THE BATTLE FOR BRITAIN: Britain and the European Union

Monday, August 21, 2000

Should Britain continue on the path towards political and economic integration within the European Union? Many in Britain are skeptical of the benefits of political unification with continental Europe. What does Britain stand to gain or lose by ceding sovereignty to the European Union? Would Britain’s interests be better served by strengthening its special relationship with the United States?

Recorded on Monday, August 21, 2000

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, Whither Britain. Should Britain continue down its path toward greater and greater economic and political integration with Europe, or strengthen its ties with the United States instead? Britain and the United States have always had a special relationship. We gave them rock and roll, they gave us the Beatles. But the special relationship goes much deeper than popular culture. We derived our notions of common law and constitutional democracy from Britain enshrining these British concepts in our own United States Constitution, now the demodel for democracies the world over. So the relationship between Britain and the United States has been of profound importance to both countries and, indeed, to mankind. What about Britain's relationship with its neighbors in Europe? What did Britain ever get from Germany besides two world wars? Or from France besides oat cuisine and heartburn, or so some in Britain would ask. These are the Euro-skeptics and they are just that, skeptical of Britain's attachments to Europe. They believe Britain should instead strengthen its ties to the English speaking world, Canada, Australia, and above all, the United States.

With us today, three guests, all three of them British. Robert Conquest is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair Magazine. Tony Baldry is a conservative member of Parliament. Christopher Hitchens and Tony Baldry are pro-Europe. Robert Conquest by contrast is a stout Euro-skeptic.

Title: The Blair "Which" Project

Peter Robinson: The text for our meeting today gentleman, is a letter that appeared not long ago in the New York Review of Books. The author of the letter is Robert Conquest. "I and many others," writes Conquest, "see the European union as divisive of the west and indeed divisive of European civilization itself, as implicitly and often explicitly anti-American as already, and with the promise of worse to come, an immensely corrupt bureaucratic and regulationist nightmare and as contrary to the law and liberty tradition and fatally is missing any real sense of how the feeling of citizenship arises." We'll take each of those in turn if we may.

Robert Conquest speaking for, Hitchens and Baldry against. Divisiveness, Bob, you see the European union as divisive of the west. How so? It is a union after all.

Robert Conquest: It's a union, the west does not consist of-in the Europe, I do mean, of course it's divisive. The Germans quite openly say sometime, "We want to balance two-power world," of which, that is Europe versus America.

Peter Robinson: So it seeks to detach Britain from the United States?

Robert Conquest: It detaches the whole-it splits up the whole European civilization, in-into two bits.

Peter Robinson: He makes a point does he not?

Tony Baldry: Well, except that there are, in addition to the fifteen-member states of the European Union, there are thirteen sovereign countries knocking on the door, wanting to become members of Europe. One of the things which the European Union has done has helped reinforce democracy in Eastern Europe and I think we ought to be proud of the fact that all those countries now wish to come back into Europe.

Peter Robinson: But as-as to Bob's essential point which is that Europe divides Europe, pulls Europe away from the United States.

Tony Baldry: If I were President of the United States, I think I would want to see a Europe which had some political coherence, which is what we have. We're increasingly, in areas of defense, a Europe which actually make up its own mind, pulling its own weight. I don't see that

Peter Robinson: When-when has Europe made up its own mind and pulled its own weight lately? In Bosnia? Certainly not.

Tony Baldry: Well, increasingly, I hope it will do so. But it certainly won't do so if it's, if it's fragmented politically in the way in which Bob suggests.

Christopher Hitchens: Let's take the case of Bosnia…

Peter Robinson: Please.

Christopher Hitchens: …where it-it was put exactly because, the habit of always waiting to see what the United States wants is so ingrained and persistent that the west was so late in Bosnia and also in Kosovo. Everyone wanted to know, "What will Mr. Clinton do?" Well, Mr. Clinton was hoping to avoid this question himself. But while he did that, so did Europe. And it was, I thought appalling that this old cold-war dependency, this dependency in the mind, wasn't overcome. But I think it can be overcome in a-in a much more strengthened Europe. And Mr. Baldry mentioned the-the central pedal effect(?) that's-it's had on Eastern Europe and former countries of the Warsaw Pact and Comicon(?). One couldn't go further and say, I mean, I remember when Portugal and Greece and Spain were all dictatorships. And, for that reason, we're not allowed into the European family because the-one of the conditions of membership is you have to have a parliamentary democracy, various other kinds of-of-of right. And the-the effect that Europe had on breaking down those dictatorships, as it has had on qu-very much qualifying authoritarian rule in Turkey, which hopes to become a member. I think it's wholly admirable and completely to its credit side for the British to say, "We're leaving this. We're taking our ball home because of infringements of our supposed sovereignty." I think would be-would be poetry in the extreme.

