Saturday, 23 July 2016

The Great Deception, Christopher Booker and Richard North

This is an unusual book.  It is part scholarly inquiry, part cheap polemic.  Its subject is the history of the European Union; and it is explicitly revisionist in nature.  Booker and North present themselves as pioneers who are unearthing a story which has been untold or misrepresented.  As the title indicates, it is a story characterised by conspiracy, concealment and deceit.  The authors write of their work - making no concessions to false modesty - that "there is almost no episode of the European Union's history which does not emerge looking radically different from the version which has been generally presented".  An impressive claim; but is it true?

This is not, shall we say, an impartial book.  Booker and North seem determined to portray everything they write about in as partisan a manner as possible.  They are not merely biased; they are monomaniacal.  If the European Union has done any good to the United Kingdom in any respect at all, the authors are unaware of it.  The EU is as bad as the Soviet Union, an entity to which they explicitly compare it several times.  The most manifestly successful element of the European project, the single market, features only as a source of pointless, draconian regulations (although the authors themselves are forced to recognise that many of the problems here stem from over-zealous British officials).  Even the banning of asbestos is dismissed as a stitch-up by French and Belgian corporations.  The nadir is reached when the authors try to blame the EU for New Labour's policy of devolution and the use of PR in the devolved assemblies.

The sad thing is that the genuine examples of the EU's failure - the poor treatment of British fishermen, for example, and the failure to prevent the violent break-up of Yugoslavia - get lost amidst all the tedious tub-thumping.  For Booker and North, the EU is nothing more than a "vast, ramshackle, self-deluding monster"; or possibly a catspaw of the French.

*

The book provides an impressively full history of the development of the European project.  The idea of European unification went back centuries - perhaps as far back as the fall of the Roman Empire.  It was supported at various times by figures including Dante, Leibniz, Jeremy Bentham and Victor Hugo.  But it was the First World War, revealing as it did the catastrophic potential of modern militarised nation states, that turned these utopian schemes into something approaching practical politics.

It is often forgotten today that the idea of a "United States of Europe" first became fashionable in the 1920s.  Its supporters included senior French and German politicians, along with an array of intellectuals, artists and businessmen.  One of these was a French industrialist, Louis Loucheur, who had held a senior position in the French wartime government.  He realised that modern warfare depended on industrial production.  He dreamed of placing national coal and steel industries under supranational control: if the raw materials of war could be brought under common governance, then war itself could be extinguished.  Loucheur's ideas led to the International Steel Agreement of 1926 (not 1925, as the authors claim), a now-forgotten precursor of the later initiatives of the 1950s.

At this point in the story, we meet Jean Monnet, the French businessman and civil servant who has gone down in history as the father of the European Union.  We also meet a lesser known friend of his, the English official Arthur Salter.  It is no coincidence that both men spent time working for the League of Nations.  The authors note that it was Salter who came up with the key idea of giving the "United States of Europe" a permanent apolitical "Secretariat" - a precursor to the modern European Commission.

Of course, as we know, the European project's time had not yet come.  The utopian plans of the 20s stalled with the rise of fascism and the advent of another world war.  The Nazis and their allies had their own ideas about what a unified Europe might look like.  Nevertheless, some men and women kept the flame alive.  Monnet, for one, had a hand in the famous plan for an Anglo-French Union which Churchill briefly took up in 1940.  Europeanist ideas were current among members of the anti-fascist resistance movements.  A European Federalist Movement was founded in 1943, and a conference was held in Geneva the following year.

After the war had ended, Churchill went about making his famous speeches about a United States of Europe, and several pan-Europeanist organisations were founded.  Of these, two deserve particular mention.  The first was the Organisation of European Economic Co-operation (OEEC), which served as a vehicle for accessing funds from the Marshall Plan; and the second was the Council of Europe, which administered the European Convention on Human Rights.  But these organisations were too weak and diffuse.  Things only really got going in 1951, with the advent of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC).  This was a reprise of Louis Loucheur's ideas from the 1920s.  The blueprint behind it became known as the "Schuman plan", after the conservative French foreign minister Robert Schuman, but it was really Jean Monnet's baby.  It was accepted by the French and German governments, for both idealistic and pragmatic reasons; but the British, fatefully, decided not to get involved.

After some hesitation, and hastened by the catalyst of the Suez crisis, the ECSC was followed in 1957 by Euratom and the European Economic Community (EEC).  Diplomatic manoeuvring by Monnet succeeded in removing the OEEC as a rival by turning it into an international organisation with American support: today's OECD.  By the early 1960s, Britain was overcoming her previous reluctance and starting to take an interest in the European project.  The EEC was seen as an antidote to sluggish economic growth, and the breakup of the British Empire had created a need for new thinking.  It was understood in London that the project had political implications for British sovereignty, but by this time it looked like the initial burst of enthusiasm on the continent for federalism was abating.

