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After six long toxic years, a civilised debate about EU and Brexit

London Letter: Light cast on exit from body in which UK not ‘influential founder member’

Almost six years after Britain voted to leave the European Union, Brexit remains a radioactive political issue where the two sides tend to talk past one another. So it was refreshing to see David Frost and Ken Clarke share a platform on Thursday at the Policy Exchange, a right-wing think tank close to Boris Johnson's government.

They were there, along with former Labour MP and Vote Leave chair Gisela Stuart, for the launch of Christopher Tugendhat's The Worm in the Apple: A History of the Conservative Party and Europe from Churchill to Cameron.

A former Conservative MP who served as European commissioner under Margaret Thatcher, Tugendhat is a lifelong pro-European and the event was, Policy Exchange's director Dean Godson said, "the most ecumenical event ever in the history of the organisation".

Tugendhat’s book examines why the party that took Britain into the European Union became the party that took the country out and he identifies a few problems that were there from the start.

"The European Union is the only international organisation of which Britain has ever been a member of which it was not an influential founder member. In the United Nations, the IMF, Nato, the European Convention on Human Rights and the World Trade Organisation, Britain was not just a member, but an influential founder member," he said.

‘Language and imagery’

“We rejected the opportunity to join what became the EU at the beginning. And so when we did join, we found that it was based on principles, including language and imagery, with which we were unfamiliar and indeed often felt uncomfortable.”

He argues that the leaders of France and Germany made a mistake by failing to reach an early agreement with Margaret Thatcher on Britain's budget rebate, not least because she went on to secure a good deal after a long, bitter confrontation.

“The result was to embed in the minds of the British people and in the minds of the British media a conflictual view of Britain’s relationship with the EU. Instead of seeing it as a continuous negotiation with fluctuating alliances and people pursuing different objectives at different times, it came to be seen as us against them, one against the rest,” he said.

Clarke suggested that one reason Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand patronised Thatcher and failed to take her seriously was because she was a woman. Frost found an echo of that attitude in the way EU leaders behaved towards Theresa May in the Brexit negotiations – although there were many more women leaders in Europe by then.

“I thought the disdain with which she was treated and the very obvious wish of some in the EU anyway to kind of ignore British political developments, just wait and see if they could shape events to their advantage, not take British politics seriously . . . shows something fundamental in the way the EU works and looks at us,” he said.

Implications for sovereignty

Frost rejected Tugendhat’s view that Britain might have shaped the EU if it had been a founding member, unless it had been able to stop the EU developing at all.

“The strength of Franco-German reconciliation, the strength of that bargain, the push to supranationalism, the wish for the small states to have a system that protected their interests, I think those are extremely strong forces,” he said.

Tugendhat identified two other missed opportunities in Ted Heath’s failure to come clean about the implications for sovereignty of joining the Common Market and the refusal of successive prime ministers to hold referendums as the EU developed.

"Had we had a referendum over the constitution, for instance, I think that would have brought home to people the fact that in Europe there was more than one orthodoxy, there was more than one way in which Europe could develop. I think what John Major brought back from Maastricht was a less prescriptive EU," he said.

“I think what Cameron brought back in his renegotiation, where Britain was explicitly excluded from ever-closer union, explicitly excluded from having to bail out the euro zone, could have become a basis on which some of the other people who had not been part of the original six and some of the other new members would have based their membership.”

Frost believes Britain would have left earlier if there had been referendums on the Maastricht or Lisbon treaties and that there was an inevitability about Brexit. He said the issue of EU membership for Ukraine presents the EU with a dilemma because although the 27 member states don't want to say no, they know that Kyiv is nowhere near qualifying under the established criteria.

“But if they end up offering some sort of political European status to Ukraine that doesn’t have any actual obligation, then why is that not an offer for others as well?” he said.

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