Peter Robinson: Are you-are we going to let that statement stand that the European Union contributed-somehow caused the transition from dictatorship to democracy in Spain say?

Robert Conquest: Very little I'd have thought in Spain, or indeed in Eastern Europe. It was-it was insofar as Eastern Europe was saved-it was saved by NATO…

Peter Robinson: Onto Robert Conquest's second argument against the European Union.

Title: Out with the In Crowd

Peter Robinson: Anti-American, Mr. Conquest's second point. He sees the Eur-European Union as implicitly and often explicitly anti-American. Now come clean on this one Tony. Continental to Europe, the bureaucrats, four gathered in Brussels and in the various capitals who were trying to pull off this enterprise, do not like the United States, and you know that, that's true is it not?

Tony Baldry: During the time I've been a member of Parliament for the North Oxychure(?)...

Peter Robinson: You applaud it, but I want him to admit it.

Tony Baldry: During the time I'd been a member of Parliament for North Oxychure(?), our membership with the European Union in no way prevented American F1-11 bombers, even an airfield in my constituency to go and bomb Tripoli. There was no difficulty about that. And the fact that

Peter Robinson: But the French did not let the Americans fly over-fly over France. They have to go zigzagging over…

Tony Baldry: That was a-that was a problem for the French.

Peter Robinson: No but you're hunk-you're hunkering up with those people.

Tony Baldry: The point I am making in response to Bob is the fact that we are members of the European Union in no way prevents us, or my constituents, or people in the United Kingdom pursuing joint and common interests with allies in the United States when it's in our mutual best interest.

Robert Conquest: Well when you say the people in your constituency, I noticed the last poll shown in the Economist they said, "What ally would you trust in an emergency, in a crisis". And it was just under seventy percent said America and just over sixteen percent said Europe. And we now see the popularity of Europe in all the countries particularly Spain is well below fifty percent and England is about twenty five percent.

Peter Robinson: And this is what you mean by anti-democratic, it's simply; it's driven by elites. It does not take the will of the people into account.

Robert Conquest: Absolutely.

Tony Baldry: Well the test of that though, is that no serious mainstream political party at the next general election is going to be suggesting anything other than the United Kingdom should remain within the European Union. And those parties, like the United Kingdom Independent's Party, Goldsmith's Referendum Party, though suggested otherwise, have got about five, six, seven percent of the vote, that's about all.

Christopher Hitchens: It used to be a very strong left opposition to Europe, which I thought, at the time, was-was inward and provincial and in some ways chauvinistic and xenophobic opposition. It was-it was often phrased more prettily. I mean, the objection was to joining the rich man's club and so forth, and forgetting our commonwealth friends and the other parts of English-speaking world to which-to which we had obligations and I think that was all sentiment.

Peter Robinson: Can I just ask you to comment on this point? The popular opinion in Britain, at least, and Bob suggests elsewhere in Europe, but in Britain, in popular opinion, it seems pretty clearly skeptical to anti-Europe. But both major parties say, "Stay in," and their only shades or nuances of difference between them as regards Europe. How come?

Christopher Hitchens: It's very easy to get people to vent about Europe. And Brussels Bureaucrat and so on is a terrific Murdock Press slogan and every time the French say you can't sell good old British porkers or good old British mad cows on the continent any longer, it's not difficult to get people stirred up about the frogs.

Peter Robinson: But that's all it is. It's just people venting. It's not a serious-it's not seriously-considered opinion.

