De historische mythe van de Europese eenheid

As Britain prepares to renegotiate its relationship with the European Union, historians must speak out against the false vision of ‘inevitable’ unification.

By David Abulafia

“We are, by the sufferance of God, King of England; and the Kings of England in times past never had any superior but God.” Henry VIII’s comments to Cardinal Wolsey could not be repeated today, for nearly four hundred years the Kings and Queens of this island have answered not only to God, but to Parliament also. Our ancient institutions – our monarchy, system of law, our parliament – have survived more or less uninterrupted, while those of our European neighbours have had to be rebuilt time and again. This has given Britain a unique identity, distinct from a continent whose divided history has been characterised by revolutions and written constitutions. The ancient contrast between Britain and its continental neighbours today takes a new form as we wonder about our relationship with the European Union.

To make sense of the current debates surrounding Britain’s EU membership and David Cameron’s plan to renegotiate its terms, we must understand the historical perspective. We must go beyond recent events in the EU and examine the centuries-old relationship between Britain and Europe. To understand who we are today, we must first understand who we have been. That is why I, and several of my colleagues in universities and beyond, have founded Historians for Britain, in the belief that our negotiations with the EU must be informed by an understanding of our past.

Britain’s relationship with Europe changed significantly when the United Kingdom acceded to the European Community in 1973, having previously been a member of the much looser European Free Trade Association. Given the ability of politicians such as Harold Wilson to mouth platitudes without thinking through their potential meaning, it is hard to be sure whether those who led Britain into what was then generally called the Common Market had much grasp of what the ‘European project’ was supposed to achieve, or whether they really believed the EEC would develop along the lines that it has. The notion of political union was far from most people’s minds when they voted in the 1975 referendum.

In the forty years since we joined, those who have promoted European integration have recognised the power of a historical narrative to achieve what they want. For many years there has been a concerted effort to use history to justify the need for an “ever closer union”. The myth of a common European identity has begun to prevail in historical debate, and it is used to explain the “inevitability” of the European Union. Material produced by the EU often presents the history of Europe as a common enterprise. We are told that we are all members of a European demos, or people, yet there is little to no historical evidence that such a demos actually exists or has ever done so.

Yet, for the proponents of the European project, there is very little room for disagreement. Historical objections are frequently brushed aside. Dangerously, it is often argued that to oppose the path of integration is to be on the “wrong side” of history. As the distinguished historian of both France and England, Robert Tombs, has insisted, historians should always challenge the use of historical determinism as a justification for bypassing democratic wishes.

After all, it was this belief in the inevitability of European Union that justified the imposition of greater constraints on national governments through the Lisbon Treaty and the ridiculously-named euro. We can see the consequences of such dangerous thinking in the misery the Single Currency has created across the Mediterranean.

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