Britain’s relationship with the EU: no love affair, followed by a bad marriage and a stormy divorce

12 Dec

Reluctant European: Britain and the European Union from 1945 to Brexit by Stephen Wall

This book could also be called “Life as a Continuous Negotiation”. It shows with great clarity that when Britain entered the European Economic Community, as it was then known, the advocates of joining indulged in wishful thinking, as more recently did the advocates of Brexit.

There was no love affair before this marriage, no honeymoon after it, and the divorce is proving pretty painful too.

In 1979 Helmut Schmidt, an anglophile German Chancellor, asked Oliver Wright, the British Ambassador in Bonn, why the British had spent the six years since we joined haggling like Italians about sums of money which ought to have been beneath our notice.

There had been years of haggling before we joined, and there was a lot more haggling to come, for Margaret Thatcher was only just beginning her campaign for the British rebate.

Stephen Wall, who joined the Diplomatic Service in 1968, saw much of this haggling at first hand, for he was an adviser to five Foreign Secretaries and three Prime Ministers, and also served for five years as the UK’s Permanent Representative to the EU.

How did he stand it? This book is intended mainly as a dispassionate account of Britain’s European policy over the last 75 years: an aim it more than meets.

But it also offers hints on how to survive official life. One method is to enjoy the comic side of things. Here is one of the best anecdotes with which Wall enlivens his text:

“My father-in-law [Norman Reddaway], a young diplomat in the post-war British Embassy in Rome, had accompanied his Ambassador in 1950 when the latter, on instructions from London, called on the Italian Foreign Minister to persuade him of the ill-advised nature of the proposed Coal and Steel Community. The Minister, Count Sforza, listened politely. At the end of the Ambassador’s reasoned case, Sforza smiled tolerantly. ‘My dear Ambassador,’ he said. ‘There are times at the opera when you should enjoy the music and not worry about the words.'”

There is much to be said for the Sforza approach. Enjoy the music and don’t bother to translate the lyrics.

It was not, however, an approach which Wall and his colleagues felt able to adopt:

“We British worried intensely about ‘the words’. With no overarching written constitution, the words of Parliamentary Acts were all we (and the courts which interpreted them) had to rely on.”

One detects the note of suppressed hysteria which runs through the story of Britain’s relationship with Europe. It mattered desperately to get it right: here is the principal, and entirely honourable, motive which drove so many members of the Diplomatic Service to devote their careers and very considerable minds to the problem.

And yet, as Wall’s account brings out, brains were not enough to arrive at a solution. He starts in the Frick gallery in New York, staring at the Holbein portraits of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell.

Here are “the two sides of the schism that was the Reformation”: Cromwell “the piggy-eyed, clever thug”, versus a representative of European civilisation:

“More was a Renaissance scholar… He was the friend of the Dutch philosopher and scholar Erasmus. They both saw themselves as part of an international, and especially European, cultural and spiritual order: that of Christendom. For More, the son of a lawyer, and himself the most senior guardian and dispenser of the law in the England of his day, the Church and State were umbilically linked and the laws of God and the laws of Man had to be in harmony. When Henry VIII sundered that harmony by declaring himself Head of the Church and breaking from the authority of Rome he was not, in More’s eyes, simply rebelling from a pontiff who was more of a temporal ruler than a spiritual one. Henry’s action was, as More saw it, an assault on the very foundations on which the English state was built.”

Wall is descended rather wonderfully from Norman foot soldiers who settled in Derbyshire, where their name “gradually morphed from Du Val to Wall” and they became yeomen farmers.

His mother was a Catholic, he was brought up as a Catholic, and he points out that the EEC was “largely conceived by Catholic Christian Democrats”, who signed the Treaty of Rome on 25th March 1957, the Feast of the Annunciation:

“For Britain, on the other hand, the idea of a supranational authority – beyond the control of national parliaments – was, and remained, conceptually alien and politically nigh on impossible to contemplate. We live with that political reality to that day.”

Wall is too intelligent and fair-minded to suggest that all virtue lies on the European side of the divide. He describes how the six founding members of the EEC created, “in an act of pre-emptive and ruthless self-interest”, the Common Fisheries Policy, before the British, the Danes, the Norwegians and the Irish, all of whom had large stocks of fish, were allowed to join.

The budget was likewise rigged against the British, who found themselves paying for a system of agricultural support for French farmers, an injustice which took many years of haggling to put right.

In 1987, Julian Bullard, the British Ambassador in Bonn, wrote a dispatch to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which included the words:

“I would plead that at least more thought should be given to the style of British policy in Europe. The plain speaking of the House of Commons does not translate well into Continental languages, especially in countries that live by coalition and compromise.”

Over 30 years later, what Bullard said remains true. Abrasive language of the kind often heard in Westminster just doesn’t register in Germany: is politely discounted as simply not serious.

Yet if one adapts one’s tone to take account of German susceptibilities, one is liable to make no impact, and to lose one’s British audience.

Wall admits that Margaret Thatcher made a remarkable impact not only in Europe, especially in that part of the Continent still held by the Soviet Union, but in the United States:

“A visit to Washington by Prime Minister Jim Callaghan rated a few lines in The New York Times. The first visit of Thatcher as Prime Minister, for which I was the gofer late in 1979, dominated the headlines and the TV news. Her address to both Houses of Congress electrified the audience. I spent the first ten years of my Foreign Office career doing my bit to represent a country in visible decline: widely seen as the sick man of Europe. All that changed with Thatcher.”

Tony Blair emerges less well from this account than one might expect. He contributes a single, mendacious paragraph to his memoirs on the subject of joining the euro, is heard by Wall agreeing to misrepresent Jacques Chirac’s views about Saddam Hussein, fatefully promises a referendum on a new European treaty, and pretends that he shares the vision of the EU’s founders.

