Reluctant European - Britain and the European Union from 1945 to Brexit

Stephen Wall had a long career of representing Britain in Brussels and followed that by writing well-researched and brilliantly written histories of the UK’s oft-fraught relationship with the European project. His latest book in just 300 pages is a salutary addition, indeed to those who are baffled by concepts of sovereignty and lines on maps the story is extremely sad. “Reluctant European” has the conspicuous benefit of Wall’s access to Cabinet and Prime Ministerial papers which provide chapter and verse to his experiences on the frontline. He puts the UK’s long term struggle to catch up with EU styles and practices down to its failure to join the original Iron and Steel Community in 1952. At the time the UK was still looking longingly at its “special relationship” with the USA and it didn’t see the need to participate in a transnational European body.  By the time British governments were forced to accept the unpalatable truth that its economic situation propelled it towards joining the European Economic Community (as it then was) the original six countries had already developed years of integration.

Stephen Wall points out that, although the UK paid lip service to the Community goal of “ever closer union” it was always driven by economic imperatives rather than principled Europeanism and that Edward Heath was the only Prime Minister who was prepared to countenance the concept of a pooling of sovereignty. Wall painstakingly gives chapter and verse of how, for instance, the European Court of Justice forced France to back down over its ban on importing beef from the UK in 1999. The British press never publicised this. Also, he points out that the Blair government knowingly misrepresented French President Chirac’s words on opposing the specific US/UK proposal to attack Iraq in 2003 in order to back the USA’s determination to invade. Again, the nuances of this were not highlighted in our media.

I am, of course, biased. As one who campaigned for fifteen years before we joined in 1973 and who now campaigns to rejoin, Stephen Wall’s careful exposition of the facts makes distressing reading today. This is, however, a serious book of history that can be recommended as enabling the reader to make up his or her own mind on the facts. For myself I can only say “amen” to Stephen Wall’s final words:

My parents had lived through two world wars. My father, aged seventeen, had joined up to fight in the first of them. Europe had been the war-torn graveyard of countless numbers of human beings over many centuries. The European project offered - and still offers - a rule-based system for the often querulous relations between competitive countries. And it provides a basis on which shared democratic values can be entrenched and deployed for good in the world.

The recent rise of populism and nationalism across the whole of Europe needs solidarity among all those of goodwill and a passion for civilised and democratic values. Stephen Wall explains why the UK is now much missed in that urgent struggle.

Reluctant European - Britain and the European Union from 1945 to Brexit, by Stephen Wall, pub. Oxford University Press, 2020, ISBN 978 0 19 884067 1