Don’t think of who I once was. Reflect on who you are now, and who you would like to be in the future.”

—A tombstone found near Strasbourg

Tony Banks, Labour MP, was working himself into a telegenic lather in the House of Commons the other day. When I say telegenic, I don’t mean to imply that Banks was insincere; his rage positively reeked of sincerity. Who, he said, did this, this…greengrocer, who lived in Mexico and didn’t even pay tax in Britain, think he was an meddle in British affairs? It was an oddly snobbish thing to say about an international tycoon, and Banks spat out the word “greengrocer” as though selling food were a form of mass murder.

The greengrocer in question was Sir James (“Jimmy”) Goldsmith, Anglo-French businessman, member of the European Parliament, leader of the French L’Europe des Nations party and the British Referendum Party. The Referendum Party is actually not so much a party as an electric cattle prod to force the Conservatives to hold a referendum on Britain’s future in Europe. If the referendum is held, the party will cease to exist. Sir James is opposed to further European integration. He is, unusually for a global trader, against global free trade, and he wants to “encourage family units rooted in their own stable communities, bound together by ancestral cultures and confident in their traditions….” He thinks a federal Europe will destroy the “identity” of such communities. And so will global free trade, and too much immigration. “Market forces,” he says, “must be harnessed to the needs of stable communities.”1 Competition for cheap labor, in his view, will enrich big corporations, dislocate people in poor countries, and deprive European workers of jobs.

Since the Tories have so far refused to hold a referendum, Goldsmith has promised to spend twenty million pounds to field four hundred candidates in the next general election. They will be competing mostly for Tory votes. The candidates are, besides Sir James himself, a curious group, including some louche socialites, the odd celebrity, and retired army officers. One of Goldsmith’s most famous backers is the thriller writer Frederick Forsyth, whose views on Europe read like a blurb on one of his books: “Twice this century Germany has sought to impose a megastate on Europe, and twice is quite enough.”2 Fatally divided on the European question, the Tories stand little chance of being reelected as it is; Jimmy’s cattle prod might make it impossible. When John Major found out that a chunk of Goldsmith’s money was also being gratefully received by a Tory MP named Bill Cash, who started a European foundation against a federal Europe, he was as furious as Tony Banks. Not only was this suspiciously foreign tycoon buying himself into British politics, but he was paying MPs to undermine their own government.

While this was going on, the same government enraged the rest of the European Union by going to war over beef. It is a sordid story that sums up Britain’s current relations with the continent: for ten years the British government, keen to please Tory-voting cattle farmers, ignored expert warnings about BSE, or “mad cow disease.” It couldn’t affect other species, said the government. When it affected cats and pigs, we were assured that people could still eat beef without risk. When a dozen or so people died, the Health Secretary admitted there might be a connection after all. Consumers all over Europe panicked, the meat business collapsed, British beef, as well as British tallow and British bull semen, were banned on the continent, and Britain was asked to sort out its problem forthwith.

Nothing much was sorted out, but Major thought a good little war might rally the troops of his divided party, so a “war cabinet” was convened. Battle plans were drawn up. The Union Jack was waved on the front pages of tabloid newspapers. The public was informed that yet another Finest Hour was at hand. And for several weeks the British government blocked virtually all EU business, on which a unanimous vote was required. Among other things, Britain obstructed funds to support elections in Bosnia. The “Euro-skeptics” rejoiced, continental Europeans despaired. It was farcical enough reviving Churchill’s ghost for a tiny island off Argentina, but to do so for bull semen and hamburgers was pathetic. This was in June. Europeans are still quarreling about the number of cows to be culled.

Beef is not just any old product. Roast beef—honest, plain, robust—has long been a symbol of British identity, of the honest, plain, robust British spirit. Like “spirit,” identity is something intangible that people seek to defend or invoke, sometimes in a belligerent manner. The type of identity British (or English) nationalists want to defend against Europe might be gleaned from the tabloid press. On St. George’s Day (April 23), for example, the Sun (circulation over 4 million) likened the European Union to St. George’s dragon, which would “devour our national identity.” By signing up to “Brussels,” it said, we, the British, “are signing away our rights, our independence, our freedom, our culture. Everything that has been built up in a thousand years of civilisation is being tossed away.” But in the name of St. George and Winston Churchill, the dragon would be slain: “Let Britain lead the way—as it has done so many times before in Europe’s crisis hours.”


