Opinion: 1914, 1973 and the lessons for an EU exit?

1973The hundredth anniversary of the start of World War One has led to historians tortuously drawing parallels with the global rivalries of today. For Britain, the useful lessons from WW1 lie in European policy – and the rather lame campaign to stay in the EU.

After decades of anti-EU vignettes in UK newspapers, often with scant basis in fact, much of the British public have become emotionally negative towards ‘Europe’. There is receptiveness to the EU being blamed for all manner of problems; from perceived ‘illegal immigration’ to bureaucratic over-regulation.

The anti-EU camp has achieved an astonishing supplementary victory – confining the debate about the negative consequences of EU exit to a few ‘economic technicalities’. Investment curtailed? A million jobs lost? Claim and counter-claim fudge public perceptions on the possible economic downsides of EU exit.

What is surprising is that the in/out debate is conducted as if we were Iceland or Liechtenstein weighing up joining EFTA or the EU. It is also conducted as if it was still 1973 (when the UK joined), there were only 6 members, and we have 14 days to cancel.

It is neither. Forty years on, the world is a very different place. The EU has become as much British as Britain has become European. The world has clustered into regional power groups: China, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the African Union, the South Asian Association For Regional Cooperation, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Eurasian Economic Community.

1973 was the height of the Cold War with Brezhnev’s Soviets, and schoolchildren were taught what to do if a nuclear bomb dropped on the UK. Britain and the US jointly led NATO on the assumption that the Soviet 14th would invade Europe via Bulgaria and Yugoslavia.

The UK has since kept a post-Cold War NATO together, and kept the balance in the EU. With the UK in the EU there is even the prospect of the emerging ‘European NATO’ integrating with EU defence forces, with the prospect of better and cheaper homeland defence, and more ‘grown up’ military cooperation with the US.

Out of the EU the UK would face overwhelming pressure to give up its UN Security Council permanent seat. NATO would almost certainly not survive. Germany would come to dominate Europe. The City of London could lose out to Frankfurt. The UK would lose influence and undoubtedly its overseas possessions like the Falklands would be gravely at risk.

Will closer US ties save us? Very doubtful after the Syrian vote in Parliament, and with Berlin as Europe’s newly emerging capital.

The years leading up to 1914 teach us how much the world can change in 40 years, and 1973-2014 is no different.

‘Splendid isolation’ was fine 40 years before WW1 when British ships dominated the world, but by 1914 we had abandoned the concept – and we cannot return there now.

Forty years before WW1 the Prussians were consolidating the Germanic kingdoms into one country. The Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy saw its main enemy as allied France & Russia. Britain had close relations with Germany and Queen Victoria’s favoured grandson became German Emperor. Britain worried about France’s ally, Russia, in its expansion into China and India, which led to the British Empire’s first military alliance – with Japan.

Liberals wanted an alliance with Germany as well as Japan, but failed in the wake of (inter alia) their split over Home Rule for Ireland.

Then a military maverick in Germany, Tirpitz, had the ear of the Kaiser and persuaded Germany to try and militarily rival the UK. A British military maverick Jacky Fisher, saw the menace looming and also had the ear of his king. The rest is history. 40 years is a very long time.

* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance. He is a member of the Lib Dem Federal International Relations Committee and an Executive member of Liberal International (British Group).

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30 Comments

  • If I understand Paul’s argument, the lesson isn’t so much about the events of 1914 but those in the years prior that caused GB to abandon the concept of operating in “splendid isolation”. But also picking up on the “40 years is a very long time”, we do need to ask whether the organisation of the EU, set up over 40 years ago, is still appropriate – I suspect that many calling for the UK to leave the EU, really just want a reformed EU…

  • Malcolm Todd 9th Jan '14 - 11:14am

    I’m in little doubt that it’s in all our interests to remain in the EU on the whole, but I’m as tired of those who claim that leaving would result in irretrievable catastrophe as I am of those who believe that the EU is a despotic anti-British regime or that “independence” would herald a new golden age for these depressed and anxious islands.

