Our Sovereign Island Nation

Written by Sir Malcolm Rifkind on 25 July 2008 in Opinion
Sir Stephen Wall, Stranger in Europe (Oxford University Press 19.

Sir Stephen Wall, Stranger in Europe (Oxford University Press 19.00 GBP)

None of us who has been involved in British foreign policy over the last thirty years will take issue with the title, "A Stranger in Europe", the evocative title Stephen Wall has used to describe Britain and the EU across the Thatcher and Blair years.

For many continental Europeans, the European Union has been a great adventure; for some it has been the central plank of their political lives. But for British politicians, however, Labour as well as Conservative, Europe has been more of a problem than an opportunity and that shows little prospect of changing. There is every reason to suspect that Gordon Brown would be as delighted as David Cameron if the Lisbon Treaty were to collapse.

Stephen Wall is one of a handful of superbly professional British diplomats who have served successive British Governments and helped Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries pick their ways through this tricky terrain. His book is a splendid account of how much and also how little changes in the EU.

Over the last 15 years the EU has been obsessed with Treaties which have been touted each time as essential for Europe to grow and prosper. Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice, the Constitutional Treaty and Lisbon have followed each other in rapid succession. The list seems endless, but it was not ever thus.

Wall reminds us that for almost the first thirty years after the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957 until the Single European Act in 1985, "virtually no changes were made to the original European treaties". Against that background it is inconceivable that the EU would grind to a halt if the Lisbon Treaty collapsed because of the Irish veto.

Walls' judgment might please the Eurosceptics, but his book also reminds us why much of the British hostility to the European Union is exaggerated.

How often do we hear that the federalists in Brussels are remorselessly transforming the EU into a future United States of Europe, that our national sovereignty is being trampled underfoot and that Britain will cease to be an independent nation?

That was once the ambition of those that run the EU with Jacques Delors its most powerful proponent during his time as President of the European Commission. In January 1990, in a speech to the European Parliament, he spelt out his strategy in uncompromising terms.

"The Commission" he said "should be turned into a proper executive answerable for its actions...[and] to deal with the democratic deficit the European Parliament would have to be given more powers." Wall reminds us that according to Delors' plan, the Council of Ministers would have become a mere revising chamber, rather like the current role of the House of Lords!

Compare the Delors master plan of 1990 with what has actually happened over the last twenty years. The Commission's power has shrunk dramatically and far from being a European Government it has become merely the civil service of the Council of Ministers.

The European Parliament has increased its powers but is still largely invisible to the peoples of Europe. It is the European Council, consisting of the heads of government, which holds the real power in the EU.

Attempts on the erosion of national sovereignty are unlikely to cease. It was the heads of government that imposed the Single Currency and it is they who are pressing for a common foreign and defence policy as well as European competence in justice and home affairs.

But what conclusion should we draw from this? British advocacy of inter-governmental negotiation rather than supranational institutions is unlikely to protect us from further European harmonisation that might be against our national interests.

Further harmonisation could work if member states embraced Europe a la carte and accepted the core responsibilities of membership but retained the right to decline to participate in future integration at their own discretion.

Wall's book reminds us that this is not an entirely new concept. In 1984, at Fontainebleau, Margaret Thatcher gave her fellow heads of government a paper which, inter alia, called for a flexible Europe in which some would go ahead faster than others but where "it should be open to others to join in as and when they are able to do so".

As they might say in Brussels, "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose".

Share this page


Please login to post a comment or register for a free account.