Sun | Feb 18, 2018

Martin Henry | Brexit, or not?

Published:Sunday | June 19, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry
In this June 26, 2014 file photo, British Prime Minister David Cameron (left), French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel participate in a ceremony to mark the Centenary of World War I. As Britain prepares to vote whether to leave or stay in the European Union on Thursday, June 23, goodwill between the continent and the island nation is fraying on both sides.
Leave supporters hold banners and flags as they stand on Westminster Bridge during an EU referendum campaign stunt in which a flotilla of boats supporting Leave sailed up the River Thames outside the Houses of Parliament in London Wednesday.

This Thursday, the British people go back to the polls in their second referendum in two years. Both are about unity.

On September 18, 2014, the people of Scotland voted 55.3 per cent to remain in the United Kingdom, an arrangement that has been holding since 1707. On Thursday, the vote is whether or not a united United Kingdom is to remain in the European Union (EU).

The Stay/Leave campaign has been intense, even bitter, sharply dividing the country and even political parties internally, while creating rare cross-party leadership unity for 'Remain'.

The Leave side has marginally pulled ahead in the opinion polls over the last couple of weeks. The stakes are high for Britain, for the EU, and for the rest of the world, including the Caribbean and ourselves. And horror stories of the consequences of remaining or leaving abound. One AFP news story midweek last week announced, "World stocks unravel on Brexit fears." But the fact is, nobody knows, or can know, the measure of the matter of a Brexit in advance. The history is clearer and could cast some light on the future.

Boris Johnson, Conservative MP, a former mayor of London, and a substantial historian and classical scholar who is a top leader of the Leave campaign, has drawn a lot of fire for saying the EU is pursuing a similar goal to Hitler in trying to create a powerful superstate. Johnson was speaking in an interview with the Leave-backing newspaper The Telegraph carried in the May 15 Sunday edition. The Sun, Britain's top readership newspaper, endorsed exit in its June 14, 'BeLeave in Britain' edition with a front-page editorial.



In his Telegraph interview, Boris Johnson said that while bureaucrats in Brussels are using different methods from the Nazi leader, they share the aim of unifying Europe under one authority. Napoleon, Hitler and various other people, he said, had tried this out and it all ended tragically. The past 2,000 years of European history, he said, have been characterised by repeated attempts to unify Europe under a single government in order to recover the continent's lost 'golden age' under the Romans.

Mr Johnson is particularly hostile to German dominance in the EU. The sort of tension that has led to European wars in the past. The disastrous failures of the EU have fuelled tensions among member states and allowed Germany to grow in power, take over the Italian economy and destroy Greece, he asserts.

The euro, which Britain has refused to be a part of, has become a means by which superior German productivity is able to gain an absolutely unbeatable advantage over the whole Eurozone, he argues. Official EU statistics, the Telegraph inserts, are showing that over the last decade, the value of British exports of goods to the EU has fallen by 18 per cent, with only Luxembourg falling lower, while German exports within the Union has jumped by 78.9 per cent.

Historian Johnson is fundamentally right about the history of European unification before the EU. Since the dissolution of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, many attempts have been made to recreate a united Europe - all by force of arms - before the EU. As Boris Johnson puts it, "But, fundamentally, what is lacking is the eternal problem, which is that there is no underlying loyalty to the idea of Europe."

In 800 Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, King of the Franks, as Emperor of the Romans. This Charles the Great unified a large portion of the continent. The Holy Roman Empire, described as neither holy nor Roman, next emerged, holding portions of Western Europe together in one empire for more than 1,000 years and dominated by the Habsburg Monarchy for hundreds of years.



Otto von Habsburg (1912-2011), the last claimant to the Habsburg Monarchy and an avid pan-Europeanist who became a member of the European Parliament, has pointed out, "The [European] Community is living largely by the heritage of the Holy Roman Empire, though the great majority of the people who live by it don't know by what heritage they live."

The EU traces its origins to the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and the European Economic Community (EEC), formed in 1951 and 1958, respectively, by the Inner Six countries of Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

Robert Schuman, French foreign minister, led the formation of the ECSC with the famous Schuman Declaration of May 1950. The ECSC is the forerunner of several other European Communities and of what is now the EU. Determined to prevent another such terrible war, European governments concluded that pooling coal and steel production would, in the words of the declaration, make war between historic rivals France and Germany "not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible". The declaration called for the establishment of a common High Authority. The EU was established under its current name in 1993 by the Maastricht Treaty. The Union has grown in number through the accession of new member states. There are now 28 member states.

The Europe Declaration signed a year after the Schuman Declaration at the Treaty of Paris by the Six, said, "By the signature of this treaty, the participating parties give proof of their determination to create the first supranational institution and that thus they are laying the true foundation of an organised Europe. This Europe remains open to all nations. We profoundly hope that other nations will join us in our common endeavour."

Britain has had a rocky relationship with European unity over the last 66 years. The country withdrew from the early talks over the proposition for a 'supranational' institution. Concerns over sovereignty and about laws are key elements of the Leave campaign. The country's attempt to join in 1963 was blocked by French President Charles de Gaulle, who accused Britain of "deep-seated hostility" towards the initiative.

Britain joined the EEC a decade later in 1973, but then within a year called for major reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and the financing of the budget.



This is not the first British referendum on sticking with European unity. One was held in 1975 with two-thirds of voters opting to stay in.

In 1983, the leader of the Labour Party, Michael Foote, in his election manifesto, promised withdrawal, but lost to Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives, who opted for staying in.

Britain has refused to join the single euro currency and the Schengen Area which has abolished the need for passports and border controls. Out of clashes with Brussels, Conservative leader and then Prime Minister David Cameron promised an In/Out referendum before the end of 2017 if he won the 2015 general election. He won it. And Thursday is the promised referendum vote. An Out vote will also mean out for Cameron and very possibly In for Boris Johnson, a frontrunner for replacing Cameron as prime minister.

But prime ministers come and prime ministers go. The far larger issue of the British decision is the future of the EU. The Union has been coming under increasing pressure from a variety of issues like the Greek debt crisis; the very uneven trade benefits, of which Britain has been complaining, and economic prosperity; migration across open borders, including the flood of refugees through Greece; and balancing sovereignty and unity.

And then there is that overarching problem put front and centre by Boris Johnson in that blunt Telegraph interview in May, the absence of underlying loyalty to the idea of Europe among peoples who have been adept at fighting each other, but historically, far less able to "cleave one to another, even as iron is not mixed with clay".

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to and