The inspiration for European integration is part of British history too

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 the Liberal Democrats in Europe.

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This entry was posted in Books.


  • Peter Martin 28th Jun '18 - 12:50pm

    Many pro-EU supporters tend to use the word ‘Europe’ when they really mean the EU. Europe stretches as far as the Ural mountains and includes countries like Ukraine and much of Russia. Plus quite a few others too that aren’t in the EU of course. And aren’t likely to be in any time soon.

    It is possible to be both pro the concept of ‘European integration’ and opposed to the neoliberal/ordoliberal EU that we actually have. The introduction of the euro has been a disaster. The present system would have been OK if it had been, say, a five year interim measure. It worked reasonably well in the first few years. After that there needed to be the political agreement to have the integration which is the subject of this article.

    Sadly lacking unfortunately. If anyone wants the kind of integration needed to make the EU work properly then fine. Go ahead and argue your case. But I don’t think there’s enough popular support.

    Even the Remainers in the UK don’t argue for it. The main argument, is we’re better off in. Not that the EU is better off with us in it. Until that changes we’ll never be truly European.

  • Martin,
    Much a it troubles me to disagree, while I agree the Brexiteers exhibit a degree of arrogance and sense of exceptionalism, it is hardly fair to place their faults on the country. They should own their own faults and while I know we will all be tarred with the same brush as far as the world is concerned tis a little unfair to assume we are all Brexiteers. Some of us don’t think we are exptional and have long ago lost a sense of entitlement, plus we can deal with reality again a trait the vast majority of Brexiteers lack. In short Tinkerbell and unicorns are not for us reality with all it’s horrors will do.

  • John Marriott 29th Jun '18 - 8:43am

    It is no good Mr Robinson lecturing his fellow Brits about what they should know about the EU. He may understand the niceities of treaties and their implications; but most are not motivated by such matters.

    The argument back in 1975, from what I can personally remember, was all about economics and that’s why, in my humble opinion, why ‘the Brits’ voted 2 to 1 to stay in ‘The Common Market’. It’s no use telling them that they should have known better.

    The ‘broader and deeper community’ mentioned in the 1951 quote is something that might take decades, even centuries to achieve, and, given recent events, maybe never. What should encourage nation states to collaborate should be mutual interest and common sense, which seems to be lacking ON BOTH SIDES in current Brexit negotiations.

    In his ‘Ode to Joy’, which has, of course, become the EU ‘National Anthem’, Schiller writes; ‘Alle Menschen werden Brüder, wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt’. The idea of all people ‘being brothers’ is surely something we can all sign up to. However, this won’t be achieved by adopting the kind of tactics recently employed against Greece or Catalonia, or threatening to exclude the U.K. from the Galileo security monitoring system, which I thought was one of the main reasons for coming together in the first place (and made even more necessary if Trump pulls the financial plug on NATO). All that said, I’d still rather be inside the tent; but I can honestly see why many of my fellow citizens do not share my views. So, Edward, and ‘Martin’ for that matter, to tell people that they should know better is a great way to win them over!

  • I do not think that it is useful to talk about the past being at stake. In fact there are many strands in the story of our country as there are in every other. I live on Merseyside. I remember the time when seafaring was a major source of employment for most families. And of course the docks – with ships from the Americas, Africa, the Far East imcluding Australia. There were passenger liners across the Atlantic from Liverpool. There was not the same contacts with Europe. And of course many families had, and some still have, contact with family members in the USA and commonwealth countries – sorry when I started school it was the Empire. In the last war the Empire was our support, and of course the USA when they entered the war. Europe and of course Japan was the enemy. All of this is part of our history. I am very much in favour of our membership of the European Union. But we have to respect where those who are not.

  • Peter Hirst 2nd Jul '18 - 11:16am

    What to do about Africa? It’s population is booming and its young people will eye Europe with hope. Perhaps focusing on this continent will help to build some unity within our own continent.

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