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Wrestling with jelly

Posted by Richard Thursday, November 04, 2004

Someone told me afterwards that I'd spoken in specifics whereas he'd spoken in generalities. And that's how it was. Until recently, Walter Schwimmer, Austrian born, had been secretary-general of the Council of Europe and he should have been in a position to give us chapter and verse on the "European project". But, in our debate last night, he did not.

Sitting in the "green room" with him just before the debate began, we got to talking about Strasbourg, where Schwimmer had been based – just across the river from the EU parliament. I told him that many times I had driven there and, with the journey from Calais almost exactly following the line of the 1914-18 Western Front, that we’d spent time visiting the battlefields, and especially Verdun.

There, the scene of such great slaughter in 1916, I told Schwimmer my belief that the battle spurred the intellectual birth of the European Union, when the French learned that warfare had become as much an industrial as a military enterprise. From this had stemmed the core idea that, by integrating the primary industries of war – the coal and steel industries – no country could have an independent capacity to go to war and the succession of "fratricidal" wars between France and Germany could be ended.

I could tell by his attention and body language that Schwimmer had never heard of this idea before, yet it should not have been news to him. This is a man who calls himself a European and has spent the better part of his career serving the European Council.

The relevance of this quickly became apparent when he started to speak. His history of the "project" began in 1945 and went from there. And locked into this time-frame, he entirely dismissed my argument that the sovereign nations of Europe could manage perfectly well by voluntarily co-operating on matters of mutual concern. That was an "illusion". Co-operation had been tried before and had failed. We needed something more, the EU with its supranational bodies to over-ride the nation states.

It is a bit rich having to give a 63-year-old, brought up in post-war Austria, a history lesson. But I had to remind him that it was the dictatorships of Europe – in Italy and Germany – that had failed to co-operate. Then, at the end of the Second World War, the allies had conquered and occupied Germany, imposing democracy on its peoples, and then keeping in place an army of occupation, which latterly became a defender of the democracy it had created. And democracies were able to co-operate.

But Schwimmer could not – or would not – see this. It was the European Union that had kept the peace, had made war impossible. As such, it had been a great success. And, for such a great reward as ever-lasting peace, the sacrifices were worth it. Despite its shortcomings, he said, it was "amazing what we've achieved since 1945."

I had opened my talk with a brief account of my recent experiences on the Fleetwood trawler, where we were forced by the CFP to dump thousands of juvenile fish into the sea, dead, and pointed out – having been armed by his book, "The European Dream" that, while he could have his dream, we had to deal with its consequences – in this case, slaughtering thousands of immature fish. I found it very difficult to see a connection between this and preventing the French and Germans slaughtering each other.

I would be tedious to give a blow-by-blow account of the rest of the debate, but the exchanges give you a flavour of the arguments: high-flown rhetoric versus down-to-earth reality. Oh yes, and we had "it can't be a superstate" because the commission only has a staff of 35,000. Myths galore, but nothing of substance – it was like wrestling with jelly.