British ideas of Europe. PART I. More supranational than the Pope.

British ideas about Europe may be seen as stretching out along two axes: one from west to east represents the spectrum of views ranging from a diverse Europe of states and peoples,  to a supranational Europe, a United States of Europe. On the second axis, ranging from north to south, is what may be considered contemporary Europe to the deep past, commemorated in legends, history, monuments, memories or literature.

This simple categorisation locates four quadrants: in the upper left hand quadrant is the contemporary reality of Europe as diverse, and linked via multiple strands to various pasts, but also tied in through multiple channels of trade, investment or travel and family linkages to the rest of the world. In the upper right quadrant, we can locate Europe as well along the path to an expected status as a global power, and with a plethora of supranational institutions-Commission, Court of Justice, Central Bank- to name the most salient. The historical roots to which supranationalists look include the Roman Empire, Charlemagne, and Christian Europe.

It is the past that divides the UK from the supranational vision of a USE. As I argue, that supranational vision has some of its most devoted supporters in the UK. It is not a simple  case of the UK versus the Rest- a favourite paradigm of the media, both British and foreign- so much as the UK against itself. The passion flows from the convictions of many Leavers that Remainers are traitors, and the convictions of Remainers that Leavers are nostalgic-for an Empire that has gone the way of Nineveh and Tyre, say Remainers; for the right of voters to sanction their legislators, say Leavers..

In what follows, I will avoid excursions into the past, other than as references. The following sections present th, in Part One, the  roots of the UK’s supranationalism on Europe; in Part Two, the roots of its deeper support for a Europe of the states;in Part Three, the debate about the Europe of the past decade or so, in the form of a short essay on recently published books about Europe; and finally in Part Four,  the present battle about Europe which may be read as the UK’s European civil war, and what I take as the deep UK view as to what is  a sustainable regime for Europe as a whole.

 A Supranational UK.

Where do British ideas locate in the four quadrants? Official UK  locates clearly in  the supranational quadrant: those who are now dubbed “Remainers”, and their predecessors dating back to the 1930s, have been dominant in Whitehall, in the universities, in business, or in the media for decades. To synthesise, official UK is more supranational than the Pope, and has extensive, but not exclusive, support in the public.

EU supranationalists consciously seek to reject the historical legacy of the European mid-seventeenth century, notably in the form of the Treaty of Westphalia, which confirmed  the doctrine of “cujus regio, ejus religio”, the law of peoples as interpreted by Grotius, the concept of sovereignty, the distinction of Great Powers and smaller powers, and the functioning of the balance of power.  Supranational Europe aims to supercede this inherited Europe. This underlying emphasis of the supranationalists has major consequences for the UK, whose functioning constitution issues from the seventeenth century-the civil war of the 1640s-between Roundhead and Cavalier, which continues to structure British party politics, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 from which stems the modern constitutional monarchy, the constitution of the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India.

The guiding idea of the EEC/EU supra-national vision is that nationalism caused the wars of the first part of the century, and hence that nation states should be subsumed into a large entity. The pre-1939 Liberal élites of the United Kingdom were in entire agreement. Their organizational sites included the Round Table, set up in 1907 to promote a federation in South Africa (The photograph at the front of this article is of Lord Lothian in 1935, formerly Sir Philip Kerr-an active member of the Roundtable; pro-appeasement of Germany in the 1930s; admirer of Ghandi and ambassador to the United States in 1939-40); Chatham House, the counterpart to the New York-centred Council on Foreign Relations; the Fabian Society, which favoured socialism and supranational governance; they deployed their influence in the universities, the media, and all major political parties; they spoke to a broader public through the BBC, The Times and The Economist. On the approach of war in 1939, they set up the Federal Union, to promote the idea of a federal Europe as an alternative to war, and to Hitler’s “New Order”. As Lionel Robbins, then professor of economics at the London School of Economics, wrote, “unless we destroy the sovereign states, the sovereign states will destroy us”. [1]

This was the strong conviction of Jean Monnet, the founding father of the EU, who considered in the light of his experience from two world wars, that the crowds of democracy had to be kept at bay, tamed, and their enthusiasms channelled. That could best be done by élites from member states gathering in enclave to settle complex business in the general interest. To limit the influence of nationalist demagogues, an a-political international space had to be created where trained technical élites could set the course of political evolution. In post-war Europe, Jean Monnet’s ratchet process of integration, whereby ever wider powers are placed in the European institutions, was the chosen method. To put it graphically, nationalism would be sent to sleep over time, in the manner of boiling frogs in ever warmer water.

