An old man in a hurry

Written in 2001, this still stands up. The terms of the debate have not changed at all.

Supporters of European integration believe their ideas are "inevitable". What if they are wrong?

An old man in a hurry

By Quentin Langley

Dateline 17 August 2001

If you started your first job in 1948 then most people would expect you would feel ready for retirement quite soon, and might be surprised to learn that you are taking on new and more ambitious projects. But then, just as there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come, there is no group so desperate as supporters of an idea whose time has passed.

The process towards European union had its roots in the resistance movements during WWII. The Western European Union (WEU) was established in 1948 and the European Defence Community was first mooted in the same year. The proposal for a “United States of Europe” came in the Schuman Plan in 1950, which also developed plans for the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and the European Defence Community (EDC). The EDC came to nothing and ECSC was later (1957) merged in the Economic Community (EEC).

The motivation for these pioneering moves was very clear. The WEU, NATO and the failed EDC all arose from the clear threat to western Europe from the huge armaments of the Soviet Union and, later, of the Warsaw Pact. Though apologists for Communism always denied it, it was perfectly clear that the Warsaw Pact was always an aggressive alliance which developed, for example, the tank capacity of an invading army, roughly nine times greater than would have been required if it had ever planned to defend its own boundaries.

The ECSC and EEC were designed to bind together the economies of western countries, especially France and Germany, in such a way as to put old hostilities and rivalries behind us. Pro-Europeans like to credit the EEC with the fact that France and Germany have not been to war in over half a century. Euro-sceptics like to place the credit with NATO, though it would be more accurate to place it with the Warsaw Pact. The strategic reality is simple. You do not go to war with your neighbour when you are both threatened by a much larger and more aggressive state.

It is not only the motivation that was clear, so was the goal: a federal Europe or United States of Europe. This goal is not something that was added later nor was it a secret agenda. It is a bold goal and it was outlined in full in the Schuman Plan in 1950.

The process of European integration was paused during the 1960s by De Gaulle’s empty chair strategy and during the 1970s and 80s the focus switched instead to enlargement, with the Community growing from six member states to 12. There were two intergovernmental attempts at currency co-operation in this time: the first collapsed and the second was of mixed success. The first direct elections to the European Parliament were also held (1979) but the Parliament was given very little in the way of additional powers and there was no expansion of the “acquis communautaire” the competence of the Communities as a whole.

It was in the 1980s that the push towards further integration gathered pace again. First came the Single European Act. Commission President, Jacques Delors, wanted a defining movement towards further integration to mark his Presidency. The creation of a single market was not his first choice for this. He was, after all, a socialist. He would have preferred a single criminal justice policy or a single currency. He knew, however, that there was not the slightest prospect of then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher agreeing to either of them, so he pursued the single market instead.

The single market was a deregulatory initiative which declared that all national protectionist regulations lapsed at the end of 1992. Most media focus was on plans for new regulations as the years from 1985 to 1992 were used to establish a body of Community-wide regulations to replace those of the nation states. However, since the European regulations could only be agreed by consensus the total body of regulation was, initially, lighter than before.

Throughout this time advocates of further integration were pressing the view that a single currency was needed to “complete” the single market. This view gained momentum and in 1991 the Treaty of European Union at Maastricht laid down a timetable for the creation of such a currency. It also created a “social” chapter. The UK won an opt out from both. Subsequently Denmark also won an opt out from the currency and, in 1997, the UK opted into the social chapter.

In 1995 three more countries joined and the number of applicant countries has risen – it now includes more than half a dozen former communist countries as well as long-standing applicant states such as Malta, Cyprus and Turkey. The defence component of the Communities – now rechristened the European Union – has been revived, though in less ambitious form than in Schuman’s original plan.

The question needs to be asked, though, why has European integration gathered so much pace in the past 15 to 20 years? For almost 25 years prior to that the only focus had been on enlargement, not on deeper integration. It is plainly possible to take the view that particular individuals blocked the way: Charles De Gaulle and Margaret Thatcher. The time between these two had been absorbed with the massive shocks to European economic confidence of the oil price hikes and stagflation. Or perhaps it was other political giants – Delors, Mitterand and Kohl – who created the new impetus?

Yet the reasons for European integration have all passed. The rapprochement between France and Germany is long since achieved. It is nonsense to suppose that the issuing of Euro notes and coins next year will prevent a future war between these countries.

To revive at this time the notion of a European Army seems especially silly. There may, of course, be issues that will require future military co-operation between the states of Western Europe. But as such issues arise ad hoc co-operation can arise with them. The fact that there was no pre-existing alliance taking in the US, Western Europe, the Gulf monarchies and Syria did not prevent the Gulf war.

The need for a military alliance in Western Europe from the 40s to the 80s arose from the military threat of the Soviet Union. This was not an ad hoc need but an ongoing menace and needed an ongoing structure to respond to it. But that need has completely disappeared. Russia, the Ukraine and others still have a nuclear capability, and there is a case for a structure that can respond to that, but the threat of tanks racing across the north European plain to the Belgian coast is no more.

For over 40 years it was a nonsense to talk of British, French or Dutch military interests as though they were somehow separate. The principal strategic threat to Europe was the Soviet Union’s well-rehearsed plan for tank led blitzkrieg. When Europe was divided by an iron curtain the identity of friends and enemies was completely clear. Furthermore we knew who would be in each camp year by year and even decade by decade. But this is no longer so.

Our Syrian allies could one day be our enemies. The next time European troops are committed to a ground war our allies could be on any continent and may include countries with which we are not currently on good terms. Permanent structures of military integration are hopelessly ill-equipped to handle such a dramatically changed world. The case for a European Defence Community in the 1970s or 1980s was very strong. But only now that the reasons for it have all passed, is any such integration starting to happen.

Supporters of further integration have long since given up advancing reasons for their views. They simply insist that their views represent the future and are inevitable. In fact, integrationist views are very firmly rooted in the past and integration is by no means inevitable. The integrationist agenda has lost all stimulus from the strategic realities and its exponents have lost the intellectual impetus as well.

The reason integrationists are in such a hurry is very simple. In their guts they know that their ideas are locked in the past and although they keep saying that their victory is inevitable they know that time is running against them.

Copyright © Quentin Langley 17 August 2001

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