Anti-Europeanism has long been a component of modern politics in Europe and it transcends the right and left, argues Denis MacShane in his latest book, Brexiternity. The Uncertain Fate of Britain. If we step back from the Brexit looking-glass, we can see that any form of European partnership or common purpose or sharing of some national sovereignty – to a greater or lesser degree – has always provoked relentless opposition, he writes.
In 1971 Britain’s future prime minister, Jim Callaghan, told an audience that to enter Europe was to exchange America and the Commonwealth for ‘an aroma of continental claustrophobia’ which meant ‘a complete rupture of our identity.’ The reason was that on the continent people spoke foreign languages, especially the French, who spoke French. ‘The language of Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare’ would be challenged, declared the future Labour Prime Minister:
‘If we have to prove our Europeanism by accepting that French is the dominant language in the Community, then my answer is quite clear, and I will say it in French in order to prevent misunderstanding: “Non, merci beaucoup!”’.
Jokey Jim. Comical Callaghan. But this vulgar, saloon bar pre-UKIP language was more than typical of the British left’s approach to Europe between 1945 and 1990. It is too easy to see Brexit and current anti-EU populist narratives as a right-wing or xenophobe response. Throughout the 20th and so far in the 21st century the left and self-proclaimed progressive forces have often found an easy target in the idea of a Europe that was more than just a geographical location for a collection of nation-states.
All of Europe’s post-war parties have had moments of doubt about or opposition to aspects of European integration. And within broadly pro-European parties there have been individual politicians who have said no to a particular moment of European construction. Jacques Chirac attacked Europe in 1978 as part of his political manoeuvres against his hated rival Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. In 1976, Chirac said France ‘must not dissolve into an Atlanticist colony called Europe’. In 1978 using identical language to English Brexiters forty years later, Chirac said France must say NON to:
‘becoming a vassal state. A federal Europe cannot fail to be dominated by the Americans. Voting by majority means France is paralyzed and this cannot serve the interests of France or of Europe. The European community is just a big free trade area which favours powerful foreign interests. That is why we say NON to supranational policy, NON to economic slavery, NON to the loss of international influence of France.’
In Britain since 1950 one of the two main parties – Conservative or Labour – has usually adopted as its declared policy a critique or opposition to European construction. For long periods either one or the other of the two dominant political formations has preached against Europe. This has been a potent factor in forming public opinion. After Labour won power in 1945 one of the main architects of Labour’s rejection of Europe was a young politician called Denis Healey. Healey was a brilliant scholar who had been in the Communist Party at Oxford before 1939. Healey became Minister of Defence in the Labour government of 1964-1970 and Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1974-1979. In the 1970s and 1980s, he was Labour’s most respected politician. In a key Labour Party policy pamphlet, European Unity, published in June 1950, on the eve of the Schuman plan’s formal adoption by France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux nations to set up the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner of today’s EU, Healey denounced in Labour’s name all moves to set up a European structure which might reduce the power of the British government.
‘No Socialist Party with the prospect of forming a government could accept a system by which important fields of national policy were surrendered to a supranational European representative authority, since such an authority would have a permanent anti-Socialist majority and would arouse the suspicions of European workers.’
With these few words Healey set down more than six decades ago the classic sovereignist left case against Europe.
Labour’s weather vane approach to Europe
All politicians are entitled to change their minds and positions. But the history of British politics from 1945 until today is full of men and women who have moved from A to Z on the spectrum of Europe. For the British people who, like citizens in other countries, expect a degree of consistency from their leading politicians on the important issues that face a nation, this constant zig-zagging and change of mind and language on Europe is deeply confusing. Some like Robin Cook, Labour Foreign Secretary, 1997-2001, begin as anti-Europeans and become converted to a pro-European position. For many, the journey is in the opposite direction. Early enthusiasm for Europe curdles into hostility flattered and encouraged by the anti-European press. In 1982, David Owen, the Labour MP who had been Britain’s youngest ever foreign secretary between 1977 and 1979, left the Labour Party with other pro-European Labour MPs like Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams and formed the Social Democratic Party. In 1982, Owen was pro-European. By 2012, still, with a voice in British politics and a seat in the House of Lords, Lord Owen was calling for a referendum to take Britain out of Europe. Labour’s only consistency has been its inconsistency.
Opposition to European partnership and supranational integration has deep roots. Lenin denounced any idea of a ‘United States of Europe as a capitalist entente to divide up colonies’. Pan-Europeanism was also opposed by the Nazis. Hitler’s chief ideologue, Alfred Rosenberg, said the ideas of European nations working together which emerged in the 1920s were the product of ‘the stock market and Jewish journalists.’ Hitler denounced the mistake of ‘democratic Europeanism’ based on unifying racially unequal people which ‘is why Jews in particular support this concept.’ HG Wells wrote against European unity non-stop in the 1920s and 1930s.
In the 21st century, English and French extreme anti-Europeanism of both right and left denounce the EU as a German-controlled entity imposing Berlin’s will on poorer, weaker countries. Go back to the 1950s and it is the German left opposing European integration as it meant the domination of Germany by European powers.
