Seven Euro-Heresies

Richard Mayne

A French friend, puzzled by Britain’s behaviour in the European Community, recently resorted to an alarming metaphor. ‘It’s as if you had boarded the plane without checking where it was bound for – and now you keep trying to divert it, or jump out in mid-air.’

He could have been more scathing still. Had the British realised that it was a plane they were boarding? Or had they imagined it was a terminal building? ‘Thus far and no further’ has sometimes seemed their unspoken assumption. In the early Seventies, British ministers made much of the ‘larger market’ Community membership offered. Twenty years later, the ‘single market’ was the slogan – shorthand for the removal of non-tariff barriers among the member states, due to be completed by the end of 1992. What always appeared to be lacking was some coherent vision of the Community’s future beyond a perfected customs union – even, at times, any inkling that European integration was an open-ended process, not a finite product or a limited goal.

It was not that the Community’s spokesmen, advocates or analysts had ever disguised its ambitions. In 1962, when Edward Heath was first negotiating terms for British membership, one of his French interlocutors – later a minister – made the point in words reminiscent of a British Army marching song. ‘We don’t know where we’re going,’ he said. ‘All we know is that we’re going there together.’

‘Ever closer union’ was the nearest the Rome Treaty came to defining the Community’s objective; and for a long time every member state could interpret the phrase as it liked. Each was inclined to see a united Europe in its own image. Britain and France, highly centralised countries, feared a monolithic Community; Germany and Italy, with strong regional traditions, saw it as a congeries like themselves. The Benelux countries, some cynics added, looked on it in mainly mercantile terms. The Americans, meanwhile, seemed to believe that Europeans were enacting a slow provincial production of scenes from the early history of the United States.

Gradually, however, the Community’s incremental nature became clearer and its future shape better-defined. The European Parliament, once a mainly toothless watchdog, was soon directly elected and given more power. The independent Commission, whose main task is to propose policies for adoption by the national governments represented in the Council of Ministers, recovered with Presidents Roy Jenkins and Jacques Delors the degree of prestige it had had under its first President, Walter Hallstein. The Council of Ministers, in which General De Gaulle had tried to preserve the national veto, voted more often by majority – sometimes against British protests, but sometimes encouraged by Britain to outflank opposition elsewhere. And the European Court of Justice, always the most ‘fundamentalist’ of the Community’s institutions, continued to pile up case law which deepened the merger of national sovereignty.

The fact that the Community represented a process, not a product, was made more explicit in February 1986, when its 12 member states signed the Single European Act, beginning to streamline the Community institutions with a view to achieving the ‘single market’. It became more obvious still in December 1991, with the two new treaties signed at Maastricht and now in the process of ratification.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in