Prophet in the policy cold

April 12, 1996

Europhile Helen Wallace tells David Walker about her pioneering work, which has been ignored by a Europhobic British Government.

Do you have a second home, I asked Helen Wallace, having in mind some cottage in the Italian countryside east of Siena, or perhaps on the banks of a torrent high in the Ardeche, a kind of domestic symbol of her lifelong Europeanism? "In Santerre," I thought I heard her reply, freely associating - as they do in Brussels, apparently - the name of the president of the European Commission with that of the rich, dry white wines of the upper Loire. But no; what she said was "in Saltaire", the township created by the Victorian mill owner Titus Salt near Bradford.

Professor Wallace, director of Sussex University's European Institute, was born in the West Riding. She sounds a little Yorkshire still, and perhaps through that radiates a kind of down-to-earth sensibleness; it's either that or you do not survive bringing up children at the same time as running a high-pressure, much-travelled research career without an extra dose of sanity. Anyway, Helen Wallace would fit no one's stereotype of a starry-eyed Euro-enthusiast.

Yet Europhile she is. She exhibits one of the paradoxes of British Europeanism. In the way she looks and dresses - unglamorous, take-me-as-you-find-me - she is unmistakeably a middle-aged British woman. You could say the same, in terms of looks and dress, about a male Euro-Brit, such as Roy Jenkins. He could not be anything but a British man of a certain age and provenance.

They are few, these British Europeans, and they are in one important sense failures.

Wallace says; "We do European studies very well here, until recently better than anywhere else in the European Community." Her knowledge and experience are eagerly sought. She is a a member of the panel of experts on the future shape of the union convened by the Commission to prepare its position for the current inter-governmental conference. When we spoke she was about to go off and address a Swedish parliamentary commission on the conferences, something not even dreamt of here.

But that is abroad. Where was her voice, and the chorus of Euro-enthusiasts like her, during the Tory party leadership contest, or any of the recent Euro-debates? Why is she not eagerlysought by the media here as the expert she is? Why do Europeans such as her not figure in the political constellation?

That, if you like, is the central paradox of the British Europeans. Their academic work on the structure of the Community, in her case pioneering work on the European Economic Area, have a Europe-wide reputation. Which counts for little here, either in terms of the political debate or in terms of cultural visibility.

She provided me with her own example - a paper she had co-written for the Franco-British Council, published simultaneously in French and English. Here its reception was low-key to the point of invisibility. There it was extensively publicised, to the extent one journalist used it as the main source for a big newspaper spread.

This is a prophet without honour. Back in 1979 she wrote about the idea of subsidiarity, under which tasks are performed at the European level only if they cannot be done more effectively by member states acting alone. Only much later was it picked up by the German Lander and entered wider European consciousness. How much use could the British Government have made of it . . ."with a bit of sensitivity"?

In 1988, before Finland belonged to the Council of Europe, let alone applied to join the Community, she was having conversations in Helsinki which pointed directly to the likely course of Finnish aspirations.

Her parents were an academic and a teacher. She went early to Oxford to read classics, getting immersed in Liberal Club politics. An "undogmatic progressive" she calls herself; for years afterwards she remained an activist. The house in Saltaire was bought when her husband was a Liberal candidate in Shipley.

Speaking good French, she spent a postgraduate year at the Coll ge de l'Europe in Bruges, the very place (she was there for the speech) Mrs Thatcher gave birth to what we now call Euro-scepticism. It was the time of the United Kingdom's second application to join the EEC. "I was a linguist, I travelled round. I had cosmopolitan parents who were also linguists. A classics degree also makes for Europeanism, that sense of a shared heritage not particular to one country."

Lined up to do the civil service exams, instead she married William Wallace, whom she had met at Oxford and went with him to Manchester University where he had a lecturing job. She followed - landing a job in European studies at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology - but she also led. Much of his interest in Europe was stimulated by Helen (he has pursued a research career in international relations at Chatham House, St Anthony's, Oxford and latterly in Prague).

