Mrs May’s formal notice of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union marked an historic day. The freedom of people in this country to make their own laws was being restored forty odd years after it had been ceded to the EU. Yet to those who deplored the departure in the EU or UK, that was an irrelevancy. For them, the EU was itself a historic project of internationalism to which older concepts of political freedom and nationhood are irrelevant.
May’s offer to the EU of a new future based on cooperation and friendship did not therefore resonate in Brussels, where the priority is commitment to the supra-national project. Wednesday’s regret at Britain’s departure went with determination to present a united front, for the EU to move ahead.
From Donald Tusk, the European Council President who received Mrs May’s letter, there was sorrow, an emotional farewell and a commitment to unity; for the parliament’s president, Antonio Tajani, it was not ‘a good day’ but they were ready to move on. The official negotiators (as much to bind their own side as to talk tough for Britain’s benefit) prepared the ground for what would come, warning of protracted discussions, the need to settle the terms of departure before discussing the future. For the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, May’s letter marked the beginning ‘of a very long and difficult road’ and the parliament’s negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, insisted that a state outside the EU could not be better off than one inside.
For each of these men, from Poland, Italy, France, Belgium, the interests of the EU precede those of their own nation states. As Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker explained from his EU meeting in Malta, the overriding sense of commitment is to unity. That however is something more problematic than the symbolic unity of the union under one anthem and one flag.
It is the result of another historic project, the post-war coal and steel ‘Treaty of Paris’ signed on the initiative of the French foreign minister Robert Schuman in 1951. Against the background of French defeat by Germany in World War 2, in fact three times since 1870 and in living memory for many French people, he believed a supranational body working together would end the rivalries and wars of the past. France and West Germany, Italy the Netherlands and Luxembourg signed the treaty. They would regulate their industrial production and form a common market under one ‘High Authority’, with a council, an assembly and a court, the embryonic institutions of the future EU. Two further bodies were instituted under the Treaty of Rome in 1957, the European Economic Community (the common market) and the atomic energy community, Euratom, and all three joined together a decade later. France would thereby prevent history repeating itself. Germany could bury its past as the dominant aggressor in two continental world wars.
The project has since then changed its shape, its identity and its name. Today it stretches from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, the Atlantic Ocean to the Aegean. One thing has not changed, however, the commitment to the first ‘supranational’ principle – a word which was, it seems, struck out of the original version in favour of the word ‘federation’.
Those who continue to plough the Schuman furrow do so for many of the same reasons. For France and Germany, the two dominant powers, interdependency seems a better course than open mistrust or the potential return of a dominant Germany. For the post Soviet bloc, the EU has given an economic and political homeland, and for newer member states from the south, the economic arrangements may on balance seem more attractive.
How far the federalist aim can succeed will depend on the success of other factors, economic, political and constitutional. For many member-state nationals, Britain’s decision to leave the EU chimes with their own wish to shape the laws and destinies of their own countries.
For these, as for the majority of people in this country, few images can have been more potent, few comparisons more stark than that between the European and British parliaments on Wednesday.
The EU’s officials had made their speeches in translation from their council or parliament buildings, to the huge impersonal spaces of desks, representatives and microphones. They will, they insisted, continue as before, their goal unchanged. Few doubt they mean what they say. They will continue to make the laws for around 500 million people, for closer integration, federation and harmonisation, unaccountable and for the most part, unelected.
In Westminster, the prime minister’s announcement that formal notice had now been given to the EU that Britain was leaving was made to a packed parliament. MPs had not only been bound by the voters’ decision to leave the EU, but in the words of Mrs May, there will be no turning back. MPs listened on both sides, as the prime minister mixed humour with firmness in dealing with the refusenik MPs from the SNP and the Lib Dems. She would be acting for the whole United Kingdom, bound not only by its common past, but by the prospects of a brighter future.
That future will be in the hands of Britain’s people. When Mr Corbyn confirmed that the Labour party respects the people’s decision, he was bowing to the inevitable. Even when on the losing side, politicians in Britain acknowledge that for the people of this country, what matters most is the right to decide how they are governed and by whom.