In 1952, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) voted with German communists in the Bundestag against the European Coal and Steel Community. German social democrats saw the ECSC as benefiting mainly France and even made comparisons with Versailles Treaty reparations. The SPD leader, Kurt Schumacher, had spent 13 years in Buchenwald. He complained that the leaders of the six founding members of the ECSC were ‘Conservative, clericalist, capitalist and cartelist’ and said the SPD rejected the ECSC ‘both as convinced internationalists and as German patriots and as Europeans.’ The SPD spent in the 1950s in the political doldrums thanks to Schumacher’s political nationalism.
One of the oddest aspects of the Europe-haters in politics is that they are never consistent. In France, the National Front (now rebadged the National Rally) has been led by Jean Marie Le Pen and then his daughter Marine. In June 1989, Le Pen, le père, said Europe should have ‘an army, a currency, a diplomatic service, and a European police service to fight illegal frontier crossing, international crime, drug trafficking and counterfeit money.’ So just 30 years ago Jean Marie Le Pen was going well beyond the demand of the most ardent federalist.
It is almost as if anti-Europeanism is an essential component of modern politics in Europe transcending right and left. As the French Communist Party by the end of the 20th century finally weaned itself off primitive xenophobic anti-European lines, the extreme-right National Front party picks up all the old communist themes and packages them into a populist anti-immigrant appeal that propels Jean Marie Le Pen into the second round of the French presidential election in 2002 and his daughter into the run-off against Emmanuel Macron to be president of France in 2017.
In Britain, the Conservative Party was the European party 1950-1995 and Labour was hostile to European integration for most of those years. Then the points switch and William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard and David Cameron decided to make populist appeals about bossy Brussels and Europeans working in Britain against two Labour prime ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who accepted EU membership and were supporters of the EU partnership.
The post-communist politicians in Central and East Europe were experts at this populist demagogy. Beginning with Václav Klaus in Prague and today with Viktor Orbán in Budapest and Jarosław Kaczyński in Warsaw it seemed at times as if the EU had replaced the Soviet Union as the enemy of the people and nations of central and east Europe. The term EUSSR was used and when one heard the former Czech president Klaus refer to the EU as a new Soviet Empire he was deadly serious.
In fact, anti-European thinking has a whole army of intellectual and journalists on its side. The French communist historian, Annie Lacroix-Riz, insisted in 2016 that Europe was just one of ‘the spheres of influence of the United States.’ Or here is the venerable founding figure of the New Left Review in London, Perry Anderson, much quoted by the left populists like Pablo Iglesias, leader of the Podemos party in Spain, explaining how people ‘now saw the EU for what it is: an oligarchy, riddled with the gangrene of corruption, built on the denial of popular sovereignty, imposing an economic regime with its privileges for some and constraints for all the rest.’ For the post-class-war sociological Marxists like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, the EU stands in the way, not of nations, as anti-EU sovereignists argue but prevents ‘the construction of the people’ and their popular sovereignty against the liberal elites. They are followers of the German philosopher Carl Schmitt who rejected liberal parliamentary democracy and insisted that any attempt to produce harmony or cooperation in politics led inevitably to the reinforcement of those who already wielded power or possessed wealth.
Jürgen Habermas, generally seen as a European federalist, writes that EU leaders ‘insist on pursuing their elitist project and taking away the rights of the European people.’ He deplored the Brexit vote result but went to tell Die Zeit that the fault lay with the European Union and in an echo of much of the pro-Brexit arguments in Britain blamed his own country.
‘Germany is a reluctant but insensitive and incapable hegemon that both uses and ignores the disturbed European balance of power at the same time. This provokes resentments, especially in other Eurozone countries. How must a Spaniard, Portuguese or Greek feel if he has lost his job as a result of the policy of spending cuts decided by the European Council? He cannot arraign the German cabinet ministers who got their way with this policy in Brussels: he cannot vote them in or out of office. Instead of which, he could read during the Greek crisis that these very politicians angrily denied any responsibility for the socially disastrous consequences that they had casually taken on board with such programmes of cuts. As long as this undemocratic and faulty structure is not got rid of you can hardly be surprised at anti-European smear campaigns. The only way to get democracy in Europe is through a deepening of European co-operation.’
The problem Habermas and most pro-European left intellectuals face is that they posit the idea of Europe in opposition to the failing of nation-state politics to deliver their desired political outcome of a better life for all. This is the EU to carry too much responsibility. Europe can only be built with not against its constituent nations. Britain opting out by whatever final means the Brexiternity of negotiations in the 2020s produces is irrelevant. We can do more opt-outs of Europe than the farmer or fisherman can opt-out of the weather. The 21st century will see stops and starts, many wrong turnings in European integration – assuming that is there is no collapse of democracy and Europe does not become a minor extension of the rising powers and populations in Asia – but the European nations are condemned to live with each other and in each other. The European Union is imperfect as so many of its political and intellectual critics from all points of the political compass point out. But it is the best effort made in two millennia of European history to allow such different peoples to live relatively harmoniously together.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE. It is an extract from Brexiternity. The Uncertain Fate of Britain published by IB Tauris-Bloomsbury. Image by Adam Jones licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
Denis MacShane is the former UK Minister for Europe. He has written widely on European politics including the first biography in English of François Mitterrand, and the first account in English of the Polish trade union, Solidarity, published in 1981. His book International Labour and the Origins of the Cold War (OUP 1990) examines the role of trade unions in rejecting Soviet communism in Western Europe after 1945. In 2014 he wrote Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe, which predicted the outcome of the referendum.