U.K. vs. Europe: A Much-Hyped New Book Avoids the Issues

A recently published tome by an influential British journalist is no more than a Euro-enthusiast's screed.
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British Prime Minister

Tony Blair

recently announced a national changeover

plan to the European single currency. So between now and 2001, when a referendum is likely to be held on the government's decision to abolish the sterling, the last phase of a turbulent 40-year history of relations between Britain and the European continent will be played out until the final endgame.

A detailed historical survey of this period has just been published by one of Britain's leading newspaper columnists,

Guardian

journalist

Hugo Young

.

This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair, available in the U.S. in May, is destined (and perhaps designed) to become the hallowed work of reference for the pro-European cause.

The book heaps unqualified criticism on Britain for its actions in the period from 1955, when discussions about the

European Economic Community

started without Britain at Messina in Sicily, to 1997 when the "heart of darkness" in Anglo-European relations was reached under Prime Minister

John Major

. The story he tells is of a country whose behavior alternates between that of

Hamlet

and

King Lear

: one minute paralyzed by hesitation, the next minute railing like a madman at unalterable Fate. Every anecdote ends with a moral on the hopelessness of the British.

In particular, Young peddles the usual pro-European story about how, having stood aside at the beginning, Britain fatally handicapped its own relationship with Europe in subsequent decades. It may well be true that British policy toward Europe over this period has been inadequate -- although oddly enough, on the Continent, one often hears expressions of admiration for British pragmatic hesitation -- and Young is certainly interesting when he describes the apparently inchoate changes of heart on Europe by numerous British politicians.

But the scorn Young pours on these

voltes-face

-- only the pro-Europeans, he implies, have remained rational and consistent -- is severely vitiated by his astonishing refusal to grapple with any of the issues that have been the actual reason why so many British politicians have changed their minds so spectacularly.

His severest omission is on the constitutional and democratic implications of the single currency. The one idea absent from Young's analysis is, in fact, the single most important one: The euro changes everything about Europe. It is an utterly new form of integration. As the German foreign minister told the European Parliament in January, "With the introduction of the euro, Europe took a historical, perhaps revolutionary step. For the first time in the history of European integration, an essential element from a core area of national sovereignty was transferred to a European institution."

No account of the rebellion within the U.K.

Conservative Party

over the

Maastricht Treaty

, which created the single currency, can therefore make sense without understanding or explaining why the euro is important. And yet this is just how Young tells the story. Let us be clear:

Economic and Monetary Union

is important because it takes an extremely powerful discretionary executive tool of government, the control over monetary policy, out of the parliamentary domain and places it irrevocably in the hands of an unaccountable body. As such, the euro is a threat to democracy.

But it is not until page 497 that Young treats the reader to anything resembling the substantial discussions of this point, even though it actually caused the periods of high political drama the author narrates.

Instead, he just presents Europe as an unchanging bloc of beatific progressivism. But in his favorable discussion of pro-European politicians and in his criticism of so-called anti-European ones, Young seems ignorant of the fact that one of the most prominent pro-Europeans in the postwar period was

Sir Oswald Mosley

, the founder of the

British Union of Fascists

. He founded the Union Movement in 1948 "to promote the wider union of Europe."

Young even claims that history has proved pro-Europeans right, precisely because the

European Union

has advanced despite all Euroskeptic attempts to stop it.

"One is entitled," he wrote, "to cast a jaundiced eye on the record of those who resisted its happening." Not only is such historical determinism highly suspect -- are people necessarily in the wrong because they are on the losing side of history? -- but it also blinds the author to the significance of the great events that have shaped and changed the EU over time.

In particular, Young fails to consider the importance of the Gaullist decade in France (1958-1969) during which General

Charles de Gaulle

killed any plans to make Europe supranational. Gaullism made Europe antifederalist enough for the British to want to join it. One can thus give the British credit for being consistently in favor of a common market but opposed to common government.

Similarly, Young completely fails to take on board the importance of the reunification of Germany, the upheavals in Eastern Europe and collapse of the

Warsaw Pact

, events that obviously changed the geopolitical balance of the EU and the world. Under such conditions, it is hardly surprising that people in Britain (and France too, although Young conveniently omits to mention this uncomfortable fact) considered the implications of a resurgent Germany.

Young excoriates them for this, even though (or perhaps because) I once heard him admit, when accepting a prize from a German-British association for having contributed to better Anglo-German understanding, that he was quite surprised to be awarded the prize because he knew hardly anything about Germany.

Like much pro-European exegesis, therefore, Young's reading of history is remarkably insular. He pores endlessly over the various contortions of British politicians and yet seems to have spoken to hardly any European ones. Euroskepticism may be raucous in Britain, but it was the Danes who actually voted against Maastricht in 1992.

Even his concentration on Britain does not lead him to ponder the significance of why Euroskepticism has been politically so much more important there than in other EU countries. Oddly enough, Young actually quotes

Jacques Delors

, the former

European Commission

president and mastermind of the euro, giving the right answer: "The British have the best journalistic debate, the best parliamentary committees, the best quizzing of prime ministers after a summit."

Young also admits that the constitutional and democratic implications of joining Europe were hidden from the British public at the time. Given these two key points, Young's book does an unexpected service to the Euroskeptic cause: It provides yet further proof of the weakness of the pro-Europeans' commitment to the basic principles of democracy.

John Laughland is a commentator on European political and economic affairs. He has written for several British national dailies and published two books, The Death of Politics: France Under Mitterand and, most recently, The Tainted Source: The Undemocratic Origins of the European Idea.

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