A Stranger in Europe: Britain and the EU from Thatcher to Blair

June 12, 2008

A Stranger in Europe: Britain and the EU from Thatcher to Blair. By Stephen Wall. Oxford University Press 240pp, £20.00. ISBN 9780199284559. Published 24 April 2008

If ever there was an insider's account of Britain's relations with the European Union, this is it. Sir Stephen Wall was a high-level participant in London's dealings with "Brussels" for two decades, starting in the Foreign Office's European Communities Department in the early Thatcher years. Here he played his part in her fight to "get her money back" and later tried (in vain) to tone down her aggressive Bruges speech of 1988. He was then, as Private Secretary to Prime Minister John Major, immersed in the gruelling struggles over the UK's "opt-ins" and "opt-outs" to the Maastricht Treaty on European Union (1991), before becoming Britain's Permanent Representative (or ambassador) in Brussels in 1995. Finally, from 2000 to 2004, he was Tony Blair's senior adviser on EU affairs and headed the Cabinet's European Secretariat, co-ordinating Whitehall's EU-related work.

This long experience at the centre of events certainly qualified Wall to make a significant and original addition to the literature on the subject, and in this book he has done it. He gives informative and thoughtful accounts of issues that preoccupied British policy-makers, in some cases from beginning to end of the 20-year period. Some issues were financial or economic: Britain's unfavourable position in the European budgetary set-up and her relationship with the embryonic Economic and Monetary Union, the opening-up of Europe's internal market and the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. Others concerned the pros and cons of extending the EU's responsibilities into new policy areas (social or employment policy, environmental protection, or security and defence). Others again were essentially institutional: the rules governing majority voting, the powers of the European Parliament, or the overall question of whether Europe needed "political union" or a constitution.

In painting his lively picture of how British policymakers handled these issues, Wall has been given generous access to his old Foreign Office files and those of others. His account of many of the main developments quotes copiously and revealingly from the official papers, giving new insights into the roles played by specific ministers and officials, into the relations between the Foreign Office and the Treasury, and into the functioning of the Whitehall machinery, from No 10 downwards, in relation to EU affairs.

Since a good deal of this relatively short book is based closely on communications between insiders, sometimes without much background explanation (or reference to earlier publications), it is not one for beginners. However, readers who know a bit about the issues that the author and his fellow insiders spent years tackling - the problems of "European Political Co-operation" (collaboration in diplomacy), the ambiguities of the Luxembourg Compromise, or just why the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty was regarded differently by the Major and Blair governments - will find that Wall's account greatly enriches their understanding.

On the strength of this book, specialists will welcome the news that Wall has been commissioned to continue the full official history of the UK's membership of the EU following Alan Milward's introductory volume. They can look forward to a penetrating and profound scrutiny of the landscape through which the author has cantered in this perceptive and stimulating survey.

A Stranger in Europe: Britain and the EU from Thatcher to Blair

By Stephen Wall
Oxford University Press
ISBN 9780199284559
Published 24 April 2008

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