Euro-skeptic politicians make the same case, sometimes in less flowery terms. One of the young pretenders to John Major’s throne, John Redwood MP, also known as “Vulcan” for his resemblance to a humanoid in the TV show Star Trek, began his speech at last year’s Conservative Party Conference by saying: “I am glad I was born British.” His idea of Britishness is of course programmed by his party: it consists of a belief in the absolute sovereignty of Westminster, global free trade, the United Kingdom, and the transatlantic alliance. Labour politicians who believe in sharing sovereignty with the European Union, in constituting Scottish and Welsh parliaments, in regulating markets, and in less dependence on the special relationship with the US are at best not really British, at worst traitors, for, as Redwood put it: “They will be giving away our country.”3

Bill Cash, also known as “Crash” for being a crashing bore on the subject of “Europe,” is a walking advertisement for the British identity: a tall man with a wavy head of hair and a taste for loud pinstriped suits, stripey shirts, and wide shining banker’s ties. His message is much like Redwood’s. Both men say they want Britain to stay inside the European Union, but only if the Union were to be a free-trade association of sovereign states, the balance of whose powers would be maintained by Britain. Since this is unlikely to happen, many suspect they actually would prefer to see Britain leave the Union.

What, then, is a nice half-Jewish businessman of dual nationality like Sir James Goldsmith doing with these pinstriped defenders of free trade and national identity? How did a borderless takeover artist, a jet-setting ladies’ man with families in three different countries, a beneficiary of the global market, become a spokesman for ancestral cultures, protected markets, and rooted family values? Why does this member of the European Parliament in Strasbourg appear to hate the idea of a European federation so? The answers to these questions could tell us a few things, not only about Goldsmith himself, but about Britain, as well as the problems of nationality in Europe today. For the Goldsmith case, and indeed the British one, shows in a dramatic form what is simmering under the surface of all members of the Union.


If the Jews were the truest citizens of the Habsburg Empire, the Goldsmith family could be said to be true Europeans. Like the Rothschilds, the Goldschmidts were a banking family in Frankfurt, with business (and relatives) all over Europe. Sir James’s grandfather, Adolph Goldschmidt, married an English woman, Alice Emma Moses, moved to England, and adopted the airs of an English lord. He bought an estate in Suffolk; collected fine furniture, and played polo. German was only spoken when there were no guests at Cavenham Hall.4

Sir James’s father, Frank, changed the name to Goldsmith and ran for a London County Council seat in 1904, against George Bernard Shaw. He won. Shaw announced that “beauty had beaten brains”—a bit of an obsession with Shaw. Frank proceeded to do everything by the book: commission in a good regiment, seat on Westminster City Council, Free Masonry, Justice of the Peace, the right clubs in Pall Mall, friendships with the right people, including Winston Churchill, F.E. Smith, and Sir Edward Carson, the prosecutor who put Oscar Wilde away. Then, in 1914, his carefully constructed world came tumbling down. His sin was to have had a German—not Jewish—background, at a time when the Hun was the demonic enemy. Frank Goldsmith MP, the popular clubman, was suspected of being “pro-German.” There were riots against him in his constituency. His army commission was under threat. Some of his friends stuck by him but others shunned him at his club.

Frank still served as a major in the British army. In 1917, he marched into Jerusalem with General Allenby (and with my grandfather, a lowly stretcher-bearer named Schlesinger, who did not appear to have suffered from the anti-German hysteria, and remained a devoted British patriot all his life). But as soon as the war was over, Frank moved to France, where he married a French Catholic woman and became a successful hotelier, addressed as Monsieur le Major. Frank’s experience deeply hurt his old Anglophile father Adolph, who died in 1918, and would continue to haunt his youngest son, Jimmy.


Sir James’s relationship with upperclass England has always been a complicated mixture of ambition, paranoia, and rebellion. Like his friend Alan Clark,5 he is in the upper class, but not of it. The desire to avenge his father would seem to be as strong as his wish to be placed among the toffs. He has taken a singular delight in besting upper-class Englishmen in the City and at the gambling tables, and charming their wives and daughters. He named his first food company Cavenham Foods, after grandfather Adolph’s Suffolk estate. And he ran around with some of the gamier members of London society: Lord Lucan, the man who disappeared after braining his children’s nanny, mistaking her for his wife, was a crony. So is the casino owner and private zookeeper John Aspinall, or “Aspers,” who is running as a candidate for Goldsmith’s party.