    Nobody, surely, is going to be convinced by arguments – or rather, sweeping claims – like these:

    “Out of the EU the UK would face overwhelming pressure to give up its UN Security Council permanent seat.”
    The UK has faced pressure on this at various points and doubtless will do so again. Some day the UN is bound to have to revisit its structures — designed for the world of 70 years ago — and when that day comes Britain is very unlikely to retain its privileged position regardless. It’s just possible that a seat for the EU will come into being, or a reserved couple of places for Europe to rotate or elect. What Britain being in the EU does to preserve its position on the security council ahead of all but one of its fellow EU members is hard to see.

    “NATO would almost certainly not survive.”
    Why on earth not? Even taking for granted that NATO’s survival is an inherent good, it has survived far greater disruptions to its role and internal organization than British withdrawal from the EU (many if not most of whose members, of course, are not in NATO).

    “Germany would come to dominate Europe.”
    Apart from the old “Germany is coming!” trope beloved of all of us who grew up reading war comics, what is this about? If it weren’t for us gallant Brits, France would just roll over like they did in 1940? Germany is already the strongest member of the EU and its individual position would be proportionately somewhat stronger if the UK weren’t there as a significant player. I’m not sure why I should be worried about this: it doesn’t mean a Fourth Reich.

    “The UK would lose influence and undoubtedly its overseas possessions like the Falklands would be gravely at risk.”
    Because it’s the EU that defends our vital interests in the Falklands, of course.

    There are probably good economic and cultural arguments for staying in the EU. As far as military arguments go, there probably remains some validity in the notion that the EU keeps the peace within Europe. But these arguments about Britain’s weight in the world appear to be designed to appeal to the Empire nostalgics in or tending towards the UKIP camp, and I really don’t think they’ll be convinced.

  • jedibeeftrix 9th Jan '14 - 11:15am

    “After decades of anti-EU vignettes in UK newspapers, often with scant basis in fact, much of the British public have become emotionally negative towards ‘Europe’.”

    wrong, after decades of being told we were in a free trade relationship it has become obvious that this is not the case:

    http://www.harvard-digital.co.uk/euro/pamphlet.htm

    witness Vivianne reddings call for a federal Europe today!

    “out of the EU the UK would face overwhelming pressure to give up its UN Security Council permanent seat. NATO would almost certainly not survive. Germany would come to dominate Europe. The City of London could lose out to Frankfurt. The UK would lose influence and undoubtedly its overseas possessions like the Falklands would be gravely at risk.”

    evidence please, or I call cowp00p…

  • Paul Reynolds 9th Jan '14 - 12:58pm

    EU REFORMS

    There is a ‘backlog’ of planned reforms – Common Agricultural Policy, role of the elected Parliament, the methods of devising new regulations and directives et al. The most significant however is the proposal to significantly narrow the scope of EU action so that it is focused as originally intended on freer trade within the Union, and on other matters (eg pollution, international trade agreements, air travel..) which are best undertaken on a Pan-European basis. The CDU in Germany have just set out proposals on this which include a ‘court’ which enforces this rule and prevents the EU from encroaching on matters best dealt with by each member state. Nick Clegg, when an MEP, set out similar proposals in a pamphlet on the matter (I think 2001).

    FREE TRADE

    Across the EU there are zero tariffs and other ‘non-tariff’ barriers to trade have been addressed one by one. This has been pretty successful compared to other attempts at such a project – ASEAN, MERCOSUR, GCC etc. However, there are still lots of barriers and France seems to be criticised in this respect more than the other larger states. But this is likely to change over 2014/15 – watch this space. The main areas are in the utilities especially energy, telecoms, financial services and the professions.

    UK UNSC PERMANENT SEAT

    The UK is already under pressure. China, South America, Africa, Germany, Japan, the Mid East, Russia, India are all lined up against the UK and French seats, arguing for a single EU seat, inter alia. The UK and France made joint proposals in 2009 for reform, trying to pre-empt, but got nowhere. Our detractors are looking for a ‘juncture’ to enforce change. A UK EU-exit would be the perfect juncture, and we can rely on these countries/regions not to miss the opportunity.

