Baron Christopher Samuel Tugendhat is a British Conservative politician and author. He was a Member of Parliament for Cities of London and Westminster from 1970 to 1977, then a member of the European Commission, serving as European Commissioner for Budget & Financial Control and Financial Institutions (1977-85) and First Vice- President of the European Commission (1981-85) and in 1993 was appointed as a life peer, with a seat in the House of Lords, in which he remains active.
Baron Tugendhat has just published his latest book “The Worm in the Apple – A History of the Conservative Party and Europe from Churchill to Cameron”. The Conservative Party have been in power for 47 of the 65 years since the end of the Second World War. During that time the division within the party over Europe has been the enduring drama of British politics – from Churchill’s decision not to join the original European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 to Cameron’s decision to hold an In/Out referendum in 2016. Other leaders came and went, but the issue was always there — sometimes centre-stage, at others behind the scenes — destabilising foreign policy, corroding the body politic, and destroying several of the party’s leaders.
It’s fascinating and very timely to analyse the long history of the relationship between the Conservative party and its relationship with the EU, and to use this understanding as a basis for the future relationship. Your book describes very well how the ongoing debate and perspectives on European unity started from the end of WWII and how the decisions made right from the start have an impact to the present day. How the foundation for the current perspective on the EU was established. What inspired you to write a book on this topic? What was your intention with it?
I published a book in 2019, a quite different source. And I had hoped to spend the summer of 2020, promoting it at literary festivals. Then of course, all the literary festivals were closed due to the pandemic. Then Peter Hennessy the contemporary historian and friend of mine, said to me that I probably have the longest continuous memory of anybody connected with the Conservative party and Europe, and, I am afraid, that is probably true.
He suggested that I should write a book going back to the beginning and to put recent events in to context. Now as it happens, which is quite by chance, the book is coming out this year which is the 50th anniversary of the passage through Parliament of the European Communities Act, which was the instrument that enabled us to join.
I was a young MP then and I voted in favour of it, and I’ve also lived to see the end of it. So I do cover a long span and I have always felt that although a great many mistakes were made by David Cameron in the period running up to the referendum, and although the referendum could have gone either way, the issues that underlay the problems reached their apotheosis.
It is important to see the events of 2016 and since then in the context of the historical background and that is what I wanted to do.
Most of all, I hope that by reading this people will learn some lessons for the future.
In the book you describe very clearly how every key moment in the history of the Conservative relationship with the EU, and how it could have been different – as you put it there were so many ‘what if’s’ – where slightly different decision would have affected significant outcomes in the long term. What in your view are the greatest ‘what if’ moments?
The greatest ‘what if’ moments are I believe the fact that Britain didn’t join the Coal and Steel Community in 1951 and didn’t join the EC in 1957. I think those are the biggest decisions that set up the relationship for the long-term.
The EU is the only international organisation that the UK has been a member of, but of which it has not been a founder member. The UK was a very influential founder member of the United Nations, of NATO, of IMF, of the World Bank, of the World Health Organisation, and of the European Convention on Human Rights, among others.
So when we joined the EU late in 1973, it had already developed an ethos and language and a sense of identity in which we had played no part.I believe that was a very key point at the beginning. I think the second key point was that British politicians could have been more frank with the British people about the effects of us joining.
At the time, the Lord Chancellor Lord Kilmuir who had been one of the architects of the European Convention on Human Rights and he was a strong advocate on joining the EU, said that all the implications, the changes in the balance of power in the parliament and in the courts, All those issues, which would cause so much trouble later on, should be laid before the British people and explained thoroughly.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, they were rather obfuscated of the full implications of joining and that created a sense in the minds of many people that they had been misled and they hadn’t realised what they were signing up to.
Now, neither of those events means that it was inevitable that we would in due course leave. If other things had gone differently, as I explained, we would have stayed, and all would have been well. But in terms of getting the enterprise off to a bad start, those two points are very important in my view.
In what ways do you think would the EU be different if the UK had joined right from the start?
The essence of the EU as it developed, is the Franco- German partnership. Now, obviously in historical terms it is a very good thing for historic enemies to cooperate, and for me it is the core of the EU.
But had we joined at the beginning, there would have been a threesome at the heart of the EU – Germany, France, and, of course, the UK.
As a result, I think that if we had joined at the beginning the EU would have taken on a less federalist character. The EU would have taken a stronger focus on the nation states rather than on the institutions. I don’t know what practical difference that would have made, but it would certainly have made a difference in the character of the EU.
Furthermore, if we had joined at the beginning, it might very well have been the case that the whole issue of foreign policy and defence would have developed earlier and more quickly. I cannot prove that is so, but I think that would very likely have happened.
We would probably also have seen an opening to the East earlier than it occurred, but those are hypotheses.
You also explain very well in your book how many leaders in London had the perception that European integration was not feasible on a significant scale, because of the perceived difficulties in overcoming historic animosity between European nations. As a result the UK had more faith, and more political investment, in global institutions like the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund and etc.