The British establishment has always been deft at using talented outsiders, in exchange for titles, decorations, and other tokens of official flattery. While enriching himself, Goldsmith did not mind being used; a steady flow of cash has for years found its way into mostly Conservative coffers. He received his knighthood for “services to export and ecology” from Harold Wilson, a Labour prime minster, which might seem odd, but like Mrs. Thatcher Wilson rather favored talented outsiders and financial buccaneers. Still, fancy titles and lavish parties don’t automatically make one an insider at the great British clubs, and Wilson’s so-called “lavender list” was tainted anyway. Like some others on it, Goldsmith could never shake off a reputation for being a bit loose, a bit pushy, a bit too, well, how should one put this…rootlessly cosmopolitan, shall we say?

Nothing showed Goldsmith’s peculiar relations with England better than the Private Eye affair in the mid-1970s. Private Eye is a satirical magazine, run by former public schoolboys with a taste for malicious gossip and long liquid lunches. Its virtue is a healthy disrespect for authority. Its vices are the usual ones in school-boy England: proud philistinism, mild anti-Semitism, and jokey xenophobia. The magazine, under its then-editor Richard Ingrams, implied, without any evidence, that Goldsmith (“Lord Goldenballs”) had helped Lord Lucan get away after his nanny’s murder, and in another article, that he was involved in a business scandal. Goldsmith issued sixty-three libel writs. The falsity of the charges was established, but even so many thought that taking the action had been a mistake. For after many months of bitter wrangling, the case was settled out of court, and Goldsmith was seen as a powerful bully who had used his wealth to crush a bunch of cheeky tweakers of establishment noses. It wasn’t quite so simple, of course. In English society, Ingrams was the insider, not Goldsmith. Goldsmith thought his friends in high places would stand by him. But few of them did so, publicly at least. And Ingrams remarked that he disliked Goldsmith “not because he is a Jew but because he is a German.”6

Now, there is no need to feel sorry for Goldsmith. He has made billions, and owned at one time or another virtually anything money can buy. And with his Referendum Party he has also succeeded in rattling the British establishment more than Ingrams ever could. The question is why he should be so preoccupied by matters of blood and soil. You would have thought a Europe without nations would suit him better. So I asked him why, at his mansion in Paris, where one of his three families is splendidly installed. He sat opposite me, with one long leg draped across the side of his sofa, in that show of informality often displayed by English gentlemen at ease. The furniture was in the grand French style. To the left of Sir James’s sprawling leg was a huge bust of a Roman emperor. “There is a personal reason,” he said. “A thirsty man values water more. People who have a number of cultures realize their value.”

Goldsmith’s cultures are indeed a complicated mix. He told his biographer Geoffrey Wansell that “I’m a Jew to Catholics and a Catholic to Jews, an Englishman to the French and a Frenchman to the English. I’ve always been neither one thing nor the other.”7 Perhaps that explains the odd discrepancies between the English and French editions of his bestselling book The Trap, or Le Piège. Apart from the protectionist sentiments, the English book reads almost like a bible of British Euro-skepticism. But in Le Piège, Goldsmith insists that “European authorities need strong powers,” that British Tories suffer from “colonial nostalgia,” and that France offers the best hope for a European future.8 It is as though he were trying a bit too hard to be both one thing and the other.

The cosmopolitan in search of belonging is only part of the story, however. There is more to it than that. Like his brother Teddy, Goldsmith is an ardent ecologist, a contributor to such causes as protecting the rain forests. Teddy’s magazine, The Ecologist, financed in part by Sir James, often runs articles about rooted communities threatened by nuclear power, industrial development, international bureaucracy, or global trade. Like his friend “Aspers,” Sir James is an enthusiast of what he calls “primal societies,” where “man’s relationship with nature is not one of exploitation, but one of harmony.”9 There is a romantic streak shared by Sir James and his friends, which impels them to act as protectors of animals, tribes, traditional orders, and “authentic” communities against the “artificial” world of multinational corporations and international institutions, such as the European Union. The first sentence in an article on the EU published in The Ecologist is typical: “Europe is a construct, defined by economic and political interests rather than physical geography or a common ‘culture.’ “10

None of this clashes, in his own mind, with Goldsmith’s past as a corporate raider. He saw himself as a lone warrior battling big faceless corporations. He once compared financial marauders to sharks, who went after mullets, who killed anchovies. “The anchovies were liberated and thus the sharks saved the anchovies,” he said.11 Once a marauder, now a crusader. But even that is not the whole story. Goldsmith may speak up for anchovies, tribes, and nations, but he fears the excesses of nationalism. He explained that wars result from nations trying to get out of artificial states. He mentioned the usual examples: the Soviet Union, the Habsburg Empire, Yugoslavia. National feeling, he said, “goes deeper than rational political thought.” And if “those lunatics” in Brussels and Strasbourg “go ahead and build a European state, it’s a formula for disaster. It will destabilize European culture. Perhaps destroy Europe.”