    NATO SURVIVAL

    Protection of the North Atlantic and Balkans from Soviet/Russian expansion was a Cold War objective. After 1991 the US and Europe couldn’t agree on reforms and future direction so it remained largely unreformed. Afghanistan is obviously outside of NATO territory but the fighting institutions were organised to keep NATO going as a body. The UK has resisted EU defence forces and emphasised NATO. But the European Defence Force exists and operates in the Balkans. Some in the UK see NATO surviving by merging a ‘European NATO’ with EDF and a new ‘expeditionary NATO’. With the UK out of the EU this an similar options will die and the EDF will expand. NATO is unlikely to survive this.

    GERMAN DOMINATION

    With a strong economy, low debt and a large trade surplus a post-financial-crisis and much-reformed unified Germany has increased its influence in the EU. It is almost inevitable that without the UK’s diplomatic, military and ‘City’ clout in the EU German dominance of the EU and Eurozone will accelerate.

    CITY VERSUS FRANKFURT

    No doubt London’s city will survive, and a UK out of the EU will take steps to help ensure that. However, investment will undoubtedly shift in Emphasis to those in the EU. It is almost certain that Frankfurt, host to the European Central Bank and German Central Bank, will increase its status and redouble its efforts to compete with The City as a global financial centre.

    FALKLANDS

    We would not been able to retain the Falklands in 1982 without US help, and the UK’s international clout (and UNSC Perm Seat). The US waded in for us with communications and diplomatic help. The Iran Contra affair was a result of lost US relations in Latin America. With reduced such clout, a US focused on Germany in Europe and otherwise China & Russia, will be unlikely to suffer such problems again. An then what next ? Gibraltar ? Bermuda ? Who in the EU will tick their neck out for us, after e have abandoned hem and pulled out ?

    IMMIGRATION AND RED TAPE

    Many of the perceived immigration problems in the UK are nothing to do with the EU – a dysfunctional Border Agency riddled with corruption and insider problems, immigrants from outside the EU, and UK objections to EU-external border strengthening. Many (but not all) of the ludicrous regulations alleged to be from the UK are actually proposed by the UK in the first place in EU Committees, and more seriously the UK has an appalling (and well-documented) habit of ‘gold plating’ regulations and directives, often when the UK already complies and there is no need for ANY new UK-based rules.

  • “The UK would lose influence and undoubtedly its overseas possessions like the Falklands would be gravely at risk.”

    Really? The Falklands is an obligation not a possession. The cost of retaking and defending has been vast. The UK retains it because it’s population want that to be the case. If teh UK government could give it up it would it would smooth matters in diplomatic relations and remove an annoyance.

    Your comment does suggest a very odd world view if you think the Falklands are some kind of valuable asset.

  • Matthew Huntbach 9th Jan '14 - 1:45pm

    I’d say it’s more like 1933. “X is the source of all our problems, get rid of X and our country will do so much better” repeated in strident tones by the political right and populist newspapers serves as a marvellous distraction from the many other causes of problems we face which the right finds it less easy to acknowledge. In 2014 X is “The EU”. In 1933 X was “The Jews”.

  • I don’t think I understand why Marshal Malinovsky’s face is decorating this article. In 1914 he was a fifteen-year-old farm boy. In 1973 he was dead. He has nothing to do with the European Union. So, why…?

  • Paul concludes :
    “40 years is a very long time.”
    Yes it is. And high time that the under 55’s had a say about the EU,( see Clegg for further details on his REAL referendum ), and for the over 55’s who were not told back in 1975, that the real objective was a Federal Europe, to enable them to re-assess their in/out vote, in the light of those emerging facts.

  • “decades of being told we were in a free trade relationship ”

    Are you really daft to enough to either believe this or think that we will? ‘Ever closer union’ is in the first line of the Treaty of Rome and our membership of the EEC and then the EU has always been very clearly on that basis. Don’t try to rewrite history to say otherwise.

