Two years on from the EU referendum and Walter Benjamin’s haunting observation that “the very past itself is at stake” seems appropriate.
What sort of future Britain will have depends, to a large extent, on how a working majority of voters and politicians understand her past. For, as the UK’s former judge on the European Court of Justice, Sir Konrad Schiemann, noted in a 2012 lecture on the EU as a Source of Inspiration, “what you find inspiring depends to a degree on where you come from and what you’re looking for”. Born in 1937, Schiemann was probably the last CJEU judge to have experienced the Second World War. Growing up in Berlin hiding from British bombs and then, via Poland and the Lancashire Fusiliers, landing up as a law student in Cambridge, Schiemann is clear where his generation were coming from and what they were looking for. His generation of Brits (and many of those that followed) understood the preamble to the European Coal and Steel Community as being part of their history too, despite Britain not having been a signatory to it.
Here is an extract of what the leaders of West Germany, France, Italy and the Benelux countries declared in 1951:
Considering that world peace can be safeguarded only by creative efforts commensurate with the dangers that threaten it,
Recognising that Europe can be built only through practical achievements which will first of all create real solidarity, and through the establishment of common bases for economic development,
Resolved to substitute for age old rivalries the merging of their essential interests; to create, by establishing an economic community, the basis for a broader and deeper community among peoples long divided by bloody conflicts; and to lay the foundations for institutions which will give direction to a destiny henceforward shared.
In terms of European treaty law, this is chapter one. And it is from these resolutions that Britain is now seeking to disassociate herself.
In his recent essay European Integration, Richard Corbett tells the story of the “transformative, big idea” of a united Europe, from imprisoned Italian communist Altieri Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi’s wartime Ventotene Manifesto of 1941 all the way up to an assessment of today’s EU institutions. Corbett is one of the best qualified Brits to take on the task. A former president of the Young European Movement and the Young European Federalists, he was first elected a Labour MEP in 1996 before going on to work for the first full-time President of the European Council, Herman von Rompuy. Now back in the European Parliament, he leads the British Labour Party delegation.
One of the best sections of Corbett’s essay lists the practical differences in which EU decision making and EU law are more advanced than any other international structure, in terms of democracy, openness and (importantly) legal authority.
Whether Brits like or not, they are part of the events that Corbett documents, from the Schuman Declaration onward. If too many Brits have forgotten this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the same people have ceased to be inspired by efforts to pool sovereignty in order both to tackle pressing political challenges today but also to forge that shared destiny. We have a few precious months left in which to remind them.
Richard Corbett’s essay “European Integration” forms part of “Four Go in Search of Big Ideas”. The book is available from the Social Liberal Forum website for £9.50 including postage and packing.
The Social Liberal Forum Conference on 28th July will offer an opportunity to discuss some of the ideas in the book with its authors.
Edward Robinson is a member of Lib Dems in Europe and a council member of the Social Liberal Forum.