When the Habsburg Empire was dismantled, nationalism indeed caused many disasters. Goldsmith’s view would be that the Empire should never have been constructed in the first place, since it was “artificial.” A better line of argument might be that federations, or empires, are bound to break down if they are neither liberal nor democratic. The Habsburg Empire was perhaps liberal, but not democratic. The Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were neither. What about the European Union? It is not an empire. It is not yet even a federation. If the British have their way, it never will be. If Helmut Kohl has his, it will. But would it be liberal and democratic?


If a European federation ever came into being, Strasbourg would be a perfect little Vienna. For if there is such a thing as “core Europe,” a phrase you keep hearing in Euro-circles, then Alsace, with Strasbourg (or Strassburg) as its capital, is it. The architecture is German, the people French. Strasbourg is where Goethe, as a student in the 1770s, fell on his knees in front of the Gothic cathedral, had visions of Nordic genius, and decided that “Gothic” Shakespeare was greater than classical Racine. Originally a Celtic village, then a Roman garrison town, then a free city of the Holy Roman Empire, then a Franco-German war zone, Strasbourg is now the Euro-city par excellence. This summer, with feasts of sauerkraut and foie gras, washed down with Riesling and beer, citizens of Alsace celebrated an important anniversary. In 1296 the Haute-Alsace was made into a state by a Habsburg king. It was one of the first pieces in the slowly emerging jigsaw puzzle of the Habsburg Empire.

The Council of Europe was founded in Strasbourg in 1949. That year, Winston Churchill spoke from a balcony on the Place Kléber to a huge cheering crowd. “People of Strasbourg,” he said in his finest English patrician manner, “prenez garde [take heed], I shall speak to you in French.” The crowd was delirious. Churchill told Europeans to unite, for only a united Europe could stand up to tyranny. Whether Britain ever was to be part of that United Europe was the question. Churchill, on the whole, thought not. But it was a Labour MP named MacKay who suggested that the Council of Europe should be accorded political authority, with limited but real powers. As it turned out, the Council (which should not be confused with the European Union) would be little more than a club of democratic nations discussing democracy. European identity, and human rights. Worthy topics all, but there is not very much the Council can do to advance them, except in the case of human rights. In 1953, the Council produced the European Convention on Human Rights. Judgments by the Human Rights Court in Strasbourg are binding on the member states.

Behind Churchill, on that balcony, stood a thirteen-year-old French boy named Francis Rosenstiel, who is now a high official of the Council of Europe. Through a combination of luck and extraordinary courage, he had survived the war with his immediate family, in Vichy, of all places, and in the French countryside. One afternoon in June 1944, at the time of the D-Day landings, the Gestapo finally caught up with the Rosenstiels in a tiny village in the Bourbonnais. They were locked up in separate rooms and interrogated. The seven-year-old Francis was beaten, as was the rest of his family. But they stuck to their story. The Gestapo was mistaken, they said. They were not Jews called Rosenstiel, but gentiles named Roux. When the Gestapo got tired of their handiwork, father Rosenstiel, with extreme sang-froid, produced a bottle of liquor from the kitchen cupboard and offered drinks all round, so his interrogators might relax after a hard day of fruitless labor. The Rosenstiels were saved.

Because of this experience, Francis Rosenstiel took the opposite route from Sir James Goldsmith. Both are French, both come from Frankfurt Jewish families. And both know what it is like to “have a number of cultures.” Rosenstiel, whose mother was from Alsace, constantly switches from French to English to German, as though they were one European language. Both understand the dangers of nationalism. But Goldsmith chose to be on the side of nations, while Rosenstiel became a convinced European federalist, and joined the Council of Europe in 1965.

We were sitting in his Strasbourg office. There was no bust of a Roman emperor, but a photograph of Churchill smoking a cigar. Rosenstiel shares Goldsmith’s taste for beautifully made suits. And he has an appetite for rich food and fine wines. Having been so close to death, he clearly takes a sensual pleasure in life. He said: “My escape in 1944 marked me and made me open to a European experiment. Anything but the European experience I went through was bound to be better.”