Tony Baldry: It's like family spats, I mean, I imagine most English children could tell you the names of most of the battles that we won against the French, [Ajoncore(?), Crecy, Malplake(?), Ramalase(?), you know, it's Trafalgar…

Robert Conquest: We're getting onto this thing that everybody who opposes Europe is a-a populist or a demagogue or something. No, I play this on the grounds of historical knowledge and this is not how countries, how federations or anything else actually work. I think this is-they're taking a shallow view. They're being-they're being the populists and they're one ahead, the elitist populist if you like.

Tony Baldry: Bob, it is working. European is working, has been working very successfully for some time, can…

Peter Robinson: Tony claims the European Union is working, what does he mean by that?

Title: Euro Big Girl Now

Peter Robinson: What does it mean to say that it's working? They could not get their act together even remotely in Bosnia and the Kosovo crisis. What does it mean to say that it's working?

Christopher Hitchens: Actually, I think they did.

Peter Robinson: They did?

Christopher Hitchens: With respect, I mean, I don't think that in-in any other context you'd have got the leader of the German Green Party or at least their senior member of the-of the Cabinet, Yorkshire Fischer, the Foreign Defense Minister, to sign on to a NATO bombardment. Absolutely no European dimension for that. I don't think that consensus could have been arrived at all.

Tony Baldry: …single market has been a great success. I mean if you…

Peter Robinson: But what do you want beyond the single market? Bob's already granted you that. Free movement of goods and people throughout Europe, but retain national sovereignty.

Tony Baldry: We have national sovereignty. I mean, as a member of the-member of the United Kingdom Parliament, I don't in some way feel castrated or neutered by the fact that we're members of the European Union. And indeed, if anything, over the last 10 or so years, the institution within the European Union, which has gained most power, has been the Counsel of Ministers. It is that entity which represents the nation states within the European Union. I-I don't see that as a problem. I don't see that …

Peter Robinson: So you do want political union?

Robert Conquest: England now has less power; Britain has less power than the states do in America. Britain's power vis-à-vis Brussels in many ways are weaker than California…

Peter Robinson: as opposed to Washington?

Robert Conquest: …it's ridiculous. They have, what twenty thousand bureaucrats approximately in Brussels…

Peter Robinson: This brings us to Bob's next point, the bureaucratic nightmare. Carry on.

Robert Conquest: Several hundred committees meeting. And all they do is they-they bring in rules, what's the latest one the French complain about, oh, about having the same dates as the opening of the pheasant-shooting season.

Peter Robinson: What was this? Explain this please.

Robert Conquest: The same dates for the opening of one of the bird shooting seasons, which is different in France, I take it, than in Germany.

Peter Robinson: They're trying to harmonize the dates of pheasant shooting?

Robert Conquest: And of course, it breeds bureaucrats in England too…

Robert Conquest: …who are then committed to it.

Tony Baldry: But they would come in, there are sorts of regulations and getting balance of regulations right, come in equally through national governments as well. And I have to we-we-we, you know, we fluctuate in national problems between introducing regulations whenever there's a health scare to then having a period of time when we're cutting red tape.

Peter Robinson: But surely the difference is that-that the people of Britain get to vote your lot in or out at least every five years. In Brussels, nobody gets to vote on. No?

Tony Baldry: Of course, but they, the ministers, the ministers they vote in.

Christopher Hitchens: There's a term for it. Well it's called-in Brussels it's called, and this shows you what a bureaucratic giant must be, it's called the Democratic Deficit, in other words, that's the way they admit that it's a racket run by bureaucrats and that the European Parliament has not-has not seized to itself sufficient power.

Peter Robinson: Let me put to you…

Christopher Hitchens: That's an argument well worth having, I think, within Europe.

Peter Robinson: Let me put to you the question I put to Tony, which is this. What do you want-what do you want to accomplish by bringing Britain more tightly into Europe? It's a, I mean free markets, Bob has already granted that, I'm sure the right honorable the Baroness Thatcher would be with you on that one. What do you want?

Christopher Hitchens: I like the idea that, I mean, my children for example, are partly from Cyprus, which is at the other end of the union and is on the verge of joining.

Peter Robinson: Is it really?

Christopher Hitchens: Yeah, it has been partitioned by violent invasion by Turkey.

