The Europhile

May 24, 1996

Should Britain be at the heart of a federal Europe? Martin Holmes protests at such a future but Helen Wallace can see advantages. * Should the British be in favour of Europe or against it? The question makes as little sense as asking whether the British are for or against sin. We live on islands off the north-west coast of that continent, able neither to deny our geography nor to ignore our shared history and entanglement.

So the issues are about the character of British interdependence with the "mainland" of Europe and what the scope is for British ideas to influence what other Europeans do. The choice is about which pattern of cooperation to pursue to manage this interdependence. One is more tight knit, highly structured and broad in scope; it sets disciplines on the behaviour of our partners and corollary constraints on us. The other is looser knit and open-ended, not too constraining, but not necessarily reliable in its results.

Europe past offers us a sharp lesson about which has yielded the better results. The experiment in European integration that produced the European Community precisely responded to the feebleness and, under pressure, the uselessness, of the loose-knit cooperation that followed the first world war. Politicians and publics in a "core" group of west European countries opted instead for tight-knit cooperation. In France, West Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries the case became accepted for integration in economics, politics and defence, through a set of interlocking arrangements in the EC and Nato. British politicians, as we know, demurred Q for a while. From the early 1960s onwards the predominant policy of British governments was to join in this more structured form of European cooperation. But the legacy of preference for the looser-knit variant persisted, producing repeated doubts and controversies about proposals to "deepen" integration. British influence in the management of European defence was considerable, while its voice on issues of economic and political integration was erratic and muted.

* For Europe perhaps this is just history, or so it has become fashionable to argue. France and Germany are at peace with each other; Germany has been relatively smoothly united; and the Soviet imperium has collapsed. Looser arrangements may now suffice I Such judgements are disturbingly complacent. They understate the extent of what has been achieved in striking a balance between collective European efforts and national policies. They assume this West European achievement in building mutual trust and managing interdependence can be taken for granted and extended by osmosis to central and Eastern Europe. Often it is argued that in any case global management is today's challenge.

But there is no automaticity built into the European framework; it depends on sustained habit, hard work, and political reinvestment. And it requires an ability to resist the temptations of parochialism and short-termism when faced with moments of critical decision. This was impressively manifested in the way German unification was achieved and woefully absent when Yugoslavia disintegrated.

We confront a bewildering array of competing images of Europe. The same "core" group of integrationist countries continues to generate calls for a deepening of integration, and in all three dimensions Q economic, political, and security. Economic and monetary union is the flagship project for this core group, but it finds itself enmeshed in the EU, alongside not only the British with all their doubts but other ambivalent partners. Meanwhile the weight of expectations of Europe from the new democracies to the east bears heavily. And the ravages of war in Bosnia remain a standing reproach to the limits of cooperation.

* In western Europe there is a lingering and disturbing reluctance to confront choices of cooperation. Meanwhile the day-to-day images of Europe are of fierce controversy over whether to allow British gelatine on to the European market and whether or not Spanish fishing boats should be allowed to fish in British waters. Puzzled publics, not only in Britain, are understandably confused and refusing unconditional support for a new European "project" that is muddled.

The muddle has become acute in Britain. We have lost the ability to distinguish between macro- and micro-issues, between the structural and the contingent, and between questions of values and matters of ephemeral substance. Questions of beef and fish are, of course, important, but they are issues to be resolved by practice, not by doctrine. But just as pressing are questions about how to promote Europe's competitiveness in a tough world economy that leaves little margin for compassionate social welfare and about how to provide stability and anchors for the transformation of post-communist Europe.

Europe's future offers no easy answers. To risk unravelling what has been achieved in west European integration seems a pretty stupid starting point. But equally just to project forwards the policies of the past is unlikely to suffice. So the model of integration needs some redesign; successor policies need to be found to serve the twin objectives of rooting the broader Europe in a framework of political trust and mutual commitment and of adapting the social and economic infrastructure across the continent to the harsh realities of international competition. This is no soft option and politicians have to earn the support of public opinion for the venture. The issue for the British is whether or not to be fully engaged in such an endeavour. It is an issue that will be with us long after the next election. The British have much to contribute by way of common sense and valuable experience, but our voice has to be worth listening to if it is to carry weight.

Helen Wallace is director, Sussex European Institute.

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