Helmut Kohl, another healthy eater, was never in danger (except perhaps from Allied bombs), but he too is a product of “core Europe,” and his enthusiasm for a federal Europe is equally a result of the war. The same was true of the two main architects of pan-European institutions, Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman. Born in Luxembourg, Schuman was a former member of the Resistance and prisoner of the Gestapo. He put the case succinctly in 1950: “For peace to have a real chance of succeeding, we must first have one Europe.”12 To be sure, there were other reasons why the European communities came about. West Germany needed the cover of Europe (and the cooperation of France) to regain its national sovereignty. As Goldsmith put it, characteristically: “Germany needed France, rather as a nouveau riche needs a grand mistress.” France wanted to tie Germany down to feel safe. And all Western Europeans felt they needed a European alliance against the Soviet Empire. But the war trauma shared by Rosenstiel’s (and Kohl’s) generation was the real driving force. It is what fueled the European dream.

However, the effect of this trauma has begun to wear off, and the Soviet Empire is no more. Fear is no longer enough to drive European integration forward. Kohl is the last European leader with memories of the war. The federalist argument is becoming a bit muted, old hat, almost apologetic. Which is why Rosenstiel is such an interesting figure, for he is a Eurocrat who still believes in a federation, and will say so. He is disappointed by “the revival of old concepts of sovereignty that we had discarded in 1945.” He sees in Eastern Europe “a dramatization of sovereignty and identity.” Not only in Eastern Europe, of course. He might have mentioned Britain as well. In fact, there is growing skepticism about a European federation everywhere—in Bavaria, in France, in Denmark, even in Euro-friendly Holland. What we are seeing, now that memories of Hitler’s Europe are fading, are the flaws that were in the noble European ideal from the beginning.

Part of that ideal was to escape from nationalism, from politics that divide friends from foes, from fighting over resources, and ideally from conflicts altogether. There would be common European interests now. When I asked Rosenstiel whether he had ever thought of going into politics, he gave a revealing answer. “Not really,” he said, “for in politics you have to choose one thing or another; only in a federation can you choose various things at the same time.” Politics, to Rosenstiel, are a “mechanical” thing, a tool. This mechanical approach worked well in Strasbourg, the core of “core Europe.” In 1945, said Rosenstiel, the atmosphere in Strasbourg was terrible. Mutual suspicions were deep. Jewish survivors were not welcome. Who had done what to whom in the war was a question that easily could have torn the society apart. So people decided on what Rosenstiel describes as “a consensus of artificiality—a conscious effort to integrate Protestants, Catholics and Jews.” It works well, he said, “because it’s artificial, because it’s based on reason.”

A similar consensus of artificiality was supposed to work in a wider Europe. Pan-European institutions, such as the European Coal and Steel Community or the European Economic Community, were set up for technological and economic purposes, but also in preparation of a federal state. The aim was political, but the politics were often disguised as economic measures. So instead of a federal European government, there are quasi-governmental organizations. The European Commission in Brussels has been described as “a civil service with attitude.”13 Its members are appointed by the national governments. Ministers from the national governments meet in the Council of Ministers, also in Brussels, and act as a quasi cabinet, horse-trading in smoke-filled rooms. The European Parliament, which meets once a month in Strasbourg, is the only elected institution, supposed to make the whole enterprise look democratic. The Commission proposes Euro-laws, and the Council adopts them, but only after Parliament has been consulted.

Since the European communities, beginning with the European Coal and Steel Community, never constituted a democracy, decisions were made to encourage efficiency and harmony, not democracy. Jean Monnet, who admired British and American democracies, was not interested in reproducing their institutions on a European level. On Europe, he thought like a French administrator. And like Rosenstiel, he was always conscious of the war. In 1940, he was keen for France and Britain to merge into one nation—an idea taken seriously, for a little while, by Churchill and De Gaulle. “I think,” wrote Monnet in his Mémoires, “those days in June 1940 profoundly influenced my views on international action. Too often I had seen the limitations of coordination. It is a method that favors discussion, but does not produce decisions. It does not enable relations between men and nations to be transformed in circumstances where union is necessary. It is the expression of national power, such as it is; it cannot change it, and never achieves unity.”14

Here we have just the kind of French political idealism which, however nobly inspired, is peculiarly incompatible with British liberalism, both in the classical, nineteenth-century laissez-faire sense of the word and the modern sense of pluralism and open debate. Alexander Herzen already observed in the mid-nineteenth century how French-style administration didn’t work in Switzerland and wouldn’t work in Britain: “Centralisation may do a great deal for order and for various public undertakings, but it is incompatible with freedom. It easily brings nations to the conditions of a well-tended flock, or a pack of hounds cleverly kept in order by a huntsman.”15 Order and public undertakings are of course precisely what the European Communities were all about. It is what European Christian Democracy and socialism is sometimes about too, but not what British liberalism is about.

