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Europe Day reminds us that unity is strength

U2's Bono waves to a giant EU flag, with one star as the Union Flag, at the o2 Arena in London, during their eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE Tour. Photograp: Andrew Matthews/PA. - Credit: PA

Britain’s future with Europe remains unclear, but one thing is certain, it needs to request an extension to the Brexit transition period. BARNABY TOWNS explains that unity is strength.

Europe Day is celebrated by the European Union on May 9th, commemorating the 1950 Schuman Declaration, signed by France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux nations 70 years ago. French foreign minister Schuman presented a proposal from the French government for a European Coal and Steel Community, under which former foes would pool coal and steel production, making another war between Germany and France ‘not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible.’

Sadly, the United Kingdom sat on the sidelines — a post-war bad habit repeated over the past seven decades. Back then, the Attlee Government’s commitment to nationalisation, Labour policy stretching back to 1918 when it wrote the policy into clause four of the party’s constitution, stood in the way of British participation. Accordingly, Attlee opposed having control over these industries ‘handed over to an authority that is utterly undemocratic and responsible to no-one.’

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In fact, the ECSC was overseen by a High Authority composed of independent nation state appointees; a Common Assembly comprising national parliamentarians; a Special Council of national ministers, and a Court of Justice. As with EU membership, British accession wouldn’t have prevented a future British Parliament from leaving.

There also were political considerations in Britain’s detachment. Deputy Prime Minister Herbert Morrison, tracked down by his civil servants to the Ivy Restaurant in London’s Covent Garden for a decision, reportedly declaimed with characteristic bluntness: ‘The Durham miners won’t wear it.’

Tories and Liberals, unencumbered by commitment to nationalisation and that trade union link, were more enthusiastic. Winston Churchill, as Leader of the Opposition, led a march to Downing Street urging British participation in convening a European Assembly. On the ECSC, Churchill said the opposition was ‘prepared to consider, and if convinced to accept, the abrogation of national sovereignty, provided that we are satisfied with the conditions and safeguards.’

But when the Conservatives returned to power in 1951, coal but not steel remained state-owned alongside a conciliatory approach to the trade unions. ECSC membership wasn’t pursued. After Churchill resigned in April 1955, Britain continued to perambulate around the periphery, sending a delegation to the conference of the six ECSC member states in Messina, Italy, at their invitation, but left the negotiations in November. The ‘Six’ continued without the UK, signing the Treaty of Rome in 1957.

This historic indifference to the European Economic Community, only to be reversed 16 years later as it became clear that the UK lagged behind its continental neighbours economically, continues in our own time, as the government stubbornly persists with its Brexit timetable as the coronavirus pandemic rages. Amid such headlines as: ‘BoE warns UK to enter worst recession for 300 years,’ it continues hell bent on an arbitrary date to end the so-called ‘transition period’ in which the UK follows EU rules without a seat at the table on December 31st this year, as all governments and the EU are knee-deep in crisis.

The UK can ill-afford government estimates of a 7-11% cut in gross domestic product over 15 years, which represents the range between a bare-bones trade agreement and no-deal crash-out—the two outcomes that the government is prepared to countenance. At the same time, the government admits that, for example, a trade agreement with Trump’s America, which may take ages to negotiate, would add no more than 0.1-0.4% GDP. Meanwhile, the Bank of England estimates a 14% GDP wipe-out this year alone, thanks to the government’s lockdown measures.

A typical post-war UK government wouldn’t at this time embark upon radically recasting Britain’s trade arrangements and wrenching the economy out of the half-billion-person transnational free trade zone that is the EU for an uncertain future negotiated without the EU’s wealth and size as leverage. But this is no ordinary government, including at cabinet level starry-eyed ideologues such as Home Secretary Priti Patel and Foreign Secretary Dominic Rabb, whose inexperience is historically unusual. As is Boris Johnson who made their cause his own but who, as a government adviser observes: ‘didn’t chair any meetings… liked his country breaks… didn’t work weekends… didn’t do urgent crisis planning.’

Whether or not Johnson’s recent brush with death has caused him to take the pandemic more seriously, he isn’t taking the views of British citizens as such — two-thirds of whom want the transition period extended, including half of Tory and Leave voters. Yet much less consequential local elections are postponed one year.

Britain needs an extension. After that, the government has a big parliamentary majority to pursue its ideological agenda. And the opposition badly needs to articulate a clear, persuasive, economically-rational alternative.

• Barnaby Towns is a former government special adviser.

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