I have tried to deal with the intricacies of the Brexit negotiations under Article 50. Besides the day to day ups and downs there is at least now a discernible plan. Now I would like to take a deeper look at Brexit: its origins in the tripartite strained relationship between Germany, France and the UK and my belief that it will continue stronger than it was in five to ten years time. The key is to step back 60 years. As their two day meeting in Colombey, de Gaulle’s private residence, in September 1958 Adenauer and de Gaulle built a meeting of minds which, as de Gaulle’s biographer, Lacouture, argues, ‘was to resist all reverses’. Adenauer was certain from thereon in his relationship with de Gaulle. The two countries would come first. Adenauer did not fear de Gaulle’s nationalism believing that he knew it could only exist on the basis of a deep and abiding French/German Europeanism.
The crucial moment that marked the consolidation of the Franco-German alliance was on 6 November 1958 in London. The French Foreign Minister, Couve de Murville, met with Selwyn Lloyd, the Foreign Secretary, and Reginald Maulding, then Paymaster General. He made clear French opposition to the European Free Trade Association that was to come into existence in January 1960 with the UK as a member. He also made clear French support for the Common Market. Couve de Murville sensed that this was a dramatic moment and wrote, “We are about to reach the most critical stage in France-British relations since June 1940.” This was no understatement since matters grew even worse on 15 December at a meeting in Brussels. The British, who had hoped to bring France around to their ideas, with German support, were amazed to see the Germans declare that they were against the ‘Free Trade Area’.
On 20 March 1960 Eisenhower and Adenauer issued a joint communiqué explicitly approving an acceleration of internal cuts in import tariffs in the EEC. This was seen as a negative step by EFTA. A painful process then began during which the Conservative Cabinet, while in the EFTA Seven, began to move towards leaving EFTA and joining the EEC Six, and in the process encouraged public opinion in Denmark and Austria to think about leaving for the EEC with the UK.
Sir Gladwyn Jebb in Paris warned that the French would not join up the Six with the Seven. By 23 January 1961 the French Ambassador was warning the UK about French reluctance and the British Ambassador in Bonn was reporting that the German Finance Minister, Ludwig Erhard, had told him de Gaulle was not the ‘key’ but the ‘lock’ and had no intention of letting the UK into their private empire. On 31 July 1961 Macmillan, in spite of these and many other warnings relied on his own knowledge of de Gaulle, when he had been Churchill’s link to de Gaulle in the early 1940s in Algeria. Fatefully, he announced the UK would apply to join the EEC. He had, incidentally, changed his mind over eighteen months from being totally opposed to joining the EEC.
President de Gaulle in 1963 and again in 1967 shattered the UK hopes. Only when President Pompidou replaced de Gaulle, after he lost a referendum on regional government in 1969, was the way cleared for British entry. But that was only possible because two British Prime Ministers, first Wilson and then Heath in 1970, had been ready to commit privately to monetary union; a fact that was obscured from both politicians and the public. Nor were the British people convinced. The European policy of Edward Heath’s Conservative government was unpopular and it needed the votes of Labour MPs, such as myself, ready to disregard three line whips to pass the legislation and on 1 January 1973 the UK became a member of the EEC.
British politicians of the left, right and centre have persistently denied the centrality of the underlying belief in federalism in Europe. Yet some have been ‘closet’ federalists – Heath, Jenkins, Blair and Heseltine to name but four. Support for federalism in Europe has waxed and waned, of course, but the founding fathers of the European Economic Community were explicit in wanting federalism to be the end result. The treaties always allowed for it but did not prescribe it.
In Germany, in office but with greater strength out of office, Chancellor Schmidt and Kohl were federalists. Today President Macron, to his credit, is the first French President to be openly federalist. So with a Brexit underway and Macron leading the federalist case the decision rests here in Berlin.
There has been growing evidence to support the view that a three-way relationship between France, Germany and the UK at the top of the EU will never work. Such became the consistent view of one of our wisest diplomats. Sir Ewen Fergusson, who died in April 2017, having served as Ambassador to France from 1987 to 1992, his final Diplomatic Service posting. He lived in France after retirement and loved France and its people. In his obituary in the Daily Telegraph it was recorded that after his retirement, Fergusson had transformed himself from a self-described ‘convinced European’ to something of a Eurosceptic. In an interview in 1998 for the British Diplomatic Oral History Project, Fergusson explained that the years in Paris had made him much more sensitive to the difficulties of Britain’s role in an EU whose key members, France and Germany, place far more importance on their relationship with each other than on that with their troublesome offshore neighbour. He was particularly alarmed by the ‘forced speed’ with which continental Europe was rushed towards a single currency. For him and for me and many others monetary union was the point of departure when a federal Europe become inevitable.
The UK, deeply split, blurred the issue of federalism with our opt out. Now the ball is in your court in Germany. The UK will no longer be able to block federalism and take the blame. It is your choice which Macron will insist is faced up to and in that process he will have to convince his own country where there is much scepticism.
In a wider Europe, there is every reason to believe, not just to hope, that British, French and German relations are too deep to die away by the act of the UK leaving the EU or by the EU becoming over a decade or more a federal union. Relations will, I believe, improve as a result of the clarity Brexit is bringing to all three countries. It gives you in Germany and France, if you wish, an unfettered opportunity in both the EU and the Eurozone to build a much closer federal relationship.
For the UK, Brexit is an opportunity to be free to re-establish a country that our people wish to live in, to work for its prosperity, and to defend its people and interests worldwide.