Some undertakings—the single European market, for example—have been very successful, but the ultimate aim of a European federal state is still a long way off I asked Rosenstiel what he thought had gone wrong. He gave an almost Euro-skeptical answer: “Europe has cheated about the nature of power, of which it wanted to impose a sanitized version. It wanted to question the notion of state power and sovereignty. But by giving authority to organizations which should have obeyed political authorities, it has eroded democracy. It is even worse when you wrap this up in a pseudo-democratic envelope, like the European Parliament.”

He compared the European Parliament to a model, a “maquette,” a mock-up of a Spitfire: “It looks like a Spitfire, but it doesn’t shoot. No Germans die—and no British either, by the way….” But even though he admits that European institutions are artificial constructs, which, in his words, “lack guts,” his solution is the opposite of that proposed by Goldsmith and other Euro-skeptics. He distrusts the politics of guts. Guts can lead to pogroms. It’s better to have artificial constructs than be delivered to natural forces, but you have to go the whole way. Like Monnet, Rosenstiel thinks we should “create a fait accompli, a situation of no return. We should build a political Europe as soon as possible, even if it’s imperfect. Perfection is for the church.”

What we have now is indeed far from perfect: the bones of a pseudo-state, without a nation, a would-be Europe, without a European people. We don’t even know at the moment how many nations would—or could—go into a federal Europe: fifteen, or twenty-two, or perhaps a “core Europe,” after all, of only six, with the rest hovering around in an association?

There are, I suppose, natural citizens of the European Union. In fact, they are not so much citizens—for there is no state—as Euro-grandees. The former British prime minister Edward Heath would be one. He negotiated Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community. He enjoys planning our common future with fellow grand seigneurs and dames of Europe. He loves that elusive thing called European culture—as well as the rich food and the fine wines. And despite being English, he has the instincts of a French autocrat. When asked in a recent interview whether the “democratic base” of the EU should be broadened, he shook his head and called for more regular meetings between heads of government: “We need to get that top pinnacle in place.” As for the accusation that the public was kept in the dark about the political aims of the community in the 1970s, he said the “people who follow these things understood it.”16

But of course most people don’t follow these things. Most people find the European project a big bore. And the members of the European Parliament are well aware of this. They are elected, but not taken very seriously. Their buildings are grand, but the issues they debate, in every language of the EU, are often—not always—trivial: a law to ban the souping-up of motorcycle engines, or the reduction of carbon-dioxide emissions from domestic refrigerators, that sort of thing. Parliament can suggest amendments to bills proposed by the Commission in Brussels, and reject them by an absolute majority of its members. It can also veto the EU budget. That is the extent of its powers. Large institutions, remote from public scrutiny, often breed cynicism and corruption. Walking through the halls and cafeterias of the Strasbourg Parliament with experienced observers is like being led through a den of thieves. Southerners in sunglasses and diamond pinkie rings are pointed out with a knowing wink; shifty-looking northerners give rise to whispered rumors about inflated expense accounts and lucrative lobbies.

The Parliament is a wonderful club for politicians and other notables in their twilight years. You will meet Léo Tindemans, the former Belgian prime minister, there, or Valéry Giscard-d’Estaing, or, if you’re lucky, the Greek pop singer, Nana Mouskouri, famous for her black-rimmed glasses. One of the more impressive old-timers is Dr. Otto von Habsburg, the last pretender to the Habsburg throne. He once likened the European Parliament to Mark Twain’s description of the Viennese parliament at the time of Emperor Franz Josef—except that the latter tower of Babel had to do without an army of interpreters. And you might of course meet Sir James Goldsmith himself, who was elected as a French Euro-MP in 1994, and is using the Parliament as a platform to undermine its raison d’être.

But to say that some parliamentarians have questionable motives is not an argument against parliamentary government in principle. Compared to congressional lobbying in Washington, or the corruption in the Japanese Diet, Strasbourg does not sound all that bad. The problem with the European parliament is not venality but its remoteness, its air of being no more than window-dressing, its lack of meaning for most European voters. The European Parliament would make sense if there were a European federal government. But a federal government cannot be based on ideals of peace and harmony, or fear of another war, or business efficiency, or some vague idea of defending European values.

