William Cook

British Europhiles should welcome Brexit. Here’s why

British Europhiles should welcome Brexit. Here's why
Text settings

In the historic heart of Luxembourg, around the corner from the Grand Ducal Palace, there is a site which demonstrates why Britons will never be good Europeans. The Maison de l’Union Européenne houses the information centre for the various European institutions here in Luxembourg, and even British Remainers will find its attitudes entirely different from their own. The vision it presents is pan European, an entire continent without borders. These are the ‘citizens of nowhere’ that Mrs May warned us about.

Since the referendum, British attitudes towards the EU have polarised. Either it’s a great force for good, and leaving will be a disaster (say some Remainers) or it’s a corrupt racket on the verge of collapse, and it’s vital we get out while we still can (so say some of the Brexiteers). Yet returning here after a year away, it strikes me that the truth may actually lie somewhere in between. For the fact of the matter is that the EU works very well indeed for Luxembourg, for much the same reasons that it’s never worked so well for Britain.

Luxembourg is tiny – you can drive across it in an hour – but it’s always had a strategic importance quite out of keeping with its compact size. During the Middle Ages it included large parts of modern France, Belgium and Germany, and its fortified capital was more or less impregnable. Whoever controlled Luxembourg controlled Europe, so the French and Germans (and virtually everyone else) fought over it for centuries, until the British cut it down to size and decreed that it should remain neutral forever more.

When the Brits destroyed Luxembourg’s fortifications, rendering the city indefensible, we didn’t realise we were laying the foundations for a European superstate. Occupied by the Germans in both World Wars, the Grand Duchy became a battlefield. Too late, Luxembourgers realised that neutrality was no defence. They had to try something new, and the man who showed them the way ahead was a local lad called Robert Schuman.

Robert Schuman was born in Clausen, a quaint suburb of Luxembourg City, in 1886. His mother was from Luxembourg. His father was from Lorraine, which was then part of Germany. Like most Luxembourgers, he grew up speaking French and German, and the local language, Luxembourgish. He studied law in France and Germany. After the First World War, Lorraine was returned to France, and Schuman became a French citizen. He became a politician in Paris. During the Second World War he was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo. He escaped and joined the French Resistance.

After the war, Schuman re-entered French politics. Together with Jean Monnet, he created the European Coal & Steel Community, which was the forerunner of today’s EU. Right from the start, this was a political project – not just an economic one. By pooling coal and steel production, Monnet and Schuman ensured that France and Germany could never go to war again.

Today, Luxembourg is the richest country in Europe, per capita, and one of the richest in the world. Yet although it’s a net contributor to the EU budget, the European Union is more popular here than in any other EU country. It’s easy to see why. Small countries like being EU members. It gives them strength in numbers, and the sort of diplomatic clout they’d never enjoy alone.

Only half a million people live in Luxembourg, but that number doubles every day, as half a million commuters enter the Grand Duchy from several surrounding countries. The economy is so dynamic that there are too many jobs and not enough people. House prices and rental rates are on a par with London, so many workers live across the borders, in France, Belgium and Germany. The idea of border checks seems crazy. For these countries to share the same currency makes perfect sense. This is why EU membership suits Luxembourg, and why it’s never really suited Britain. De Gaulle was right. We’ve never shared the common history this grand projet required.

Beside the Pont Grande-Duchesse Charlotte, one of several huge bridges that straddle the deep ravines that surround the city, there is a monument to Robert Schuman which encapsulates this great divide – between the European way of seeing things and the way most Britons see them. The monument is a cluster of steel girders, ending in six points – one for each of the founder members of the European Coal & Steel Community: Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

The inscription on the base is from the landmark declaration of 1950: ‘Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.’ In Britain that solidarity was never there, however much Remainers like me might wish it so. Schuman’s project never could have prospered with so many reluctant Britons in the party. And that’s why, in the end, British Europhiles should welcome Brexit. Only with Britain out of it will Europe be able to see his vision through.