As is quite normal, people being worried about what comes next, talk about Brexit tends to look at what comes next. When people talk about the past, it’s usually about either the campaign, or Cameron’s Premiership.

But I’m really interested in the long term thinking around Brexit. In 1994 I was studying History at the University of Bristol, and doing a Master’s paper on the U.K. applications to the European Economic Community of the 1960s, and specifically how that process was presented to the public and framed in the media. Even though that was a long time ago, I remember a few things about that work which seem to be relevant today again, because when I hear today’s debates, very often I can’t help but think “plus ça change…”.

Quick refresher :

  • 1951: The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was founded, 6 years after the war, by Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. The U.K. declined to participate.
  • 1952: Treaty creating the European Defence Community (EDC). The backdrop is that in the context of the Cold War, the US wanted Germany to have an army again. That was non-negociable. The French didn’t want that but realized it would happen anyway, so they sought to constrain this new German army: it would happen, but as part of a European Defense, led by France. The British were hostile, but realized the US would support it. They abstained. In the end, political winds turned in France, the EDC treaty was never ratified and German military build-up happened anyway.
  • 1955: work starts on a new treaty furthering integration of members. The British were invited, they came, judged the effort would failed and walked away.
  • 1956: Suez Crisis. That sucks.
  • 1956-57: Britain floats the idea that maybe the 6 could join the Commonwealth of Nations? The Six: Nah, we’re good.
  • 1957: Damn, it didn’t fail: the Treaty of Rome creates the European Economic Community (EEC), without Britain.
  • 1958: West Germany overtakes Britain as an exporter of manufactured goods
  • 1960: the British create a concurrent group of countries with a free trade area which doesn’t entail any sovereignty loss, and in particular no customs union, and still preserves trade with the Commonwealth countries. Among the members of EFTA : Norway (more about them later). Still the Six persist: Told ya, we’re good…

In 1961 Macmillan threw the towel and applied to join the EEC.

Sounds somewhat familiar? It should.

Britain can’t be in: it refuses mentions of political integration, because it has an Empire, or at least the history of one; we can’t let a border come between ourselves and, say, Canada, can we?

Britain can’t be in also because it would mean that the country has to pay for its WWII victory with a loss of sovereignty? What kind of pyrhic victory would that be? Preposterous.

Why won’t those pesky Continentals just stick to free trade? Why the politics and all? Selling manufactured goods to each other is fine, why would you pull sovereignty? Oh, you all lost WWII? Were occupied by the Nazis? For “Peace and Prosperity”, you say? But you can’t do that to us: we won and that’d be very unfair, wouldn’t it?

But Britain can’t be out.

  • EFTA isn’t bringing enough free trade benefits to counterbalance being out of the EEC
  • The Commonwealth isn’t the economic force it used to be
  • As Suez and the building of the EEC had painfully shown, Britain isn’t a superpower anymore, and the Americans might well prefer talking to the Six as a group than any single European country, however “special” the relationship.

So Macmillan applied.

But all during the 1960s, no British politician really dared to explain why, in strategic terms, the UK really needed to join the EEC.

Politicians, starting with Macmillan (and with the exception of E. Heath), flooded the public debate with the details of free trade, exemptions to the tarrifs for Canadian beef and New Zealand butter. Specifically, I think, to avoid clearly setting out the true goals of the application(s).

In my view, that’s the original sin of the UK’s application to join the European project: the public was never told the truth about why the country was doing it. Hence later each “political” move/demand was considered a treachery from Brussels, since no political aspect was ever publicly acknowledged as part of the deal when Britain joined. But since 1951, economic gains have been woven with a pooling of political resources, that was always the whole point of the project.

There’s a price to pay for lying about what one’s country is really about, right?

And so the UK is now back to the 1956-57 debate: the terms haven’t changed all that much. One of the things Macmillan wasn’t willing to give up was Britain’s sense of it’s power in the world. Suez and the end of Empire showed him it wasn’t going to subsist as a stand-alone nation. So he applied to the EEC, pretending all the while that it was all about free trade and free trade only. May and others want to undo what Macmillan started. So one must think they are willing to conceed Macmillan’s point: that for reasons of sovereignty Britain might prefer to be out; that it can indeed be out; but not as an economic/political power of any significance.

Norway is a happy country, a rich country. It doesn’t have much power in the world at large, and doesn’t seek it. Switzerland might be another example. The question is: can the UK, the former Empire, holder of a veto power at the UN’s security council, willingly and with a clear mind turn itself into Norway or Switzerland?

It’s going to be tough even if the debate is spelled out clearly in those strategic terms: what kind of country does Britain want to be?

It’s going to be impossible if the public discourse is all about free trade and the tarrifs on butter. Which would be a lie with a heavy price to pay down the line.

header cartoon by Papas in The Guardian - see