In 1961, Britain formally applied for entry to the European Communities - but, as is well known, Charles de Gaulle vetoed the application.  This was because de Gaulle was preoccupied, for reasons relating to French domestic politics, with putting in place the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).  He didn't want the UK getting in the way.  The Wilson government tried again in 1967, and de Gaulle responded with another veto.  But de Gaulle was already on the way out.  He retired in 1969 - and the rest is history.  The Heath government reapplied for membership in 1970, and the UK joined the Communities on 1 January 1973.  Unfortunately, it quickly became clear that Britain was something of an awkward partner.  Most famously, the skewed CAP created distortions in the UK's membership fee which led directly to Margaret Thatcher's battles to secure her legendary rebate.

By the 1980s, the process of European integration appeared to have stalled, and attempts were made to restart it.  The idea was touted of a signing a new treaty - an idea which was sponsored by one Altiero Spinelli, an Italian ex-Communist (Booker and North mention this aspect of his background six times, just in case we forget) and a group of like-minded spirits who included Boris Johnson's father Stanley.  In the event, the new treaty ended up being split into two treaties at the behest of the French foreign ministry - the first became the Single European Act and the second became the Maastricht Treaty.

In the Single European Act of 1985, the UK accepted a historic restriction of the national veto as the price of completing the single market - although the authors recount that Thatcher seriously considered vetoing the treaty.  By this time, the Iron Lady was losing her enthusiasm for Europe and was beset by rivalries with Jacques Delors (culminating in her famous Bruges speech of 1988) and, more dangerously, with Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe.  It was left to John Major to agree the Maastricht Treaty and to undertake the thankless task of piloting it through Parliament.  Yet Major was no Euro-fanatic.  He described bitterly and plausibly in his memoirs how the EU of the 1990s was run by the Franco-German axis, resting on the support of smaller countries who were net beneficiaries of the EU budget.  Britain stood alone.

Then came Blair.  Blair talked a good pro-European game, and signed up to new mini-treaties which were agreed in Amsterdam (1997) and at a chaotic summit in Nice (2000).  But the friction with our European partners continued.  The EU was showing signs of strain.  There was pressure for more integrationist states to be allowed to take their own path, a tendency which found concrete expression in the creation of the Eurozone.  By now, EU officials themselves had begun to speak of a "democratic deficit".  There were serious debates about how the European project would develop in the future, and the Commission's influence was on the wane.  Jacques Chirac, in particular, had developed a scepticism of the EU institutions.  The Iraq War made a mockery of the idea of a common foreign policy; while, outside the conference rooms of Brussels, right-wing populist parties were on the rise.

There followed the long and contentious process of drafting the ill-fated EU constitution.  The rejection of this text by the French and Dutch voters precipitated a major political crisis, which is where the book's narrative ends.  The authors hail this as the beginning of the end for European unity, although they can't quite explain away the high levels of popular support for EU membership which were being registered in the countries of the former Soviet bloc.

*

A book like this needs a villain, and this role is duly taken by Jean Monnet (followed in second place by Jacques Delors).  Monnet is portrayed as a sinister, conspiratorial figure: "He knew that, only by operating in the shadows, behind a cloak of obscurity, could he one day realise his dream."  Now, it is no secret that Monnet was both a committed Euro-federalist and an energetic pursuer of schemes to advance the federalist agenda.  But despite Booker and North's attempts to prove otherwise, he doesn't seem to have tried especially hard to conceal his views or his involvement in public life.  His role was hidden only in the sense that plans drawn up by officials are always fronted in public by the politicians who approve and adopt them.  At one point, for example, Monnet successfully persuaded the French prime minister René Pleven to take forward a proposal for a European Defence Community.  The authors write:
Again the familiar deception was repeated.  Although the proposal was entirely Monnet's, he kept in the background and his idea became the 'Pleven Plan'.
Well, what the hell did they expect?  That the prime minister of France was going to step back from this momentous project and allow a bureaucrat to lead on it?

If anything, despite being a bureaucrat, Monnet was a relatively visible figure.  Far from existing "in the shadows", he held a succession of significant public posts, including the key role of president of the ECSC's High Authority, the precursor of the European Commission.  No sooner had he taken up this position than he was publicly talking about the ECSC as the "first government of Europe".  Booker and North insist that this was just a slip of the tongue and that he subsequently learned to keep his mouth shut.  But this is simply not true.  Years later in the 1970s, he was writing in his memoirs that the EEC states should be "prepared... to transfer the additional sovereignty required to create a true European Union".  If he was "operating... behind a cloak of obscurity", what would it have looked like if he'd operated openly?

Booker and North's obsession with Monnet is irritating: they keep on bringing him up in the narrative even decades after his death.  At times, it borders on the absurd.  Political leaders of international standing - men like Konrad Adenauer and JFK - are portrayed as Monnet's puppets.  It is as if the most powerful men in the world didn't know what to think or do before Monsieur Jean Monnet told them.  But this is to turn things on their head.  The truth is that Monnet would have got precisely nowhere without the help of a favourable climate of opinion and friends in high places.  He pushed his integrationist agenda hard, but he was pushing at an open door.  When he did come up against political resistance - for example, in the shape of Charles de Gaulle - there was not much that he could do.