The moral of this admirable book is that forms of words, however carefully chosen, are not enough to bridge the divide that runs through Britain, and has done since the Reformation.

So although Wall says almost nothing about Boris Johnson, for whom he never worked, he does draw the impassable chasm into which any Prime Minister is in danger of tumbling: one to which the present occupant of Number Ten sometimes seems, with his carefree insistence that politics should be enjoyable, to be applying the wisdom of Count Sforza.

Terry Barnes: Abbott’s trade appointment is a masterstoke

28 Aug

Terry Barnes advised Tony Abbott when he was a Cabinet minister in John Howard’s government.

Whatever one thinks of the reported appointment by Boris Johnson of former Tony Abbott as a Co-President of the Board of Trade with Liz Truss, it is certainly one in the eye for the diminishing band of diehard Remainers.

Abbott’s putative role was greeted with disbelief and even derision among Australia’s left-leaning media elite who have little love for him, just has he has no love for them. Their reaction has been echoed by the likes of Emily Thornberry, who has not hesitated to give the former Australian Prime Minister a very undiplomatic and uncharitable, even vicious, character assessment in slamming the appointment.

Certainly, the Prime Minister has caught everyone by surprise by bringing Abbott, as a former “colonial”, into the heart of Whitehall. Perhaps it was one of Dominic Cummings’s wheezes to put the wind up the mandarins and the British trade establishment.

One person who will be very satisfied with a co-presidency of the Board of Trade – however archaic and anachronistic the Board itself is today – is Abbott himself.

A great student and devotee of British history, and especially of Winston Churchill, Abbott will be well-aware that he is following in the footsteps of one who he regards as one of the greatest figures in all history, whose presidency of the Board under Asquith was his first Cabinet post. He will also surely derive some pleasure from another previous holder of the political office being the very Viscount Sydney after whom his home city is named.

But beyond the historical parallels, and the strangeness at first glance of Abbott’s appointment, there is much to suggest that he is the right man for the job.

It is often forgotten that Abbott was not only a Rhodes scholar but is also British-born, at a time when Australian citizens were also deemed British subjects, and there was free movement and residency rights in both directions.

He retained his dual British citizenship until he stood for the Australian parliament in late 1993. Both it, and the heritage that he has always felt that his birth conferred on him, has made him more passionate about Britain, and more determined that she regains what he sees as her rightful standing in the world, than many resident Britons. He desperately wants Britain to succeed in once again venturing independently from the EU into the world of international trade free just as Australia, after decades of growing pains, eventually did the same from her mother country.

Then of course there’s Brexit. Abbott was already out of office in Australia by the time of the 2016 referendum, but from the very outset he was a passionate and influential supporter of Brexit. Anyone who has read his pro-Brexit writings will know that Abbott is full-blooded for Brexit and very, very bullish about Britain’s prospects of negotiating, just for starters, strong, effective and highly lucrative trade deals with Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the European Union. Indeed, if Abbott takes up this role, the appointment will be a strong signal from Number 10 that the highest priority for bilateral trade agreements is what was once called the Old Commonwealth.

And it is not as though Abbott has no reliable form in trade negotiations. Far from it. On his watch as Prime Minister, Australia cut world-leading trade deals with China, Japan and South Korea, moving swiftly to close them where the previous Labor government had dithered.

Even with Australia’s relations with China going through a very rough patch – this week, a senior Chinese diplomat patronisingly told the Canberra press gallery that the relationship is like a bad marriage where only one partner, Australia, is to blame – the deals that Abbott signed are working, and have opened wide new markets for Australian exporters and investors across the board.

So when Abbott talks about trade deals, he knows full well of what he speaks, and can supply insights derived from experience, and an international contact book, to help substitute for the expertise and confidence about going it alone that has atrophied in Britain since she joined the then European Economic Community in 1973.

Lastly, Abbott is not part of the British, Remain-grieving, establishment. As a former Prime Minister in a Westminster parliamentary democracy, he understands how Whitehall’s machinery of government works, but he is alien to the culture of the Whitehall mandarinate. His will be a voice in the circles of government unequivocally for making Brexit not only work, but for it being a spectacular success. Like his compatriot, Lynton Crosby, Abbott will derive his greatest satisfaction from his role by proving his naysayers wrong, and delivering for all of Britain trade outcomes that will boost not only the United Kingdom’s prosperity, but its prestige at home and abroad.

On hearing of the reported appointment, the “Abbott-haters” in Australia have not hesitated to accuse him of defecting to the opposition and undermining Australia’s best interests. Looked at superficially, that is understandable but, in reality, the appointment is the opposite. Australia, and other countries with whom Britain is looking to secure trade deals, will benefit greatly if their British trade and investment grow the economic pie for both countries. Lending the expertise of Australia’s former Prime Minister to her former colonial power is an indication of a mature bilateral relationship, not a subservient or dysfunctional one.

A Canadian, Mark Carney, was appointed Governor of the Bank of England by David Cameron and George Osborne, partly to bring fresh perspectives and ideas into Threadneedle Street and the City. While his success was mixed, not least because of his opposition to Brexit, turning to Carney sent a message that not all financial and monetary policy wisdom resides in Whitehall and the Square Mile.

The same logic applies to Abbott and international trade. However his role may finally be defined, Johnson appointing Abbott to a far more than symbolic role at the Board of Trade, supporting him and Truss as they strive to fully implement Brexit in the face of a sullen if not outright hostile European Union and a Coronavirus-blighted world, may prove to be a post-Brexit masterstroke.