A persistent error in dealing with European partners has been to mischarge their seriousness. I mean at the beginning; it was assumed that these countries had been at war with each other so many times they would not be able to co-operate.
I think there was a feeling in London that Germany and France simply would not be able to work together as they did, and that’s a mistake that is recurring constantly. We’ve always underestimated the extent of the political commitment. The Eurozone is a good example – many people in this country and in the United States taught it was an impractical proposition and wouldn’t work.
The great genius of Monnet was to see that although Germany was on its back and a defeated nation it would in due course develop a strong economy, and that it would be strongly committed to Europe. The EU was a mechanism for harnessing that power to the general good and avoiding the rivalries of the past. And I’m afraid that in London, people did not show the same imagination as he did.
That is a very good point. Today we take it for granted that Germany and France are working closely together, but at the time it must have been a very revolutionary idea.
One of the great things about the European Union is that it has learnt from history. If you look back after the war of 1870-71 the Germans imposed severe reparations on France and following that France imposed reparations on Germany after WWI. The Treaty of Versailles humiliated Germany, but after 1945, thanks to the vision of people like Monnet and Schuman, the mistakes of the past were avoided and a new system of European unity was developed.
It wasn’t that the British were against that. It was that they didn’t believe that this mechanism would work, and that turned out to be a great mistake.
It’s quite fascinating that many other international organisations that were created around the same time have not had the same level of continuous growth as the EU in the long-term. The EU has taken a much greater scope in many areas than those originally envisaged in the European Coal and Steel Community. Why do you think the EU has had such a strong growth, especially after being seen as having relatively little potential?
I think there several key reasons. One is the fall of the Berlin Wall which made wider European integration possible. Secondly, the Treaty of Rome makes it clear that if a country is democratic, and it subscribes to the fundamental principles of EU, it has a right to join.
The best way of expanding the area of democracy and the rule of law and free markets and so forth was through expanding the EU. And that is why it’s so important that the dispute with Poland and with Hungary on these matters should be settled and that involves subscribing to certain ideas and values.
So it was the fall of the Berlin Wall coupled with the desire to bring countries into the mainstream of Europe that was key. I mean, if you look back to the beginning, Germany was a defeated nation and found their way back to respectability, back into the mainstream of European and international life.
Later with the fall of the dictatorships in Spain, Portugal and Greece, those countries saw that this is the best way to bring democracy and become part of the mainstream of European life. They also saw it as a way of guaranteeing democracy in those countries. Then with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Communism, the same principle applied to the countries that have formerly been part of the Soviet sphere of influence.
I think our readers will be especially interested in what you wrote about the European People’s Party and the decision of the Conservative Party to leave during David Cameron’s time. In your book you described very well examples of important decisions made at EPP events, by some of the most senior European politicians, such as key decisions made by Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy during EPP conferences.
I think that was a very big mistake, I’m not at all sure that he realised the importance of it.
He failed to realise that the EPP is much more than a network that covered people involved in European policies, but also national politics – it was a network in which friendships were formed and new ideas developed.
The EPP was a very important way of becoming part of the mainstream. It would have continued creating important personal relationships and, in the end, a lot of businesses done in the EU, at all levels, on the basis of long-standing friendships from which the Conservative Party excluded itself.
Now that Brexit has happened it seems some obstacles for working with the EPP have been removed – such as being political competitors during European elections. Do you see prospects for warming the relationships with the EPP now that we are outside of the EU?
Membership of the EU has been a controversial issue for a very long time. Now that we’re sadly no longer members. I think that associations can be formed that won’t carry the same implications, because we’re not part of the ongoing process.
These can be simple acts of friendship and cooperation. I think connections are all the more important because we are no longer here and they are going to be in some ways less difficult to carry forward, because people won’t be drawing conclusions.
For example, the UK has been working very closely with the EU to support Ukraine. We seem to be more aware of the fact that we are part of Europe and we need to work especially, as much as possible, with other people who make decisions that have significant consequences for Europe.
We’re holding this interview 14 days into the Russian war in Ukraine. How important is it for the UK and the EU too coordinate their response for maximum effectiveness in their support to Ukraine? Could this be a historic moment also for a stronger future relationship between the UK and the EU?
I would say at this stage when the divorce is still a recent memory, it’s wise to focus on political actions rather than particular structures.
It’s a matter of formulating coordinated responses in the economic field and military field. And then let’s see what emerges as potential structures based on the practical cooperation. Let’s build on practical cooperation rather than talking about theoretical structures. Once you’ve started talking about structures, then people talk about the implications and whether this is a reversal of the referendum.
If we talk in terms of responding to the crisis, then people will work together, and structures naturally emerge. I think this is a case for not laying down anything in advance but working as close as possible at the present time.
And I think that measures that we take together with the EU are much more likely to be effective. If they are coordinated and planned together than if they’re taken separately. We can see that it’s still possible and that there’s still a good communication and coordinated action.