I heard a British Euro-MP named John Stevens express the opinion that the West is in a confrontation with the East, and that “Western culture can only be saved in Europe, the core.” The US, he said, “is becoming more and more Eastern.” A Kulturkampf is in fact the worst reason for establishing a parliamentary government. Political institutions established to save cultures tend not to be on the liberal or democratic side. For a democratic European Federation to work, and be supported by the voters, it would have to protect our freedoms better than national parliaments are able to do now. And that is one thing the English in particular will be very hard pushed to accept.


“The Englishman’s liberty,” wrote Alexander Herzen, “is more in his institutions than in himself or in his conscience. His freedom is in the ‘common law’, in habeas corpus, not in his morals or his way of thinking.” Most people in England—Scotland being another matter—still believe that Britain is the freest place in Europe, and that this freedom is guaranteed by the sovereignty of Westminster. Individual politicians may be despised, even loathed, but the institution is respected. The same principle still applies to the monarchy. And many Europeans, especially of the wartime and immediate postwar generations, went along with this English view of themselves.

I was born six years after the war in the Netherlands. My father is Dutch, my mother was British. Her grandparents came from the same Frankfurt neighborhood as the Goldschmidts and the Rosenstiels. Neither Sir James nor Francis Rosenstiel felt like complete strangers to me. But it was a television interview with Max Kohnstamm, one of the chief Dutch negotiators in Europe between 1948 and 1952,that made me realize how much I too was marked by history. He was talking about the times in the late Forties and early Fifties when Britain refused to take efforts to build a European community seriously. Britain could have led Western Europe, and affected its future arrangements. But Britain turned the opportunity down, with half-amused disdain, like a tired adult refusing to join in a children’s game. In 1955, the European ministers of foreign affairs planned to meet in Sicily to decide on the future shape of Europe. Harold Macmillan, then foreign secretary, gave instructions to “tell them I’m busy with Cyprus.”

Max Kohnstamm remembered his alarm: “Never forget that for the Dutch to go into an alliance, or more than an alliance, a kind of beginning federation, with the French we distrusted, the Italians we thought were no good, and the Germans we fundamentally feared, without the Brits—that was a crazy enterprise!”17

Most liberal Dutchmen would have shared his opinion, and to some extent, despite Beef Wars and other shenanigans, still do, because of Britain’s traditions of liberty and parliamentary rule. These would be the necessary counter-weight to French statism and latent German authoritarianism. Britain could guarantee a free and open Europe. The problem lies in the word”tradition.” Most people in England, and Conservatives in particular, believe not only that they belong to the freest country in Europe, but that their freedoms are based on customs and traditions that grew over time, like a variety of roses which happened to do well on English clay but couldn’t be transplanted, or even properly appreciated anywhere else. They are unique, and to share sovereignty with institutions on foreign soil would destroy not only these traditional freedoms but the very roots of the English identity. So we are back with guts, spirit,and natural forces again.

Of course, this has been said before by foreigners as well. Auguste Comte, who disapproved of parliamentary democracy, regarded it as a British aberration, made possible only by Britain’s insular isolation from Europe.18 But the British who argue this case most vehemently are precisely those whose lives and careers are most intimately connected to the institutions they wish to preserve, namely the parliamentarians themselves and the political journalists, on whose opinions the politicians increasingly depend. Britain is perhaps the only country in Europe which has a strongly developed sense of parliamentary nationalism. Germany has music, France has Voltaire, and Britain has Westminster.

However emotive their rhetoric, selfseeking their motives, and absurd their taste in suits, the Westminster nationalists have a case that must be answered. Why should the British transfer sovereignty to institutions which are unfamiliar and often unaccountable? Even Jacques Delors, the former president of the European Commission and keenest of French Eurocrats, admits that the European project has been “unattended by any recognition of this economic entity’s growing need to guarantee its democratic legitimacy and political survival.”19 If Westminster works, why dilute its authority?