Christopher Hitchens: So a-a Cyprus passport isn't valid for travel to all parts of Cyprus because it's been annexed with-largely by Turkey. But two things, one, my children will be able to live and settle anywhere in Europe that they chose with their EU passport. And second, the effect of-of the application of Turkey to join the EU is a completely solvent effect on the partition that prevents Cypriots from moving freely and trading with one another. Turkey will have to decide whether it can continue to go on occupying Cyprus if it's going to enter the Union.

Peter Robinson: Okay; now you're answering…

Christopher Hitchens: I repeat that, at-at-at the periphery, all the effects which seem to me to have been wholly good. Bob thought that we were overstating the effect it had on Eastern Europe. I-I don't think Mr. Baldry said that it had brought down the wall. But, the reason why Hungary and Romania are not quarreling at the moment as they might be over Transylvania is because they know that if they don't settle this question, they won't get into the European Union. The reason why people in Slovakia are taking their democracy more seriously is the same reason.

Peter Robinson: Well you're giving me very good reasons for a Slovak, or a Romanian, or a Hungarian, or a Cypriot to want to join the EU, but Britain's democratic has a growing economy, the best economy in Europe. You're not giving me good reason.

Christopher Hitchens: I'm giving you-I'll give you one closer to home since, okay, we are talking about the British Isles. Though I think our responsibilities to other countries in Europe shouldn't be any less. Well look at our relationship with our nearest neighbor, Ireland. The fact that Ireland and-and the United Kingdom are now within the same customs union means that the partition or Ireland has become effectively irrelevant. This is the-this free movement in practice, of all people and all factors of production, there…

Peter Robinson: But-but the…

Christopher Hitchens: That's the whole context in which there's a peace settlement possible.

Peter Robinson: Bob's happy to grant you all of that…

Peter Robinson: Time to move on to Robert Conquest's next argument against the European Union.

Title: Oui the People

Peter Robinson: Now we come to what I take is pretty nearly the nub of it, Bob's point, "I see the European Un-Union as contrary to the law and liberty tradition." Bob, explicate that one for us.

Robert Conquest: Well, if you look at the French…

Peter Robinson: And you get ready to answer.

Robert Conquest: …Parliament, nearly half the deputies are actual bureaucrats on leave from their offices. And that-that's one-it's a different type of system. The-the-the European system derives from, partly from the revolutionary system, of-of-from the French revolution, parts from the despotic systems of the other countries at that time. Does not…

Peter Robinson: Strong central governments reaching back centuries?

Robert Conquest: Well, you can have a strong government without it being intrusive government in-the-the English and British tradition, England and Scotland, I'd say, was a strong government but gently, not intruding into everything. I mean, even America is stronger, stronger government then Russia in many ways.

Peter Robinson: Now Tony, he makes a profound point, which is that British history, reaching back through the centuries, is simply different from that of Europe and has produced a nearly unique but certainly distinctive set of legal traditions based on liberty and the rule of law and representative government.

Tony Baldry: Firstly, each of the European countries comes with a different tradition, a different history. Secondly, if we were given an hour I could do a very good program on the democratic deficit in the United Kingdom at the present moment. Our present Prime Minister, Tony Blair in three years, has appointed more life peers(?) to the House of Commons than Margaret Thatcher did in the whole of her 18 years as Prime Minister. And I have to tell you as a UK member Parliament, I'm far, far more concerned about the democratic deficit in the UK and my inability as a UK member of parliament to influence effects of the UK government than I am my concerns about the European-the-my concerns about the-the European Union.

Christopher Hitchens: That deficit didn't begin with Tony Blair. I'll give you one example. I mean, the British subjects have been now fo-able for some years now, to appeal to a European court if the House of Lords, as final Court of Appeal, doesn't seem like enough to them. And, in fact, Britain's been found in-in breach more than any other member state of the-of the European Convention on Human Rights by appeals made over the heads of our bureaucrats by British, by British citizens as they should be subjects as they are.

Tony Baldry: Well Christopher…

Christopher Hitchens: …good, good…

Tony Baldry: …the European Convention on Human rights isn't part of the European Union. It's not-it doesn't rise out of the Treaty of Rome. It's-it's an obligation…

Christopher Hitchens: It's part of the process of political integration that we're talking about and the European Convention on Human Rights is about to be enshrined in British law, which is, I think, wholly progressive intervention.

Peter Robinson: British ceding authority to the European Union? How does Britain benefit?

