If you were the head of the European Commission, and you really, really wanted to wind-up a British Tory Prime Minister (with whom you’ve already had plenty of previous aggravation), what would you make a speech about on the day the UK-EU Referendum debate got started? What do you think might cause him and his party the maximum possible exasperation and irritation?

You would, of course, make a speech that claimed Winston Churchill was an ardent Euro-federalist (the implication being that the current crop of Tories are betraying the great man’s memory). Ouch. That will have the Prime Minister coughing up his cornflakes.

And that is precisely what José Manuel Durão Barroso, President of the European Commission, did last Friday, in a speech to the University of Zurich.

I have to say that the content of the speech amazed me. Exhibit A in Barroso’s case for Churchill as cheerleader for a United States of Europe is a lecture Churchill gave (also in Zurich) in September, 1946. Churchill:

The structure of the United States of Europe, if well and truly built, will be such as to make the material strength of a single state less important. Small nations will count as much as large ones and gain their honor by their contribution to the common cause.     

Sacre Bleu! Is this really Churchill? It really is. He goes on:

[W]e must re-create the European family in a regional structure called, it may be, the United States of Europe.??The first step is to form a Council of Europe.   

As Sr. Barroso notes, Churchill saw the core of the project as a ‘partnership between France and Germany’. No wonder the Head of the Commission praises Churchill lavishly: ‘He was a man of foresight with an acute sense of history, often ahead of prevailing opinion, never shying away from saying what some might chose to ignore at the time.’

With Churchill behind him, Barroso feels free to make the strongest possible case for ‘ever closer union’. Unsurprisingly, the centerpiece of his argument is that European Union has – as Churchill so desired – kept the peace. War among EU states is ‘unthinkable’.

I am writing on this Armistice Day. However one feels about the Barroso’s interpretation of the EU project, it is a startling and wonderful thing that Europe’s once endemic bloodletting has largely ceased. The EU is part of the story of peace. We should be proud of the achievement.

But there are problems with the President’s narrative. ‘Europe can also count on a stable and strong common currency, the euro, which is now part of millions of people’s daily life and the world’s second reserve currency,’ he says. Well, that’s not exactly how everyone in Europe has found it, to put it mildly. Likewise, he brushes over the financial crisis: ‘the “euro crisis” – is not a crisis of the euro as such.’ It was everywhere; and his remedy is, of course, for deeper European integration and stronger European institutions.

I think that what turns many people off the EU project is the confident unreality of this tone. If the president can’t admit there’s a problem, how can the EU be trusted to expand safely?

Actually, the speech, despite being a grenade lobbed at David Cameron, has some conciliatory moments.  He notes that ‘decentralization’ is also a key ‘democratic principle’ of the EU; that there are things the EU ‘shouldn’t do because others can do it more efficiently.’ Tax isn’t mentioned in the speech; I wonder if that was one of the areas that should be left alone. The President does not provide details.

Perhaps he was cagey because, with no little irony, this speech was being delivered in Switzerland. It’s all very well winding up the British, but the Swiss are even worse – they never even joined the EU! It is a recurrent embarrassment for the EU that their absence doesn’t seem to have done the Swiss much harm. Some commentators believe the UK could follow suit, with no real negative effect on the country.

As for Churchill and a European superstate, it turns out to be a little more complicated than President Barroso implies. Churchill was indeed in favour of it – but did not expect Britain to be part of it! I found a link to the speech (with some commentary by Lorna Thomas) here.

In all this urgent work, France and Germany must take the lead together.?Great Britain, the British Commonwealth of Nations, mighty America, and I trust Soviet Russia – for then indeed all would be well – must be the friends and sponsors of the new Europe and must champion its right to live and shine    

‘Friends and sponsors’, not members. For Churchill, the UK’s primary international network was the Commonwealth, not the EU. Those days seem long gone – but perhaps Mr. Cameron and President Barroso both secretly wish they could come back.

By |November 11th, 2013|