A decisive influence on the UK as a supra-nationalist champion in the EEC/EU was the experience of de Gaulle’s reign in France from 1958 to 1969. In a study submitted to the Cabinet in February 1960, [2]the future of Europe was defined as dependent on which way de Gaulle acted. If France pressed ahead with EEC integration, the UK by 1970 could face a new world power. The emergence of this power would strengthen European security, but would pose major problems for the UK, not the least being that “the United States with their traditional attachment to the idea of European unity, might even feel obliged to support the Six against us, to the great detriment of Anglo-American co-operation.”

Alternatively, the report went on, France may prefer a more national path, in which case the UK by 1970 would not have to face  a successful EEC. But such an outcome would be detrimental to NATO. “Not the least of the dangers then confronting us would be the possibility that the West Germans would exchange the failure of their West European policies for an understanding with Moscow,” prompting possible US disengagement. The conclusion was for the UK either to reach an economic accommodation with the EEC, and/or to try to bind the Americans into “a re-invigorated OEEC. of which they would be full members.”

At the time, the supranational enthusiasts for a United States of Europe placed their faith in the Euratom Treaty, set up to endow its signatories with a source of nuclear energy. But de Gaulle scotched that idea, and accepted the more modest economic union, as adumbrated in the Treaty of Rome. As the most powerful member state, France under de Gaulle entrenched the Common Agricultural Policy, opening French machine tool markets to German goods in return for French access to German food markets. A common external tariff was set up, and internal tariffs and quotas lowered. Fuelled by low oil prices, the EEC economies boomed. De Gaulle gave powerful voice to “l’Europe des patries”-and was heard both in Germany and to a much lesser extent in the UK.

The proponents of a supranational European union did not abandon hope, though. They chose two vehicles to corner de Gaulle:  one was the European Court of Justice, in the Rome treaty a mere administrative court. The judges in the European Court of Justice (ECJ), in the landmark case of Flaminio Costa v ENEL [1964] ECR 585 (6/64) acclaimed the supremacy of EEC law over the laws of its member states. It ruled that EC law would not be effective if Costa could not challenge national law on the basis of its (Italian) alleged incompatibility with EC law: “It follows from all these observations that the law stemming from the treaty, an independent source of law, could not, because of its special and original nature, be overridden by domestic legal provisions, however framed, without being deprived of its character as community law and without the legal basis of the community itself being called into question.” This principle, never explicitly stated in the Rome Treaty, had been sketched out in the Van Gend en Loos case (Case 26/62); [1963] [3]and extended to the principle of direct effect, whereby provisions of EEC law may confer rights on individuals which the courts of member states are bound to recognize and enforce. The ECJ subsequently expanded the principle as applicable to virtually all possible forms of EU legislation.

The second vehicle was the Commission which arrogated  itself powers to represent the EEC in international trade negotiations. This was handy to de Gaulle in establishing his French sphere of influence in western Europe, a key component of which was to sideline the UK, which de Gaulle did in 1963 and again in 1967. Successive Gaullist governments brushed aside the ECJ’s supra nationalist bid for power, just as de Gaulle in 1965 boycotted the Council of Ministers, unless the Commission bowed to his wishes. Gaullists interpreted this Commission and judicial activism  as none other than a German imperial bid for power, not by a Schlieffen Plan lunge at France through Belgium, or by tank offensives through the Ardennes, but as silent institutional aggression against French sovereignty, in other words, France’s right as an independent state to say: “Non”.

Words in the 1960s among the representatives of the EEC five were federal in orientation, but in practice, they were arguably no less national than de Gaulle’s actions.The UK’s supranationalists played on this. De Gaulle was the foe to beat. To make amends for past sins of insularity, the pro entry UK lobby advocated alliance with the Five to isolate de Gaulle ; claimed to have an answer to Britain’s economic problems; talked progressive modernism, rejecting empire, Commonwealth, naval interests, and worked up their own ideological vision for the UK in a post national EEC. Simply put, the UK had to lead the way to a new super state, which would replace the empire as the prime source of UK influence in the world; would spike French nationalism; contain Germany; ensure Europe’s continued division; play to US interests, and ensure continued UK influence at various high tables.