Title: All for One and One for All

Peter Robinson: Bob asserts that Britain has been-been ceding sovereignty, the ru-the ability to rule itself.

Peter Robinson: And you simply don't buy that?

Tom Baldry: I don't buy it, because what we've been doing quite rightly and quite properly, in my view, is sharing, pooling sovereignty. There are things, which have happened in the UK, which we might not be desperately happy about. I suspect there are also things which have been happening in-in France and Italy and Portugal but they're sharing sovereignty. And when I was a minister …

Peter Robinson: But to what end? Where do things get better for you by sitting down at a table with the French and the Germans and letting them have some say what goes on in Britain?

Tony Baldry: Because, both in terms of trade and politically, it has been to our mutual benefit. And I'm…

Christopher Hitchens: …what happens in Germany which is we-well worth having. The Germans have put it very beautifully. They say, "We don't want a Germanized Europe. We want a Europeanized Germany." I can't think of a nicer way of phrasing it.

Peter Robinson: Okay, I think, at least plausibly, correctly I don't know, but at least plausibly, if you are a German you say to yourself, the history is so-the history of the nation is so horrible and still hangs so heavily to this day on that nation, you'd like to be able to somehow to dissolve your national identity and think of yourself as a European rather than a German. If you're French, you no longer have any empire to speak of. But, ah, there's still an opportunity for French aggrandizement. If you're Spanish after all those years under Franco, you want to join something bigger. If you're Italian, any government other than yours would be better. If you're particularly, if-if you're an Italian business, I can understand the psychology. If you're a tinny, tiny Denmark, you want to gro-join something bigger. I can understand the psychology of virtually every single nation wanting to join up, except Britain.

Christopher Hitchens: That's not been a problem. You nev-everyone sees that this-they got something from it. And I-you-I haven't seen anything that we've lost to set against that.

Peter Robinson: You haven't seen anything that you've lost?

Christopher Hitchens: No well I might add, incidentally, that the possibility of-of decentralizing within a centralized system is also made more likely, in other words…

Christopher Hitchens: …if Scotland wants-if Scotland wants as it definitely does want more self-government and some way even want to take to the length of independence, you wouldn't have to put up a border between England and Scotland. Because it-they'd still be within the larger border so you could have more decentralization given the larger roof under which all this occurs.

Peter Robinson: Let's move to Robert Conquest's final argument against the European Union.

Title: My Fellow…Europeans?

Peter Robinson: Bob's last attack on the, "I see the European Union fatally, fatally as missing any real sense of how the feeling of citizenship arises." How does the feeling of citizenship arise?

Robert Conquest: Well, I think I f-I finished that sentence by saying, "It doesn't arise either through wheedling or ordering from the central authority. It-it-it takes centuries to arise and it ha-it arises within certain traditions. If they're exactly the same traditions or if they're nearly the same, that's slightly different. I-I'll tell you another point of the traditional side, things that the British accept when they sign a treaty they put into force. But the Italian's don't obey the law, they fix it somehow. The French don't. And also the Fr-English sign something irreversible. The French signed an irreversible thing about border controls a couple of years ago. They reversed it in three weeks.

Tony Baldry: But that probably is why one has to have a commission to ensure that all the member states abide the rules equally and-and the commission if it feels that any one-member state is not complying by the rules can bring infractions procedures.

Peter Robinson: Surely, surely a commission of people seated around a table isn't going to overturn centuries of Italian history.

Christopher Hitchens: No, but it can have a solvent effect on it so…

Peter Robinson: So Christopher, what happens it that you, as not just a liberal but a radical are-find yourself so in sympathy with the impulses of the elitists and bureaucrats who are running this entire project that you'd like to have those values imposed on un-clean persons such as the Greeks and the Spaniards and so forth. And that makes you gleeful?

Christopher Hitchens: The sweepings of the Mediterranean?

Peter Robinson: Yes, right, so that's basically what it comes down to. You can raise everybody else up to standards of sanitation-sanitation and hygiene, both moral and political.

