. It doesn’t matter whether we call it a constitution or not. This is not only because it has substantially the same effect as the ‘abandoned’ constitution, but because it is working towards the same end: the establishment of united and effectual EU-wide governmental institutions and processes.
The very nature and scope of GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] much-vaunted red lines, which he brings forward as proof that the UK is not entering into a constitutional arrangement (viz a Federal Europe), ironically demonstrate the extent to which the Treaty does represent a radical move in the direction of a European state. What are the areas of UK ‘competence’ these red lines are supposed to preserve from the Euro take-over? No less than: the justice system; foreign affairs; fiscal autonomy and social security (social policy, and employment and labour affairs); and the fundamental human rights framework of the state. These represent basically the three core pillars of the executive (the Home Office, Foreign Office and Treasury) plus the judiciary. And the Treaty is also creating the EU as a distinct legal entity (‘state’ to you and me) at the same time as instituting a European President and a de facto Foreign Minister, albeit that the powers of those two individuals and their office will be limited, at least initially. Brown’s red lines may well signal that we are not entering into this constitution-in-all-but name; but all our fellow EU members are, and how long will be really be able or allowed to hold out and resist not only these moves but subsequent additional initiatives working towards ever closer integration?
But there’s another purpose – closer to home – that the red lines are serving. They are a means by which GB is attempting to strike a compromise between two contradictory pulls – integrationist and separatist – that threaten to pull that other Union, the UK, apart. As I explored in my previous post on this subject, the integrationist cause would be likely to command a majority in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, while the separatist cause would almost certainly be backed by a majority of the English electorate. By attempting to avoid a referendum on the Treaty, GB aims to fend off a vote that might reveal and open up still further a profound schism between England and the rest of the UK, with very different cultures, political philosophies and opinions about the direction in which ‘the country’ (i.e. the different countries of the UK) should be heading. GB hopes that the red lines will constitute [sorry, used the C word there!] a sufficient balance between the UK continuing to participate in the ongoing process of euro-integration and England retaining control over its own governance, which is essentially what is meant by the red lines: the UK, in political terms, being primarily a synonym for England in this post-devolution era.
But England deserves better. England has the need and right to make its own decisions about the extent to which it wishes to participate in the Euro-project. In essence, if the UK parliament decides to ratify the Treaty, this may well come down to the votes of Scottish and Welsh MPs swinging the decision in favour of the integrationists. But the will of the English people, which is so distorted by the composition of the UK parliament, will not have been sounded out. And this can only contribute to further bitterness towards the UK establishment and the EU, and further demands for independence.
All of which gets in the way of what could and should be a serious process of reflection for England about what its international future should be now that Imperial Britain is no more, and Scotland and Wales are increasingly following Ireland in breaking away from the Union (UK) and moving towards the Union (EU). What kind of role in Europe and the world can and should a separate England pursue? Do we have to go along with what I’ve described as an inexorable progression towards a Federal Europe? Is the English idea of a free-market Europe of distinct but closely interconnected nations (somewhat like the ideal of what the UK has been and could be again) now just a pipe dream?
We had a referendum 34 years ago on that particular vision of Europe, known then as the Common Market; and we endorsed it. But we’ve never had the chance of a free, properly democratic, representative vote on what the EU has become (because it was already pre-programmed to follow this course): a proto-Federal Republic of Europe. That’s the kind of referendum we should have; but failing that, let’s at least have a referendum on the Reform Treaty. And please let the will of the English people, as distinct from that of the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish, be allowed to be heard and taken into consideration.
But between E (England) and U (a United Europe), how long will that other U (the UK) be able to hold together? Brown’s red lines may prove to be a thin Euro-blue line that breaks up the UK.