In the European Communities Act (ECA), of 1972, the crucial clause is Section 2.1.[4] Its authors, Ted Heath and Geoffrey Howe,  thus corroborated the interpretation of the Rome Treaty by the judges of the ECJ , in the course of the 1960s, that EEC law took direct effect over national law and even had supremacy over the constitutions of the member states.  The wording asserts that EU laws override national laws where they conflict,  and that Whitehall has the powers to give effect in national law to EU law via secondary measures. The Act thereby further enhanced the powers of Whitehall over Westminster: the knights of Whitehall acted in the COREPER and in the Council of Ministers as co-legislators in Brussels, and as co-executives in London. By contrast, Germany’s Constitutional Court only came round to conditional acceptance of the ECJ’s position in 1986. The French  Conseil d’Etat accepted the  doctrine in 1990, also conditional on other provisions of the French constitution.[5]

Subordination of parliament and recognition of the ECJ as the UK’s supreme judicial instance for all things relating to EU law, itself ever-expanding, was an integral part of the UK supranationalists’ policy. The counterpart to this was active support of EEC/EU policies in the direction of a USE. Prime Minister Heath signed the UK up to full union by 1980. Events determined otherwise, but UK supranationalists were not discouraged. They poured resources into the 1975 referendum on continued membership in the Common Market, and won a resounding 65% of the vote. In 1977, Roy Jenkins, a senior Labour pro-EEC leader, took the post offered him as President of the Commission, where he helped to lay the groundwork for a return to negotiated exchange rates, for enlargement to Greece, Spain and Portugal, and for market liberalisation. In 1985, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher accepted the wider use of majority voting in the Council of Ministers, and appointed Lord Cockfield to head the “1992” market opening strategy, under the Commission presidency of Jacques Delors. When Delors launched his policy for a single currency, the Governor of the Bank of England backed him, as did all the Great and the Good in British society. Geoffrey Howe, the man who had written the Section 2.1. clause, helped to defenestrate Prime Minister Thatcher on the grounds that the UK had to be part of the single currency, which she opposed. Ken Clarke, a convinced supranationalist, ran public finances from 1993 to 1997. Tony Blair, also a convinced supranationalist, dominated British politics from 1997 to 2007. But he failed in his attempt to take the UK into the single currency. He did so because the supranational ideal in the UK enjoyed very limited resonance in the British public.

As Hans-Christoph Schröder has shown, this was nothing new: the origins of UK supranationalism were anti-democratic.[6]

[1]Lionel Robbins, The Economic Consequences of War, Howard Fertig, 1939.

[2]F.P.(60)1. February 24, 1960. Future Policy Study, 1960-70,



[5]See Jean-Philippe Derosier, Les Limites Constitutionelles à l’Intégration Européenne. Etude Comparée : Allemagne, France, Italie. Paris, Lextenso Editions, 2015.

[6]Hans-Christoph Schröder, Imperialismus und Anti-Demokratisches Denken: Alfred Milner’s Kritik am politischen System Englands, Wiesbaden, Franz Steiner, 1978.

About Jonathan Story, Professor Emeritus, INSEAD

Jonathan Story is Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at INSEAD. Prior to joining INSEAD in 1974, he worked in Brussels and Washington, where he obtained his PhD from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has held the Marusi Chair of Global Business at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and is currently Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Graduate Schoold of Business, Fordham University, New York. He is preparing a monograph on China’s impact on the world political economy, and another on a proposal for a contextual approach to business studies. He has a chapter forthcoming on the Euro crisis. His latest book is China UnCovered: What you need to know to do business in China, (FT/ Pearson’s, 2010) ( His previous books include “China: The Race to Market” (FT/Pearsons, 2003), The Frontiers of Fortune, (Pitman’s, 1999); and The Political Economy of Financial Integration in Europe : The Battle of the Systems,(MIT Press, 1998) on monetary union and financial markets in the EU, and co-authored with Ingo Walter of NYU. His books have been translated into French, Italian, German, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Arabic. He is also a co-author in the Oxford Handbook on Business and Government(2010), and has contributed numerous chapters in books and articles in professional journals. He is a regular contributor to newspapers, and has been four times winner of the European Case Clearing House “Best Case of the Year” award. His latest cases detail hotel investments in Egypt and Argentina, as well as a women’s garment manufacturer in Sri Lanka and a Chinese auto parts producer. He teaches courses on international business and the global political economy. At the INSEAD campus, in Fontainebleau and Singapore, he has taught European and world politics, markets, and business in the MBA, and PhD programs. He has taught on INSEAD’s flagship Advanced Management Programme for the last three decades, as well as on other Executive Development and Company Specific courses. Jonathan Story works with governments, international organisations and multinational corporations. He is married with four children, and, now, thirteen grandchildren. Besides English, he is fluent in French, German, Spanish, Italian, reads Portuguese and is learning Russian. He has a bass voice, and gives concerts, including Afro-American spirituals, Russian folk, classical opera and oratorio.
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