By Paul Goldsmith
Over the past year our politicians have discussed many types of Brexit. Soft Brexit, Hard Brexit, Clean Brexit and even a "Red White and Blue Brexit". The UK seems to want its own bespoke deal involving free trade, access to certain parts of the free market and control over its own laws and borders. One might call this a Have Cake and Eat It Brexit’. But a lesson from right at the start of the European Union suggests that some far harder choices are going to have to be made. The truth is that our negotiations with the EU cannot be successful until we understand that it is a political, not an economic, project.
The original European Community was created at a series of meetings held in Brussels over the summer of 1955, resulting in an agreement that became the Treaty of Rome. Britain was asked, with no conditions, to send our foreign secretary (then Harold Macmillan) to the negotiations. Instead, we sent a 'representative', one Russell Bretherton, a civil servant at the Board of Trade, with strict instructions not to agree to anything.
Unsurprisingly, the other six countries soon grew tired of Britain's attitude, Bretherton was sent home, and the European Economic Community (EEC) was created, featuring a Common Market – freedom of movement of goods, services, capital and workers. This was also a customs union, with free trade between members of the EEC, but a common external tariff for any products from countries outside it.
Harold Macmillan was now chancellor, and was worried about the effect on the UK of being outside the EEC. So he instructed the Treasury to come up with some strategies to deal with this new European bloc. Plans A to G were drawn up, and in the end it was 'plan G' which was chosen.
It worked as follows: A Free Trade Area for industrial goods would be created, featuring all the countries in Western Europe and the six members of the European Community (EC). This meant that Britain would have access to the markets in the EC countries where it was strong (industry) while being able to still have free links with the Commonwealth countries on which it relied for cheap foodstuffs and raw materials.
Plan G was turned down by the six member of the EEC for two reasons: The first was trade deflection: It would have enabled the Commonwealth and other countries to send their goods to the UK, circumventing the common external tariff and then have them freely traded in the EU.
The second was trade discrimination: Britain wanted tariffs to be reduced at the same pace – both within the EC and with their new free trade area. The French argued that Britain couldn't have the commercial benefits of the EEC for their free trade area. Otherwise, why would countries in the EEC accept the political obligations of being in it?
This reveals something fundamental about the project. The truth is that the European Union is not an economic project, it is a political one. It is about living together, working together, and it is about peace.
It should not come as a surprise that we in the UK don't quite understand this. After all, we won the Second World War, and the price of that victory was that we never needed to consider our constitutional and economic arrangements afterwards. The other countries agreed to rebuild together, under a higher authority which would keep an eye on how they were rebuilding, and therefore ensure peace would be kept.
This is why the Schuman Declaration, which created the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950, contained the following line:
"The solidarity in production thus established will make it plain that any war between France and Germany becomes not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible."
Fast forward to 22nd September 1984. On the field that had seen the terrible First World War battle of Verdun, German chancellor Helmut Kohl and French president Francois Mitterrand stood together, hand in hand to symbolize the reconciliation of France and Germany. Given that France had been invaded by Germany in every generation in living memory before 1945, this was some achievement.
Then we have May 1st, 2004. It was the day in which eight Eastern European countries joined the European Union. These eight countries – since joined by Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia – had been under Soviet control for forty years and emerged blinking into the sunlight to find the countries to their West offering them a democratic and economic embrace. When an all-consuming power leaves a country, it can result in chaos (see Iraq, Libya among many others). But the achievement of the European Union in bringing peace and no little prosperity to these countries when they so easily could have descended into chaos is no small one. It took considerable vision, and considerable compromise.
Therein lies the key flaw in what some people believe it is possible to achieve in the Brexit negotiations. We may think that the EU wants us to buy their cars and Prosecco and cheese – and they do. But they don’t want it more than they want the EU to stick together.
Granting the UK a Have Cake and Eat It Brexit would make no sense. The price of a free trade agreement must be some political obligation. It is a fallacy that the EU needs Britain more than the other way around. If we leave negotiations with no agreement, they lose one customer – we lose 27. Back in the 1950s, Europe never wanted just a purely free trade agreement. They won't want it this time either.
But if we can find a way to acknowledge how much the European unity project means to our continental neighbours, to show we understand the EU is about so much more than trade, we might have a chance at getting a good deal. At some point, our political representatives need to level with their electorate about the need to do that.
Paul Goldsmith is a politics and economics teacher at Latymer Upper School in London and co-author, with Sky News senior political correspondent Jason Farrell, of 'How to Lose a Referendum: The Definitive Story of Why the UK Voted for Brexit' – published by Biteback Publishing. Available from the publisher or at Amazon.co.uk.
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