Her PhD thesis, on the policy-making implications of the UK's accession to the Treaty of Rome, was at the frontier: she quickly knew more than the Government itself about the machinery of membership. By 1972, writing a Political and Economic Planning/Chatham House paper, "I came along having been to Bonn, Paris and Rome and, still a graduate student, found myself having discussions with relatively senior British officials about how to manage policy."

Again that paradox. In terms of European savoir faire, in terms of the training offered officials in Whitehall, compared with what was on offer even in Paris, the British have usually done Europe very well. Until the 1980s when British officials, in a period of single party/neo-Gaullist rule started to think they knew it all, and no longer needed to think it through.

She came to London in 1978. William Wallace got a job at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, exactly as she produced her first child. For two children she had a total of 24 weeks maternity leave; she survived, she says, by being tired. Being a woman has not been an issue; during a short spell in the Foreign Office, her gender mattered less than the fact she was not a career diplomat.

Hunting for a job, she joined the machine, albeit at its periphery in the Civil Service College. Training civil servants for Europe she fell in with the college's group of intellectuals, trying to keep open channels for research and publication. After a year's secondment to the planning staff at the Foreign Office, monitoring Brussels on a day-by-day basis, she moved in 1985 to Chatham House to start its first European programme. There she takes credit for a series of studies that pushed forward discussion on the single market and on the enlargement of the Community, first to include the members of the European Free Trade Area, then the countries in the East. Ahead of the game.

She went to Chatham House not to give it a pro-European philosophy but because the national debate on Europe was becoming so tense and polarised "somebody needed to provide good quality interpretative material for policy-makers".

Money for that was hard to find, as opposed to finance for polemics and position papers. But why? Why the poor quality of European discussion in Britain when, by her account, "we have more good quality specialists on the European Community in Great Britain than in any other country ?" First, Euro enthusiasts have always been in a minority. Even the fellow-travellers of Europeanism have been neither numerous nor vociferous. They still aren't. Second, she says, it may have to do with a sense of ownership. The British policy elite and its media claque were comfortable with the symbolism of the Cold War, developing an abstract language to talk about Nato and East-West relations. Britain provided part of the "defining vocabulary" as well as detailed argument about logistics, manpower and such things, all part of an integrated whole.

But Europe was never assimilated here as part of a "modernisation project". Take the creation of the welfare state. It was something we did without the Europeans. The argument about Europe was left to ride on balances of trade and interests, always tricky to calculate. The Common Agricultural Policy for most member states of the European Economic Community was forward looking; it was never seen that way here.

She delivers her credo. "I am very sorry that Britain is not a mainstream player in the European debate on a regular and predictable basis. It is a mistake for the country. To talk, as some do, of Britain being like Switzerland is an abnegation of sense of place and potential influence.

"It's not that all the ideas that come out of Britain about the Community and Union are bad. On a number of important issues, on the internal market, on reform of the CAP, we have produced good arguments which would have been recognised elsewhere but for a political discourse that has been so grudging. In defence, the illusion that a common foreign policy can be built without the British playing a major role is a sad story."

So to the University of Sussex, its purpose-built institute, and its portfolio of postgraduate programmes. She had other opportunities of moving back into academe. Sussex's European commitment appealed. European studies there, as elsewhere in Britain, is oddly cosmopolitan.

Europe of course is not bounded by the union. She wants to be able to fund good work on central and eastern Europe, especially the exchange of students. "I did worry about going stale. But because Europe has changed so much we western European specialists have been forced to learn a lot of new things. What has happened in the East has been a rejuvenation."

She has no presuppositions either about the shape or future of the EU: it is in a period of turbulence. Another period of reform is about to begin. But again, the question is: where is the British echo of that debate, where is the wider public discussion here; where are the expert groups producing papers to feed into Parliament and Whitehall? There are none.

Which leaves Professor Wallace how? Not high and dry, because the debate about Europe's future size and shape goes on avidly over there, with or without British contributions.

For her part she is not committed to any particular institutional set-up, her subject remains Europe. "I hope as a citizen that a version of the European Community I started to study all those years ago will be important in the future. It has been a good experiment in trying to build relations between countries.

"The basic philosophy and the idea remain good ones but what's more important than institutions is that there will be a cosmopolitan organisation of Europe in future, adapted to include central and eastern Europe as well."

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