Clement Attlee enjoyed the superiority of a postwar Englishman when he dismissed European unity in 1967 with a contemptuous sniff. “The Common Market. The so-called Common Market of six nations. Know them all well. Very recently, this country spent a great deal of blood and treasure rescuing four of ’em from attacks by the other two.” For Germany and Italy, which had suffered under fascist dictatorships, and for France, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, which had suffered under fascist occupation, there was nothing in the war years to be superior about. The Common Market promised liberation from a terrible past. And continued to promise it.
Greece, Portugal and Spain confirmed their break with dictatorship and reaction when they joined. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe expanded its borders by offering the once subject peoples of the communist empire a better life in a democratic haven. Nazis and communists never occupied Britain. Our leaders sold us Europe as a smart investment opportunity rather than a democratic advance and we never felt the idealism behind European dream. Lech Walesa knew better. On the eve of Poland’s accession, he said: “I fought for our country to recover everything it lost under communism and the Soviets… and now my struggle is over. My ship has come to port.”
Europe replaced the terrors of totalitarianism with human rights conventions and peace treaties. It is easy to become exasperated by the monotony of its composite resolutions and interminable meetings. But tens of millions accepted the chance of trading national sovereignty for freedom from the dictatorships of their day.
That deal is no longer on offer.