Alongside the day-to-day ups and downs of Britain’s European Union exit process, there is at least now a discernible plan for departure. A deeper look at Brexit has to consider its origins in the strained tripartite relationship between Germany, France and the UK.
The key is to step back 60 years. At their two-day meeting in Colombey, Charles de Gaulle’s private residence, in September 1958, West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and the French president had a meeting of minds which, as de Gaulle’s biographer Jean Lacouture, argues, ‘was to resist all reverses’. From then on, Adenauer was certain in his relationship with de Gaulle that the two countries would come first. Adenauer did not fear de Gaulle’s nationalism, believing it could exist only on the basis of a deep and abiding French/German Europeanism.
De Gaulle in 1963 and again in 1967 shattered UK hopes of joining the European Economic Community. When President Georges Pompidou replaced de Gaulle, the way was cleared for British entry. But that was only possible because two British prime ministers, first Harold Wilson and then Edward Heath, had been ready to commit privately to monetary union, although this was obscured from politicians and the public. Nor were the British people convinced. The European policy of Heath’s Conservative government was unpopular. It needed the votes of Labour members of parliament, such as myself, 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 European federalism. Yet some have been ‘closet’ federalists – Heath, Roy Jenkins, Tony Blair and Michael Heseltine to name but four. Support for federalism in Europe has waxed and waned, but the founding fathers of the EEC were explicit in wanting federalism to be the end result. The treaties always allowed for it but did not prescribe it.
Today Emmanuel Macron, to his credit, is the first French president to be openly federalist. So with Brexit underway and Macron leading the federalist case, the decision rests 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 in 1987-92. He lived in France after retirement and loved the country and its people. His Daily Telegraph obituary recorded that, after his retirement, Fergusson 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.
The UK, deeply split, blurred the issue of federalism with its opt-out from the euro. Now the ball is in Germany’s court. The UK will no longer be able to block federalism and take the blame.
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 Germany and France, if they wish, an unfettered opportunity in both the EU and the euro area 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.
Lord (David) Owen is a former UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and a member of the OMFIF Advisory Council. This is an abridged version of a speech by Lord Owen at a conference organised by the British Chamber of Commerce in Germany in Berlin on 11 April.