Europe : The great debate : How a Big Idea became a Bad Thing

1. Origins. The Second Great European Misunderstanding (1939-45) is generally judged to have been a Bad Thing, and a number of people decide that to have a third might be rather de trop. They found the Council of Europe, a means of stopping war by having meetings. It works. But some want to go further, notably the visionaries Jean Monnet, Paul-Henri Spaak and Robert Schuman. They are called the Founding Fathers, even before they have founded anything. All of them are foreign, something which the shrewd British notice very quickly.

2. Early Days. The Six (France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) set out on the road to federal union. Showing an early preference for acronyms, the Fathers found the ECSC (the European Coal and Steel Community) in 1951, a device to prevent war by making it all much too complicated, and the EEC (European Economic Community) in 1957, a means of preventing conflict by giving large amounts of money to farmers. It works. Still no war.

3. British Reserve. With that steely-eyed insight and unyielding vision for which they are famed, the British decide that this Europe thing will never work. They invent, instead, their own Europe thing in 1960, with its own even better acronym, EFTA (the European Free Trade Association). This unites Scandinavia and Britain with Switzerland, a historic union of countries which have only one thing in common: they are members of EFTA. English is the common language, however, so the organisation has some good points, despite the number of foreigners involved.

4. The drive to federalism. General De Gaulle, a devoted fan of the European Vision, shows his dedication to the idea by deciding in 1966 that the French will boycott meetings, which demonstrates the eternal French commitment to Europe. It results in the Luxembourg Compromise, which means that, henceforth, France can do what it wants, especially in Luxembourg. The ECSC and the EEC are united with something called Euratom to create a Single European Acronym, the EC (or CE if you are French). Federalism starts to move into action, or, as they say in Brussels, the train is leaving the station.

5. British Reserve Drops. With that steely-eyed insight and unyielding vision for which they are famed, the British decide that EFTA has no future and join the EC, or the Common Market as they prefer to call it. They are rebuffed by General De Gaulle. He dies, however, and in 1973 both Britain and the other Europeans run out of excuses for not going ahead. A referendum fails to change this, to the unhappiness of many on both sides of the Channel. Margaret Thatcher is elected to power in Britain, to the unhappiness of many on both sides of the Channel.

6. The New Boys. Having accepted Britain, Ireland and Denmark, Europe gets an appetite and swallows up Greece in 1981, followed by Spain and Portugal. To prevent war with these countries, it is necessary to pay them quite large sums of cash. So the EU goes looking for some richer countries not to fight wars with, bringing in Sweden, Finland and Austria in 1994. Norway and Switzerland remain aloof (and extremely rich, but with the ever-present threat that they may fight a war with each other). The Six have by now become the Fifteen, and everything gets more complicated. There isn't enough car-parking space, and it takes up to half an hour to get a steak and chips in the staff canteen.

7. The Great Leap Forward. The Single Market is to be created by 1992, allowing a light bulb made in Essen to be sold in a shop in Ealing. This exciting vision is acclaimed throughout the continent as an obvious way to stop war. However, in order to do it, national vetoes are removed in some policy areas and majority voting starts to become the norm. Margaret Thatcher is apparently not looking when this is done, but later on someone tells her and she is furious. The possibility of war starts to appear more attractive in London.

8. The Second Great Leap Forward. The EC decides to create the Maastricht treaty, and the Dutch town of the same name seems the obvious place to do it. Subsidiarity is acclaimed. There is to be a single currency for Europe, vetoes are further reduced, and the EU starts to create a joint foreign policy. It is deemed a good time to change acronyms again, and so the EU is born. John Major says that it is Game, Set and Match, introducing a confusing tennis metaphor just when everyone had started to understand all the stuff about trains leaving the station.

9. Look Before You Leap. Denmark nearly scuppers the Maastricht treaty, France seems not very keen, Britain huffs and puffs and Germany consults the constitutional court. So it is not Game, Set, and Match at all, but Rain Stopped Play. The train is stuck in the sidings. The Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) of the European Monetary System (EMS) blows up, probably because it has two acronyms. Recession, unemployment, and racist violence stalk the continent. There is, worst of all, a war in Bosnia. The EU is furious, though of course Bosnia was not a member and so that just proves how effective the EU is at preventing war.

10. The Third Great Leap Forward. By the end of the century, there is to be a single currency for Europe; central and eastern Europe are to join (probably); and there will be an Ever-Closer Union. All of this is to be decided in another treaty in 1996 which some people call Maastricht II, although this time it is thought unnecessary to actually go to the Netherlands, what with the food not being that great. Then there is beef, and there is a war. This is a Bad Thing.