  • jedibeeftrix 9th Jan '14 - 7:12pm

    Chris – no, which is why I have always been a EUrosceptic, but that is what people over 55 were told when they had the chance to vote on it.

  • Paul Reynolds

    “An then what next ? Gibraltar ? Bermuda ? Who in the EU will tick their neck out for us, after e have abandoned hem and pulled out ?”

    Oh no, the vast hoards waiting at the edge of the territorial waters of Bermuda ready to overrun it, once EU protection is withdrawn! And what an asset to loose!

    I can’t decide if you are deliberately being ridiculous or just have no idea what you are talking about.

  • Of course it is Chris. I totally agree with you. We should not be afraid to admit this. That’s why we LibDems are utterly committed to completion of the European project. The founding fathers were men of vision. They realised many years ago that the concept of independent nations is archaic and can never continue to exist. I say, Britain cannot and should not survive on its own. We don’t need a British government, we need to be an integral part of a great European empire in which all major decisions are taken collectively for the good of all Europeans. I get annoyed with the small-minded Eurosceptics who fail to see that being at the centre of the magnificent European Union is the only way forward. Only thinking of themselves does seem an incredibly self-centred approach to me.

  • jedibeeftrix 9th Jan '14 - 9:15pm

    I can’t tell if you are a spoof for our (my) entertainment! 🙂

  • Other parts of the world are forming economic unions. In 2015 the Asean Economic Community will come into extstence’
    It is unlikely that an isolated Britain would be able to compete at a world level.

  • At least Sue Render, is upfront and honest in her view that we should surrender our sovereignty to the emerging Federal Government of Europe. I just wish the rest of Lib Dems were as honest.
    I, on the other hand feel we should exit the EU, or at least have the option to vote on the matter, so that we might reclaim our sovereignty.

    Rick Lame

  • @ Manfarang “Other parts of the world are forming economic unions. In 2015 the Asean Economic Community will come into extstence’ It is unlikely that an isolated Britain would be able to compete at a world level.”

    Yes I agree. We really mustn’t put up obstacles. Once the AESEAN EC concept comes into being we, as LibDems, must work hard to get the EU EC to join up with it – a form of global cooperation if you will. Just think; there are many more economic unions globally for example CARICOM; Union State of Russia and Belarus and the East African Community, to name but a few. Obviously it will become difficult for the European Union to compete with the rest of the world on its own. It will obviously be too small. That will provide our party with the perfect excuse to join up the dots. By linking all these global economic blocs we can ensure Britain gets all the benefits of a global market. This, of course, would be nothing like advocating a one world government. It would just be a bigger “common market”.

  • I also have difficulty believing that the author of this piece is being serious. I have sympathy with the comment –
    Psi 9th Jan ’14 – 8:21pm
    Paul Reynolds
    I can’t decide if you are deliberately being ridiculous or just have no idea what you are talking about.

    Amongst many things wrtten by Paul Reynolds which might be classed as ‘schoolboy howlers’, what was he thinking when he wrote that – ” 1973 was the height of the Cold War with Brezhnev’s Soviets, and schoolchildren were taught what to do if a nuclear bomb dropped on the UK. Britain and the US jointly led NATO on the assumption that the Soviet 14th would invade Europe via Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. “. As I recall, schoolchildren in 1973 with an interest in world affairs were more concerned with what the USA under Nixon was doing in Vietnam and Cambodia. The panics about Soviet nuclear attack were more a feature of 1950s America or maybe the early 1960s. Here in the UK in 1973 we were more concerned about the length of our hair, the colour of our loon-pants and which album was best to carry under your arm on the way to a party. Those of us involved in Liberal politics were delighting in a string of byelection victories including the one that first elected Alan Beith. This was not a time of Cold War paranoia. It was a time of great hope and achievement for Liberals in the UK. Paul Reynolds’ fantasy world is one of his own imagination especially when he suggests that in 1973 Britain and the US jointly led NATO. Britain did what it was told by the USA, just like it has always done since 1945.

