LAST NIGHT, Theresa May was photographed sitting beneath a portrait of Sir Robert Walpole signing the letter that will activate Article 50 and begin the arduous process of withdrawing the United Kingdom from the European Union. This morning, Sir Tim Barrow, a look of self-satisfaction plastered over his face, walked briskly into the dramatic Europa Building in Brussels to deliver it to Donald Tusk, the President of the European Commission. It is the final act in a 44-year drama, in which Britain has never played an enthusiastic role. The problem for most of us is that we have forgotten why it was written in the first place.
In 1945, Europe was in tatters. Six long and bloody years of warfare and genocide had killed and displaced tens of millions of people, lain to waste cities across the continent, and left central and eastern Europe under the domination of the Soviet Red Army. The monumental task of rebuilding fell to two new global hegemons, the United States with its allies in western Europe, and the Soviet Union with its new vassals is the east. Both powers had their own unique vision of how the new world should be set out. For the occupied territories, this meant oppressive new Stalinist regimes, typically put in place against the will of the conquered people. But for western Europe, liberal democracy was the answer, and with it were sown the first seeds of a united and peaceful Europe.
Winston Churchill, that great defender of democracy (if only for white people), was an early proponent of a united Europe. In a speech made in Zurich in 1946, he spoke of the urgent need for the war-torn continent to set aside its differences, put petty and dangerous nationalism behind it, and join together for the common good. As the old continent was eclipsed by the United States and the Soviet Union, Churchill made it clear that for the first time in centuries Europe could only maintain its leading position if it came together with a single voice, not by force as so many had tried before, but through its shared values and its commitment to freedom and democracy.
“We must build a kind of United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living.”
Churchill is a hero of the British right, so it is ironic that his message has been lost amid the patriotic murk. So many more of the lessons of that dark time in European history have been lost. The continent today is at risk of succumbing to that same nationalism that murdered countless millions in the 1930s and 40s. Putin’s Russia is sending hungry glances towards Poland and the Baltic States, and Marine Le Pen in France and her allies abroad are even now campaigning for a return to a collection of petty, squabbling nation states. The biggest danger comes from Brexit, which may undermine the very union that Winston Churchill – once voted the greatest Briton by the public – fought so hard to establish.
Yet, there are signs that the European Union will live to fight another day. Already, the forces of nationalism are in retreat in the Netherlands, and it looks increasingly likely that Marine Le Pen’s message of fear and division will see her convincingly thrashed by a fierce pro-European in France. Furthermore, Brexit has proven itself to be nothing more than a self-immolating act of hubris that will surely put the brakes on similar movements elsewhere. The most resounding vote of confidence in the EU, however, has come from the slew of public demonstrations held not just Britain, but elsewhere across the continent. The largest, in Rome on Saturday, saw over a hundred thousand people from all over Europe rally behind the European Union, marking the 60th anniversary of its birth.
On 25 March 1957, the leaders of six western European countries – Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany – gathered in the city that has defined Europe more than any other, to sign into being the European Economic Community. The Treaty of Rome was the first step towards realising Churchill’s dream. It was a small step, but a profound one. In the stroke of a pen, they made real a future in which the bickering and fighting of past millennia would be at an end, in which the arbitrary lines in the sand were no longer a barrier to goods and people, in which all Europeans would be proud, free and independent.
Since then, the dictatorships of southern Europe and the Soviet puppets of central and western Europe have joined the club. For all of them, membership of the European Union meant a new, hopeful chapter in their history. It was not weakness that drove them into the arms of the EU, but a strength and confidence in democracy and freedom. It is perhaps no surprise that the country least receptive to the European project, Britain, joined out of a sense of defeat, when its economy was barely keeping afloat, and its global reach and prestige plummeting as its once mighty empire dissolved.
How ironic it is that the country of Churchill’s birth is the one that has rejected his vision. Today, while Theresa May repeated her usual talking points about coming together and the wonderful opportunities of Brexit, Donald Tusk made a patient and statesmanlike speech from his base in Brussels. ‘There’s no reason,’ he said, ‘to pretend this is a happy day. Most Europeans, including nearly half the British voters wish we would stay together.’ Tusk is Polish, a nationality more derided by Brexiteers than any other, one that has become a by-word for the job-stealing, culture-destroying layabouts that drove so many to vote to leave. His words carry no weight in the United Kingdom anymore, yet today he spoke for 48% of us when he said, ‘What can I add to this? We already miss you.’ Me too, Donald. Me too.