For most of the last 45 years, the UK was the object of envy from its EU member state colleagues. Many felt that the UK had been able to influence EU institutions, policies and activities far more intelligently than any other member state. It was a widespread view, shared privately by many European politicians and diplomats, and particularly by France, that the UK “fought its corner” the best of all.
The late 1980s were perhaps the sunlit uplands of the UK’s EU membership. This rich period of political success has nearly been forgotten since it pre-dates social media. Commissioner Lord Cockfield was developing the Single Market, strongly supported by Mrs Thatcher. The UK rebate was generating far more than it ever expected in reimbursements. Englishman David Williamson was secretary-general of the European Commission. English Conservative Lord Plumb (for whom I was privileged to work) was the President of the European Parliament, and much improved the effectiveness and standing of the institution. Britain’s trade with the rest of Europe was rocketing, as was its economy, bolstered by a strong and liberal trade regime. Free movement for Britons was a win-win. A robust, practical and positive albeit somewhat pugilistic British approach to the EU was accepted by most observers as mainstream, par for the course.
A key speech by Margaret Thatcher, as President of the European Council to the European Parliament in December 1986, pronounced the UK’s confidence in a European future:
“As individual countries we have the talent, we have the skills, we have the resourcefulness. What we need are strengths which we can only find together. ..We must have the full benefit of a single large market. We must face together the problems which we can only tackle effectively together… Our citizens should be able to travel around Europe as cheaply as American citizens can travel around the United States.”
A febrile Euro-federalism, nowadays forgotten and neglected, but the artificial bug-bear of the ignorant right, had been halted in its tracks by the success of the UK-inspired Single Market. None of this was properly understood throughout the 1990s by a Conservative right-wing pinstripe faction unable or unwilling to see that the EU’s economic and monetary policy was following an agenda hugely favourable – and profitable – to the UK.
The last 25 years have seen the Mrs Thatcher’s commitment to a stronger Europe undermined and impeded, not least by the UK media and its proprietors. There are too many instances to mention, but the impact on longer term British foreign policy strategy was catastrophic. For example, new EU member states, fearful of the overblown Franco-German understanding, were openly disappointed that the UK did not think to welcome them to propose assistance, cooperation, and alliance.
From 1997, the UK’s European policy, already injured by friendly fire, began to falter as Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown preferred transatlantic policy and relations and so missed many opportunities to assume European political thought leadership. Labour, despite its proud internationalist and communitarian traditions, failed to understand the importance of helping to strengthen a European solidarity that was still shaky, rather than refurnishing a special relationship that was a one-sided mirage. Perhaps Labour’s notorious vox pop focus groups caught the Euroscepticism of the country and the party saw it as something to fear more than to fight. But it was the Conservative election victory of 2010 that marked the beginning of the steep and abrupt descent in British understanding of the benefits of EU membership.
Prime Minister Cameron (now UK Foreign Secretary and still unabashed) displayed his political cowardice in appeasing rather than fighting the pinstripe faction in the party. Under the illusion that a referendum could resolve the matter once and for all (and quite possibly forgetting that there had already been a UK referendum about whether to stay in the EU) Cameron must have thought that he had played the trump card to lance the boil of Euro-scepticism (aka racism).
Instead, he rescued it from the irrelevance into which it had fallen and made it the biggest issue of concern in British politics when ten years previously it wasn’t even in the top twenty. Cameron sacrificed the country to resolve a 150 year-old Tory party problem, thus emasculating Parliamentary sovereignty, once cited as the most important reason to be against the EEC.
The 1975 referendum confirming that a large majority wanted to stay in the EU might have been as damaging as that of 2016, but the result fortunately replicated the majority in the UK Parliament, so no conflict with the recognised sovereign power arose.
Teresa May’s incompetence in her interpretation of the tactics that Britain should follow in the negotiations subsequent to the referendum result was no less damaging. Johnson belongs in a different category, but hisculpability stemmed more from his malice than his mismanagement.
As other European nations know far better than the UK, it takes much patience, restraint and tolerance over a long time to build a civilised society. But it can take just a few short months of national arrogance, corruption, selfishness and personal greed to turn ignorance into casual cruelty, and scepticism into prejudice, deceit and hatred.
The UK has gone from EU leaders to losers in less than twelve years. Can there be anything in history to compare with this extraordinary decision to abase, humiliate, soil and destroy ourselves in front of a shocked audience of friends, relations, colleagues and well wishers?