  • Michael Ingle 10th Jan '14 - 9:15am

    I am not at all worried about whether the UK loses its permanent seat at the UN. However, I am very concerned that we will see the following events play out over the next few years:
    1. Scotland votes for independence and is admitted to the EU as an independent country.
    2. England and Wales vote to exit the EU and do not secure a free trade agreement with the EU (or at least not immediately).
    3. Much of England’s manufacturing industry moves to Scotland, in particular the car plants, to take advantage of trade with the EU.
    4. London and the south-east sail on into the future as a new Switzerland, leaving the north and Wales behind.
    Not a very nice prospect is it?

  • I’m surprised by the comment that the Falklands are a burden. Their strategic value apart, they have valuable offshore resources, and I don’t just mean fish.

  • Paul Reynolds 10th Jan '14 - 2:11pm

    Thanks for all the comments above. Reasonable points mostly. Yes indeed the UK’s potential EU exit is a major political crossroads and feelings run strong with the Yeses, the Noes and even the neutrals.
    Some of the comments nearly got there but the slightly tongue-in-cheek narrative was slanted at UKIP supporters who tend to wish to hark back to the time of Splendid Isolation, harbour anti German sentiments as an underlying reason to object to the EU and go on a lot about Empire. I don’t denigrate patriotism generally but by ignoring the water under the bridge over the last 40 years they miss the point…that many of the things they complain about in relation to the EU would now get very much worse if we left. The 1914 references not only make the Splendid Isolation aspiration seem even more unrealistic, they also make the point with benefit of longer hindsight that the world can and does change dramatically in 40 years.

  • Paul
    Have you actually read the comments? Can you point us to the ‘anti German sentiments’. It’s unfortunate that you can’t give an intelligent counter critique, without listing bogus arguments, that are simply not there?
    I voted FOR remaining in the EEC in 1975. But the ‘jig is up’, and that 40 year old lie that deceived us back then, is now apparent, and Lib Dems are trying to bolster that original lie, and defend the indefensible. . A closer community for trade, and legislation that was beneficial to all EU (sovereign!!), countries, would STILL get my YES vote. But this creeping, underhand and deceptive move to erase the sovereignty of individual countries in order to create a United States of Europe, An emphatic NO.

  • I’m surprised by the blanket statement that everyone over the age of 55 was told that the EC was just a free trade area and failed to realise that a Federal Europe or even closer union were on the cards. I certainly did not . When I voted I wanted ( and still want) a close relationship with other European states. The echoes of WW2 were stronger then perhaps than now but that’s no excuse for forgetting where we came from and why economic and political ties are as vital now as they were then.

  • ” The echoes of WW2 were stronger then perhaps than now”
    Yes and it is quite telling just how far, in just 29 years (WWII to 1974), GB and ‘Europe’ had seemingly diverged, making the joining of the EEC such a big issue, even though Churchill had called for a “United States of Europe” in 1946.

  • @John Dunn “But this creeping, underhand and deceptive move to erase the sovereignty of individual countries in order to create a United States of Europe, An emphatic NO”.

    John; I do not believe your words “creeping, underhand and deceptive” are relevant to the situation today. Such words may have been relevant in the 1940’s when a founding father Jean Monnet said:

    “Europe’s nations should be guided towards the super-state without their people understanding what is happening. This can be accomplished by successive steps each disguised as having an economic purpose, but which will eventually and irreversibly lead to federation.”

    But after Lisbon, the need for disguise fell away and the EU no longer needs to make any secret of its hopes and dreams. Indeed, only recently on 3 December 2013 Viviane Reding, EU Vice-president and commissioner said:

    “We need a true Political Union. To me, this means a United States of Europe with the Commission as the government and two chambers – the European Parliament and a “Senate” of Member States”.

    Bravo, Vivane; there is nothing “creeping, underhand and deceptive” about that.

