Falling in and out of Europe

It is nearly a year since I decided to divorce The Times after decades of fidelity and embark upon a reckless fling with The Guardian. It hasn’t turned out to be as ecstatic as I had expected. Yes, there is more serious news and comment, but it comes at a price. The price is a relentless pessimism and negativity that infects the entire newspaper. Britain and the world, as presented by The Guardian, constitute a living hell. To anyone contemplating a similar migration, may I suggest that a prescription for Prozac should accompany your subscription.  

But there are compensations. The best of them is being able to read, far too occasionally, the views of Simon Jenkins. The year 2018 brought us a Northern Ireland Secretary who said she “didn’t understand things like when elections are fought … people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa.” It has also brought us a Brexit Secretary who said he “hadn’t quite understood” the reliance of our trade in goods on the Dover-Calais crossing. Faced with the stupefying ignorance of Government ministers, the words of an immensely knowledgeable, sane and wise columnist come as a blessed relief.

In late November, Simon Jenkins wrote a brilliant piece on the history of Britain’s relationship with Europe [https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/21/britain-go-back-european-club-history-leave]. It appeared under the contentious headline “Britain will end up back in Europe. History proves it.” (Note to The Guardian’s sub-editors: history does not prove anything. It simply helps us to understand the world, and ourselves, rather better.) However, in all other respects, this was an exemplary piece, and one that every Government minister (and the rest of the population) should be required to read and absorb, as part of a crash course in history, which should also be compulsory.

At the beginning of a year when the UK may (or may not) leave the EU, Jenkins provides reassurance to despairing Remainers that not only can the country function perfectly well when it is divorced from Europe, but also that the separation will not be indefinite. He writes that “when politics screams and tears its hair out, history can rush forward with a comfort blanket to wrap round its shoulders.”

In a majestic summary of Britain’s on-off flirtation with Europe over two millennia, Jenkins reckons that Britain has “left” Europe on nine occasions (1713, 1815, 1920, 1945 and 2016 among them). On each of the previous eight, it has either chosen or been forced to re-engage. The same thing is likely to happen again at some point. And, as in the past, the Europe that we rejoin will not be the same Europe that we left. As Jenkins points out, “all Europe’s great settlements – Westphalia, Utrecht, Vienna, Versailles, Yalta – have lasted no more than two generations.” The EU is now two generations old. It is already in the process of metamorphosing into something else, even if no one quite knows what.

The one enduring, unarguable lesson of the past is that a country’s history is inseparable from its geography. The most asinine aspiration voiced by a British Prime Minister – and it has been expressed by at least two of them, John Major and Tony Blair – is that the UK should be “at the heart of Europe”. The UK cannot be at the heart of Europe politically, because it is not at its heart geographically.

From time to time Britain has been the dominant influence in Europe, but it has never, at any time, been at the heart of Europe, nor will it ever be. A 20-mile stretch of water is a guarantee of separation. But the fact that it is only 20 miles is simultaneously the guarantee that we cannot stand aloof. What happens in Europe matters to us and affects us: it always has and it always will. Geography obliges us to be one of Europe’s body parts, but not its heart.

This situation has not been without its advantages. For the most part, we have been immune to invasion. Unlike almost any other country in Europe, we have known our own frontiers and they have not changed. We have had control of our borders, which is perhaps why the loss of that control has mattered more to us than to nations that never had it in the first place. And, for most of the time, we have had the luxury of a choice that few other European countries have enjoyed: whether to be a committed part of Europe or an uncommitted part. The corollary of all this is a permanent schizophrenia.

If British politicians have been blind in failing to recognise the immutable facts, so have European politicians. It was not a good idea to create a single EU model into which every member state would be shoe-horned. The UK was never likely to put up with this straitjacket indefinitely. We have been too marginal, geographically, to affect the EU’s development, but feel ourselves too important, historically, to accept being marginalised.

European leaders, with the exception of General de Gaulle, have also been ignorant of Europe’s and Britain’s history. In the 1990s, when the Eurozone turned from aspiration to policy, and when the UK (and others) chose not to join it, there was the perfect opportunity to create, formally, what had now become a two-tier EU. But the logic of this new situation was wilfully ignored and circumvented. If it had not been, the UK would probably not have voted to leave in 2016.

But to say all this is to get bogged down yet again in the minutiae of the present, and there is quite enough of that already. The joy of Simon Jenkins’s piece was to raise our eyes above the present, to place the current mayhem in a historical context, and to remind us that – whatever happens now – it will not last for ever. We will end up back in Europe, whether in circumstances that are benign or apocalyptic. History does not prove it, but it suggests that it is overwhelmingly likely.