Christopher Hitchens: And have, I think in the end, a solvent effect on nationalist feeling. I-mind you, I say this agreeing with Conquest that citizenship is or-a much more organic and natural process and can't be mandated in-in this way. But…

Peter Robinson: So there won't be any…

Christopher Hitchens: …the concepts of…

Christopher Hitchens: …British or Britain's is only about 200 years old. And the concept of an Italian is much, much more recent that that and first you had to have…

Peter Robinson: Indeed the Italians themselves don't think that way still.

Christopher Hitchens: …I'm afraid the-I'm afraid the state did come before the citizen in both cases and I, for example, have always preferred to say I'm English-the British in any case and find that much easier to say within an internationalized Cornish within that, as a matter of fact.

Christopher Hitchens: …with a side bet on Sylesia…

Tom Baldry: Intriguing to me watching the conventions, and practically every political speaker here starts off their speech, "My fellow Americans."

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Tom Baldry: I-I can't envisage ever starting off a speech in the UK saying, "My fellow Britains." They'd think I was very strange. And you just do-one just doesn't have quite that approach to citizenship. And I don't think that my children's generation, in any way, feel uncomfortable about being Europeans at the same time as being English or Cornish or half Cornish and half Scottish and half English and so forth. It's not a problem.

Peter Robinson: So Bob, relax, relax. There's no ill for Britain involved and it may do a lot of good for the less tidy corners of Europe. Just relax Professor.

Robert Conquest: Well I'm basically-it can't, it-if-if it goes on be-trying to get tighter and tighter and tighter, and I don't think you can deny that. Brussels is trying hard on pushing every inch in every direction to get it tighter and tighter. And that-I think the Union could survive in a lighter form, if the Treaty of Rome and the Treaty of Mustreet(?) were abolished which were put through, I may say, but would make the American Union, you see the debates when America declared independence when the, when the confederation became a Union after that. The debates were all intelligible and the documents were intelligible. You can't understand the Treaty of Mustreet(?). It was given out by the foreign of-foreign office in the wrong version because they couldn't read it.

Peter Robinson: If EU is bad for Britain in the first place, why did Britain join in the first place?

Tony Baldry: My first grown up job in politics was-I was fortunately brought into contact a lot with Harbert Moon(?) and it was Harbert Moon, of course, as Prime Minister who first applied for membership. And Moon was very clear, both in public and private. He had lived through two world wars. He had seen Europe tear itself apart limb from limb, and he was determined that that politically could never happen again. Now that actually seems to me to be a fairly significant achievement.

Peter Robinson: Then you should have been a champion of the North Atlantic Treaty organization that tied the United States to Europe. No?

Tom Baldry: But-but-but all the European Union has done is made Europe take responsibility for its own affairs. Why should Europe, why should the United States continue to-to-to feel beholden to sort out or help Europe. We have to sort our own destiny.

Peter Robinson: Are you anti-NATO? Do you want American troops out of there?

Tom Baldry: No, no not at all. I served for 22 years as an officer in our reserve forces, I did many joint exercises. NATO is a crucial part of the world's freedom but it's not in any way incompatible with our membership in the European Union.

Peter Robinson: Gentleman. It's television. I think you've had the chance to air your views and answer to Dr. Conquest's letter. And let me ask you each one final question, prediction. Ten years from now, if public opinion is so skeptical and Britain is so skeptical of Europe a decade from now, the year is 2010, will Britain have joined the European Union irrevocably, dropped out decisively, or just spent another decade muddling along? In, out or muddle? Tony.

Tony Baldry: I think in.

Peter Robinson: Bob?

Rober Conquest: I don't think there's such a thing as irrevocably even if they got in. America was irrevocably part of Britain at one time.

Peter Robinson: So what do you reckon, more muddle?

Robert Conquest: Can't tell. Judging by the elites they'll be muddled alright.

Peter Robinson: Christopher?

Christopher Hitchens: For my fellow countrymen to change their habits and their mentality it takes a very, very long time. This argument's been going on as long as I can remember. And I'm sure it's going to see me out. But, the decision has been made. And there isn't an alternative.

Peter Robinson: Christopher Hitchens, Robert Conquest, Tony Baldry, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: If polls are any guide, Robert Conquest's objections to Europe are gaining ground with the British public. As for the British government, it remains committed to further integration with Europe but has yet to call a referendum on adopting the Euro, the European currency, typically British. Muddling through while hoping, to quote the Beatles, that "It's getting better all the time." I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.