More generally, the authors' thesis that the federalist impetus behind the European project was nefariously concealed is impossible to reconcile with the facts which they themselves recount.  They succeed in showing that Euro-federalist ideas have attracted significant political support since as long ago as the end of World War I.  Over this time, such ideas have been published openly in books and newspapers, advocated by membership organisations, discussed at conferences and adopted to a greater or lesser degree by several generations of mainstream democratic politicians.  The very phrase "United States of Europe" was already a cliché by the 1950s.  In later years, a stream of reports, speeches and communiqués from the great and the good, from Paul-Henri Spaak to Jacques Delors, openly and publicly promoted European integration.  One of the most convinced federalists, Romano Prodi, was so concerned to keep his super-secret plotting under wraps that he said live on British TV in 1999 that he wanted his European Commission to be the government of Europe.

Was anyone in Britain listening?  Booker and North never quite manage to decide whether British politicians and civil servants are naive fools who have failed to understand the true purposes of Monnet's brainchild or scheming traitors who have deliberately sold out their country.  This ambivalence disappears, however, whenever the considerable shadow of Sir Edward Heath falls across the pages.  Indeed, there is a whole chapter entitled "The Real Deceit of Edward Heath".  It seems that it was he who, after years of quisling activity in the shadows, pulled the wool over the eyes of us sheeple and led us into the horrors of the European project.

Yet this reading of Heath's career cannot be reconciled with the record.  Heath never made any secret of his enthusiasm for European integration.  He used his maiden speech in the Commons to advocate British participation in the Schuman plan, and he was already publicly talking about a single currency by the end of the 60s.  On the very eve of his successful membership application in 1970, the existing six EEC member states put out an overtly pro-federalist statement; and two similarly federalist official reports followed quickly thereafter.  Just before Britain's accession took place, Heath declared (in words which the authors do not quote) that the EEC was "far more than a common market" and would entail a "close partnership" covering areas such as social legislation, the environment, education and foreign relations.  It is true that Heath generally didn't go out of his way to advertise the wider implications of joining the European project, but he and others did say enough on the public record to make the deception thesis untenable.  And anyway, even if Heath had chosen to lie about what was happening, men like Tony Benn and Enoch Powell were constantly on hand to put - loudly - the case for the other side.

The authors' determination to paint everything black runs through the whole book.  Everyday political compromises become evidence of horrendous deceit.  When Booker and North relate how the Belgian politician Paul-Henri Spaak struck out a reference to a "United States of Europe" in a memorandum written by Monnet during the preparations for establishing the EEC, they can barely contain themselves: "Thus did the central deception of the whole story become established... the real agenda... was to be deliberately concealed...".  If this is so, then "deception" and "concealment" are practised pretty much every time a policy document is drafted by any body from a parish council upwards.  In similar vein is the authors' comment that the Heath government's White Paper on EEC membership went through "innumerable drafts to ensure that its message was crafted as persuasively as possible".  Did it really?  How shocking!

There is a lot of solid research underpinning the book, but the tone and style can be disappointingly journalistic.  Booker and North are bafflingly fond of using scare quotes (even for uncontentious concepts like "money laundering", an "exit poll" and "summit" meetings) and of throwing around tendentious slogans.  A tactical alliance in the Commons between Conservative whips and pro-EEC Labour MPs is described as "vote-rigging".  When the British Government finally did the right thing and paid compensation to fishermen who had suffered under the EU rules, the authors write that the latter were "bribed to go out of business".  Pro-EU publicity is "propaganda" and "deceit", whereas anti-EU campaigners "powerfully... challenge the other side's claims".  The EU has an "almost pathological intolerance of any kind of dissent" and is "in effect a one-party state".  Someone should tell the authors that this sort of cheap, mendacious rhetoric makes their work less persuasive, not more so.

What the authors do succeed in showing is that there was a real cultural and political gap from the outset between the way in which the British and the continental Europeans viewed the European project.  The appetite for integration was always much greater among the latter, from Konrad Adenauer and Alcide de Gasperi to, in later times, Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterand.  But, be it noted, these men knew what they were talking about.  Their plans for a united Europe were not a utopian dream - they were a rational reaction to the very real nightmares that they had lived through.  Nationalism had killed tens of millions of people just a few years previously, so melding national sovereignty into a supranational federation was not an unreasonable idea.  In fact, it was a pretty good one.  Booker and North conclude, with the usual patronising shallowness of right-wing populists, that the EU is doomed to failure because it flies in the face of human nature.  But the men who set it up had learnt one or two things about human nature themselves.  The authors have no doubt acquired a deep understanding of the human condition from their careers as a journalist and a food safety consultant; but even they might benefit from reflecting on the experiences of men who had personally been imprisoned and exiled by fascism.

The final section of the book is a repetitive rant which undercuts the serious work and research that evidently went into the other chapters.  There must be something amiss when I am left with the feeling that I could have argued the authors' case more compellingly than they do.  But maybe it was really just an exercise in preaching to the choir all along.