Brexit aside, the British were not the 'Bad Boys' of Europe

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt looks back on his 42 years in Brussels when his fellow Brits played key roles in the building of Europe, and looks forward to their eventual return.

No one in Brussels or most EU capitals now has a good word to say about the British. They know that ‘Brexit day’ last week marked the next phase in the ill-tempered negotiations that look set to sour cross-channel relations for decades to come. But it’s not too late to avoid this, as a glance back at Britain’s EU track record should remind us.

The fault lies in the tactics adopted by Brexiteer ministers since the mid-2016 EU membership referendum, aimed primarily at blocking calls within the UK for a confirmatory second vote. The political opportunism of Boris Johnson and his coterie eclipsed all attempts at rational debate, either within Britain or with Brussels.

The Brexiteers have been so provocative, inept and insulting it will take a long struggle to bring the shine back to Britain’s international reputation. Yet the ‘Bad Boy’ image is undeserved.

The opening of the transition period for the UK’s departure seems a good moment to set the record straight. The British (here I should perhaps say “we British”) may often have seemed ungracious in refusing to demonstrate a slavish devotion to the European project, but were never uncooperative. British policymakers were behind some of the most important features of today’s European Union.

The British spearheaded trade and security thinking in Brussels

The most obvious is, of course, the Single Market. This had languished for years on the long list of the European Economic Community’s unaccomplished projects. Although there were then only 12 member states, Germany’s internal market commissioner, an energetic former U-boat commander called Karl-Heinz Narjes, had despaired of getting them to push through the necessary measures. That changed when Arthur Cockfield, formerly the CEO of a chain of UK pharmacies, took over in the mid-1980s.

British pragmatism transformed the commission’s hitherto stalled approach into a stunning success. Identifying as a major stumbling block national parliaments’ ratification procedures, Cockfield’s team repackaged and streamlined the single market project into a drive targeting 300 liberalisation measures by 1992.

Some now say “well, of course Margaret Thatcher and her colleagues saw Europe chiefly in commercial terms,” and there’s some truth in that. Quite independently of the UK government, Britain’s business leaders had already been in the vanguard of European corporations that understood the vital importance of Europe’s economic and political integration.

London’s world view – undoubtedly a legacy of empire – did much during the last two decades of the 20th century to widen the EU’s horizons. Sharing with France a preoccupation with foreign policy, the British spearheaded trade and security thinking in Brussels by convincing an EU made up chiefly of smaller countries that Europe’s world role is key. It was no accident that the UK secured the trade portfolio for Leon Brittan and then Peter Mandelson, and external relations for Chris Patten, and that Cathy Ashton became the EU’s ‘foreign minister’ at the EEAS.

I believe the Brits will be back sooner rather than later

The EU’s ‘Big Bang’ enlargement also owed much to British urging, and for some time London even made the case for Turkish membership. Whether the UK was partly motivated by a desire to dilute the bloc’s political integration is hard to say, but there’s no doubt its enthusiasm reflected a determination that Europe should increase its international clout.

The most striking aspect of Britain’s near-half century of membership has been the contrast between the Whitehall civil servants turned Eurocrat and the politicians from Westminster. It’s also a source of hope for the future.

‘Unelected bureaucrats’ from the UK have many of them punched far above their weight in the EU institutions, as have the bulk of British MEPs. Multilingual, cosmopolitan and deeply committed to Europe, the British in Brussels stoutly ignored the growing groundswell of eurosceptic pressures at home.

The souring of EU-UK relations in the next few years seems inevitable. But set against that will be the pressures of a globalising world in which small fry – for instance an island of 60 million people with limited resources – will have to run for cover. I believe the Brits will be back sooner rather than later, although what EU they’ll be back to is anyone’s guess.

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