    I think we Lib Dems need to make our objectives much clearer. We must not hide our ambitions. We have been making a big mistake by not debating head-on with UKIP. We Lib Dems have never been in any doubt about the true nature of the European project and we do not make any apology for it. We are proud to subscribe to the federal EU vision. We want to achieve it, make no bones about that.

    We need to sell our message harder to the British public in order to counteract UKIP’s message. I am quite sure that the voters will understand and rally round to our view once we put it over to them in plain language.

  • jedibeeftrix 10th Jan '14 - 10:20pm

    Tilly, are you really surprised?

    http://www.harvard-digital.co.uk/euro/pamphlet.htm

    (for about the fifth time this week)

  • Malcolm Todd 11th Jan '14 - 12:27am

    Jedi

    Thanks for that link, most interesting. I was too young to vote or even know about the vote in 1975 so I’ve always accepted the claim that everyone thought they were just joining (or rather, had just joined) a free trade area.
    So I was very interested in this from page 5:

    The aims of the Common Market are:

    *To bring together the peoples of Europe.
    *To raise living standards and improve working conditions.
    *To promote growth and boost world trade.
    *To help the poorest regions of Europe and the rest of the world.
    *To help maintain peace and freedom.

    I think that makes Tilly’s comment quite reasonable.

  • @ Sue Render
    “We Lib Dems have never been in any doubt about the true nature of the European project and we do not make any apology for it. We are proud to subscribe to the federal EU vision. We want to achieve it, make no bones about that.”

    Thank you for the refreshing honesty regarding the real LibDem agenda which is for the creation of a Federal United States of Europe. Thankfully, you have not obfuscated, as many LibDems do here, and generously given us the truth, and I for one, welcome that.
    We now have an accurate view of LibDem thinking, and when we go to the polling station, we know with certainty, that voting Lib Dem equates with voting to transfer British sovereignty to Brussels. Your candour and clarification, will make future voting choices, a much easier decision to make. Thank you.

  • jedibeeftrix 12th Jan '14 - 11:25am

    Paul – “The UK is already under pressure. China, South America, Africa, Germany, Japan, the Mid East, Russia, India are all lined up against the UK and French seats, arguing for a single EU seat, inter alia. The UK and France made joint proposals in 2009 for reform, trying to pre-empt, but got nowhere. Our detractors are looking for a ‘juncture’ to enforce change. A UK EU-exit would be the perfect juncture, and we can rely on these countries/regions not to miss the opportunity.”

    Unfortunately, this FUD rather grinds to a halt as soon as you ask the question:

    If not us, who?

    Nukes and the post WW2 balance-of-power might have been the prime determinant of power/prestige in the 20th century, but it will not remain so in the 21st.

    For sure it will remain a factor, and an important one, but In short R2P is where its at for France & Britain.

    The Libyan intervention is perhaps the template by which Britain and France will continue to justify their veto-wielding permanent UNSC seats, precisely because this conflict has given legitimacy and legal-standing to the normative framework through which this liberal-intervention can utilised; Responsibility to Protect, or R2P in shorthand.

    Both Britain and France will sink from the top five to the top ten, or thereabouts, in economic power over the next forty years, and will cease to be technology leaders in the same time-frame (remaining only peer nations in a much larger group).

    If they want to to justify the retention of their seats they will have to bring something to the party, and they have decided that can only be military intervention in the advancement of UN mandated goals. Thus the need for Armed Forces configured for sovereign and strategic power-projection.

    On the subject of sovereign and strategic power projection I think you will find that we more capable than anyone bar the US, even the pro-EU thinktank European Geostrategy believe this to be the case:

    http://www.europeangeostrategy.org/2014/01/european-geostrategy-audit-major-powers-worlds-fifteen-most-powerful-countries-2014/

    Our UNSC seat is ours to lose, and not preserved due to the kindness of others.

    A minimum of 2.0% of GDP is what will keep our UNSC seat, are you willing to sing the lib-dem’s up to that?

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