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Realists, Idealists and the EU By Philip Towle

Brexit court justice
Written by Philip Towle

British opinion is emotionally polarised. Realism will again prove more prophetic than idealism but learning its lessons will be painful.

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I had lunch some time ago with a member of the Japanese Embassy in London who talked at length of the benefits Japan and Britain derived from Britain’s membership of the EU. At the end I asked him if he would support a similar organisation with ambitions to become a federation based in Singapore including his own country, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines. He made a joke about the disadvantages of Singapore then uneasily changed the topic of conversation.

I recall only one colleague in another continent who wanted to federate his own country with its neighbours. He was an African who was an admirer of Kwame Nkrumah. Canadian and American friends who express astonishment and dismay that Britain voted against EU membership would be shocked by the idea of a federation involving Canada, the United States and the Latin American countries based somewhere in Central America. Australia and New Zealand have never formed a confederation despite their shared British background, culture and strategic colocation. It is hard to keep the Organisation of American States, the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation or the African Union meeting together let alone to persuade them to federate. Yet, if asked, they would probably express support for a European federation.

Of course, much of this stems from familiarity and economic interest. Across the world people have become used to the EU and they expect other areas to stay the same even if they wish for changes at home. The Japanese have made an invaluable contribution to the British economy by setting up factories here which export to the EU and elsewhere. Such companies like stability.

When the European Community was founded the continent had been the focus of two horrendous World Wars with millions of deaths and massive economic damage. Those like Edward Heath who had served through the anti- Nazi war were willing to make national and personal sacrifices to avoid a repetition. In a world where most wars are domestic, clearly a federation cannot prevent them breaking out: the greatest war fought by the United States was the Civil War to maintain the US federation and the last wars in Europe were in former Yugoslavia fought, in part, to keep the Serbian remnant of that country intact. But, because Heath thought otherwise, he was willing to hide Europe’s federal ambitions when he spoke to the electorate and took the country into the EU while quietly encouraging such ambitions by supporting monetary union.

After each great war for the last 200 years there have been moves to establish institutions to prevent a recurrence. Subsequent events have shown these were too ambitious. Transport alone made it impractical for European statesmen to meet regularly after 1815 as the idealists like Tsar Alexander I had hoped; the League of Nations set up in 1919 could not discipline Japan and Germany which simply walked out of the organisation when its members objected to their conquest of foreign countries; the UN Military Staff Committee which was supposed after 1945 to command large standing forces was far too ambitious. This was particularly obvious in the Cold War but decades later the UN cannot even establish an effective committee to plan for peacekeeping operations and the Military Staff Committee has been forgotten by all but historians and a few diplomats serving at the UN.

Arguments about the EU are between the realists who believe that experience has shown the problems with embryonic federation and the idealists who want to preserve the founders’ hopes of establishing a federation which could balance the United States and Soviet Union. Certainly, as pointed out above, the EU is unique and it is the product of well-meaning and idealistic views but so were the League of Nations and the Military Staff Committee. What matters are its effects.

One might have expected the ‘pragmatic British’ to join the realist camp but there is a strong idealistic tradition particularly amongst the young and radical. It was fashionable in the 1930s amongst such people to ridicule the patriotic ‘Colonel Blimps’ who they blamed for the last war and its casualties, who doubted the efficacy of the League and who feared the ambitions of the Japanese, Italians and Germans. Semi-pacifist views percolated through to books written for children by A.A.Milne and others and they were propagated by George Lansbury, the leader of the Labour party who wanted to close the army recruiting offices. The League’s supporters remained loyal long after it had become obvious that the Axis were bent on aggression and that the meetings in Geneva could do nothing about it. The realists, like Churchill, who spoke of the dangers of German rearmament, were lampooned as reactionaries who forgot how badly the Germans had allegedly been treated in 1919.

Shocked by the slaughter of the First World War and embarrassed by the enthusiasm which the Bishop of London and others had shown for the allied cause, the Church of England focused on the peace the League of Nations was supposed to bring about and ignored its weaknesses. Although he was warned about these by British diplomats, the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested in 1922, ‘the league of Nations … can claim unhesitatingly, both for its purpose and policy, the surest Christian sanction. Its key-note vibrates in harmony with the key-note of the Christian Faith itself, and the Christian Faith lies at the core of the progressive history of mankind’. Surveying similar comments and the wreck of the European international system in 1939, Alfred Zimmern, the Professor of International Relations at Oxford, commented, ‘I am putting it mildly when I say that it is open to doubt whether the direct influence of the Churches on British foreign policy in the last twenty years has done more good than harm’. Yet, in the same vein as his predecessor, the current Archbishop of Canterbury has recently called the EU ‘the greatest human dream realised since the Romans’, ignoring the harm that institution is currently doing to European harmony.

Today British opinion is emotionally polarised as it was in the 1930s with the realists pointing out the damage the Euro has done to the South European economies and the way in which the EU’s inability to deal with immigration is encouraging xenophobia and setting one country against another. On the other side are the idealists now led by French President Macron but with strong support on this side of the Channel amongst the media, the Liberal Democrats and the Church of England who dismiss BREXIT supporters as ignorant populists. Because Donald Trump backed BREXIT they present BREXIT supporters as akin to Trump’s but this is the same as representing all vegetarians as similar to Hitler because he avoided meat. Meanwhile the EU’s supporters see present problems as an opportunity to press ahead with federalism. There is the same arrogance today towards people who take the realist view of the European scene as there was in 1930s when it was reflected in titles like Leonard Woolf’s Intelligent Man’s Way to Prevent War published in 1933.

If history is any guide the likely outcome of the current situation is clear, realism will prove more prophetic than idealism but learning its lessons will be appallingly painful. As the Canadian economist John K Galbraith once pointed out, ‘ideas are inherently conservative. They yield not to the attack of other ideas but to the massive onslaught of circumstance’.


Dr Philip Towle is Emeritus Reader in International Relations, and former Director of the Centre of International Studies, Cambridge


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Philip Towle