When I was at school in the 1960’s my class were not allowed to study history. Because I was in the bottom stream of a grammar school (that’s another story!), conventional history was considered too difficult for boys like me. Instead we had to take ‘O’ level Civics – a mixture of British Constitution and 19th century social history. It was brilliant. I learned about the history of trade unions, the development of the educational system, the inner workings of the stock market and about national and local government. We also learned about what was then the European Common Market which, in the early 1960s the UK was applying to join. I remember that the Daily Mail (yes the Daily Mail) ran an essay competition for school pupils asking them to make the case either for or against Britain joining. Because I had learned about it at school, I submitted an essay, making a strong case for joining – I did not win but I did come in the top 20 nationally! And the primary argument I used, the one we learned about in school, concerned the history of Common Market and its central role in ‘Peace in our time’. Twenty years after the end of the second world war, the issue of how to rebuild Europe’s economy while at the same time ensuring that Europe would never again be ravaged by the wars that had devastated so many lives in the first half of the 20th Century was uppermost in the minds of the architects of the EEC – Adenauer and de Gaulle. And that is why Churchill, despite not wanting to actually join, fully supported its establishment.
The first major step was taken in 1951, when France and West Germany formed the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), integrating their coal and steel industries. This was followed in 1957 by the establishment of European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) for the common and peaceful development of Europe’s nuclear resources. Yes there were economic motives but just as important was the fact that Germany was keen to show the world that it could rebuild its economy without resorting to militarisation. Being tied in to common institutions made that impossible.
And for my money, that has proved to be its biggest achievement. The original 7 members now the 28, have found ways of substituting weapons for trade agreements. Political leaders across Europe for 60 years have had to meet on a regular basis, to sit down together and hammer the minutiae of agreements on agriculture, on the climate, on tax and finance, on employment and social rights, on science and technology, on travel and transport….. The list goes on.
Of course, Britain’s applications to join the Common Market in the 1960s were not successful; they were vetoed by the French and we did not actually join until 1973. de Gaulle’s argument was that the UK was too close to the USA and that we only wanted to join for economic reasons. We were not interested in the bigger vision – building a, stronger, safer, more independent Europe. And he was probably right. What has saddened me about the Remain campaign, to which I am fiercely committed, is that its arguments have indeed been primarily economic. What I wrote about in my school boy essay was about something much more important than that. It was about building a Europe that was prosperous, yes, but a Europe that was first and foremost peaceful, able to use its immense cultural and political resources for the betterment of human kind, both inside Europe and beyond. And for me, despite the EU’s many faults, these are the reasons I will be voting ‘Remain’ on Thursday.