The joke's on EU: A cartoon history of the European Union

For half a century, the European Union's grey-faced bureaucrats and besuited scribes have inspired Fleet Street's greatest satirists. On the eve of a major exhibition, Katherine Butler introduces an illustrated history of a splendidly controversial institution

Friday 12 October 2007 10:55 BST

"Gentlemen, you're trying to negotiate something you will never be able to negotiate. If negotiated, it will not be ratified. And if ratified, it will not work." Thus spoke a British civil servant who was dispatched from London to Brussels to inform European ministers what Britain thought of plans for an ambitious new European treaty.

In pictures: A cartoon history of the European Union

Mr Russell Bretherton, the Whitehall official in question, we might safely imagine, was wearing a bowler hat and carrying a rolled umbrella as he flounced out of the negotiations. For this was 1955. The leaders of Europe's war-wounded Continental nations were hatching an exciting new project for economic co-operation that would be run by an "organisation of supranational character". Their noble aim was to make future wars between them impossible. Britain was suspicious, and sceptical, and would stand aloof.

On 1 January 2008, it is 50 years since the Treaty of Rome, which established the European Economic Community three years after Bretherton's outburst, came into force. It should also perhaps be a celebratory milestone for Britain: 25 years since this country overcame its own internal demons about sovereignty and insularity, and took its place as a full member state of what would eventually be called the European Union.

But if the 90 or so works that have gone on show in a new exhibition called Eurobo££ocks (a cartoon history of Britain's relationship with "Europe" over the last 50 years) is an accurate reflection, then there is not, frankly, a great deal to celebrate. A diplomat from another EU country commented of the cartoons in the exhibition: "They are all about Britain complaining!"

Indeed, while British Europhobes and Europhiles alike will be amused by the cartoon exaggerations: the long nose of De Gaulle, the foaming mouth of Mrs Thatcher, neither side will be able to avoid the conclusion: plus ça change.

Only this week Gordon Brown was at it again, tilting at windmills, threatening the uncomprehending foreigners, that he would veto the latest incarnation of the European treaty if they refused to bow to his so-called "red lines". And a few days later he was claiming "victory" in his battle over France and Germany in their efforts to outwit him.

Was it really ever thus? Were Britain and the rest of Europe always doomed, like an old married couple to a difficult, strained, uneasy pairing, never able to express their love for each other, but never quite able to imagine divorce either?

Back in 1957, the leading British newspaper cartoonists like David Low certainly depicted the matter as an on-again-off-again courtship. Harold Macmillan on bended knee clutching a bunch of flowers; the European Union a demure young lady seated on a couch. Macmillan had just proposed an alternative to the EEC: a looser free trade area that would allow Britain to retain its close connections with the Commonwealth. "Do I understand Harold," the young lady asks, "that you are proposing marriage, or just that we should live together?"

By 1961, Britain had come around to the idea of joining, applying formally to the EEC in 1961. Charles de Gaulle's famous "non" two years later came as an astonishing rebuff, a humiliation that would fester for years. De Gaulle declared, England is "in effect insular. England's nature, England's structure, England's very situation differs profoundly from those of the Continentals."

British indignation is captured brilliantly by a Leslie Illingworth cartoon for The Daily Mail in which Macmillan is a motorist, pointing a car laden with suitcases towards Europe. A signpost ahead reads: "United Europe, peace and prosperity," but a barrier formed by the elongated nose of De Gaulle blocks the way, keeping Britain firmly out.

The fog on the Channel lifted briefly in the early 1970s, after an initial worry that Britain would "break up" the EEC. But a bitter referendum campaign lay ahead. Already there were signs of growing resentment at the cost for Britain of funding Europe's "gravy train".

Margaret Thatcher was in favour of the European project when she arrived in Downing Street in 1979. But this was the start of the era when the relationship truly curdled like sour milk and gave the cartoonists plenty to draw. The Iron Lady is shown stepping off the plane from the 1984 Fontainebleau summit, all handbag and power suit, waving "her" money snatched back in the famous British "rebate". In a Steve Bell cartoon from the same era, Mrs Thatcher is Britannia being embraced by a cow, both foaming at the mouth.

The Major years are even worse, relations with Brussels at their lowest up summed up in cartoons about mad cows, the beef war, Tory party splits over Europe, and the debacle of Black Wednesday and Britain's exit from the ERM. In September 1996 Dave Brown in The Independent drew Major tossing a euro coin watched by his divided party, the caption: heads you lose, tails you lose. This, too, is the era in which a relentless succession of news stories about the evils of meddling Brussels banning curved bananas, imposing straight cucumbers and outlawing British prawn cocktail flavoured crisps gave the cartoonists rich material to play with.

But then a new dawn. Labour's victory in 1997, Tony Blair announces a step change. He will, he promises, put Britain "at the heart of Europe". The delight of Britain's European partners is short-lived. Dave Brown in The Independent tackles Labour's failure to challenge the Eurosceptic orthodoxy, now firmly embedded in the nation's psyche. Gordon Brown rules out membership of the euro in 1997 and is shown backside in the air, demonstrating to the assembled finance ministers of Europe how to stick your head in the sand like an Emu (a play on European Monetary Union).

For Anita O'Brien of the British Cartoon Museum, curating this exhibition showed just how enduring the themes underlying Britain's relationship with its European partners have been.

"The same issues come back again and again – isolation, opt-outs, rebates, victory and defeat, them and us, the Queen's head on the pound. Sovereignty is a big worry, but there is a great deal of apathy too." Indeed, a Ralph Steadman cartoon from 1979 makes much of the abysmal 32 per cent turnout in Britain for the very first elections to the European Parliament. The difficulty, O'Brien says, seems to stem from Britain sitting on the sidelines at the beginning. "You have to wonder what would have happened if Britain had come in at the start, and run the club on its terms."

Eurobo££ocks, Britain's relationship with "Europe" 1957-2007 is at the Cartoon Museum, 35 Little Russell Street, London WC1 until 20 January.

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