One answer would be that British governments, like other governments, have already signed away too much authority to the European Union, which is not properly checked by elected institutions, either in Europe or at home. And more—a central bank, a common currency, common defense—might well be on the way. So either you take those powers back, which is difficult to do without leaving the Union, or you strengthen democratic institutions, at a national and European level. And besides, Westminster does not work so well any longer. A number of factors have undermined its effectiveness, and thus British liberal democracy too. More and more, especially during the Thatcher years, Parliament has been ignored by cabinets, which sometimes behave like elected juntas. And because of the first-past-the-post electoral system, they are often juntas elected by a minority. More and more laws and regulations, drawn up by Whitehall civil servants, pass by Parliament without proper scrutiny. More and more unelected bodies have taken over the tasks of local government. Finally, like everywhere else, the effects of multinational trade, international bureaucracies, and supranational banks have weakened the power of elected politicians to affect the lives of their voters. The resulting sense of political impotence is blamed on “Europe.”20 And blaming “Europe” is a convenient excuse to avoid making necessary changes in political institutions at home.

Now “Europe,” as far as individual rights and liberties are concerned, is not necessarily less liberal or humane than Britain. To the chagrin of the Tory government, British lawyers in human rights cases are turning increasingly to the European Commission and Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. A recent example was the case of two eleven-year-old boys convicted in 1993, in an adult court, for the murder of a toddler. The British judges gave them eight years, but the right-wing Home Secretary, Michael Howard, under pressure of public opinion, raised the sentence to a minimum of fifteen years. The European Commission of Human Rights found that the Home Secretary had no right to decide when juvenile criminals should be released. Howard argued that this was an attack on the sovereignty of parliament; in fact, it was a challenge to the arbitrary powers of a cabinet minister.

Blaming “Europe” for the erosion of democracy at home is easy, for “Brussels” is sufficiently vague, foreign, and bureaucratic to feel threatening. Working toward an elected federal government in Europe might be the logical answer in the long run, but it has little popular appeal in England as yet. Or France, for that matter, but at least a French politician can discuss a federal future positively without being branded a traitor. As Rosenstiel said, Europe lacks “guts.” But then so did the United Kingdom. There is no UK “spirit,” no roast beef and olde UK. Union Jackwaving Tories defend the British Union precisely because it is an example of different nations ending years of violent conflict by establishing a common government. The UK was an artificial construct, not a romance of blood and soil. It has been held together by monarchy, Parliament, and the common interests of war, trade, and empire. But since Westminster is seen as increasingly flawed, the empire has gone, and the Tory party has become more English and less British, a growing number of Scots and Welsh would prefer to be represented in Brussels, rather than London.

Westminster nationalism remains strong in England for two reasons; because many English think they live in the freest country in Europe, and because England dominates the British Union, just as Germany would be the strongest nation in a European Union. Even though it might be better to share power with Germany in a democratic federation, instead of trying to contain it in a Europe of nations, this is not a case many English politicians will make in public. A European federation, especially one that strengthened regional governments, would bring English (and with it Tory) domination to an end. And as long as Tory Europhiles cannot make a positive case for a democratic Europe, the Euro-skeptics have the advantage.

Britain’s relations with Europe, then, are caught in a paradox. Because the British have such a strong tradition of individual liberties, protected by political institutions, their defense of these institutions is stubborn to the point of cussedness, especially if they’re English. This makes them excellent spoilers of European utopian dreams. But England’s basic insularity, which has acted in the past to preserve much that was bad or outdated, but also kept out a lot that was worse, is now turning sour. When the emphasis falls on Englishness, instead of on liberties, Westminster nationalism becomes intolerant, xenophobic, and vainglorious. This could lead to just the thing Max Kohnstamm feared: Britain on the sidelines, barely taken seriously, or even, it is not impossible, outside Europe altogether. The British, whom Kohnstamm, Tindemans, Rosenstiel, and other European liberals saw as the champions of European freedom, are beginning to resemble the Germans under the Kaiser, fretting obsessively about national identity, and prone to start good little wars, even if they are just about semen and beef.

Maybe things will be easier under a Labour government, which has far more voters in Scotland and Wales than the Conservatives, and is, in any case, more in line with continental social-democratic or Christian-democratic thinking: regulated markets, collectivist planning, and so on. Helmut Kohl, for one, is fed up with British Conservatives. In June he gave the Labour leader Tony Blair an unusually warm reception in Bonn. Grinning furiously in a photo op with the German chancellor, Blair promised that Labour Britain would no longer be “skulking on the sidelines” of Europe. Perhaps not, but don’t count on it. Blair’s strategy is to go for the English voters. And the July issue of the Labour Party newspaper, The Tribune, had as its main feature an admiring interview with a leading Euro-skeptic, who denounced (in an impeccable English accent) the Maastricht Treaty as an example of federalism “by subterfuge.” His name: Sir James Goldsmith.

September 19, 1996

This Issue

October 17, 1996