European Topics

The General Election that returned a Labour Government to the British House of Commons did little to clarify the divisive issues related to Britain's future within the European Union... What new comment emerged demonstrated only that at election time all parties tend towards consensus on European problems, anxious not to be left alone to battle for the minds of the sceptical electorate...

William Forbes, a longtime resident in the Benelux area, contributed some historical aspects of the problems of Europe's unification... We republish his article here because the issues are as important and as divisive as ever.

A View from Maastricht

Towards a United Europe

EASTER ~ and this was the first meeting for all seven of us since Christmas. Rumigny was late, but he has an odd view of time and is easily confused.

So we were sat on the sunny side of the Vrijthof, the shadow of Sint Servaas pointing towards us, drinking Dutch coffee and French cognac, listening to the chatter of the season's first tourists as they sought empty chairs on the crowded pavement... One had said it was like Paris and raised the eyebrows of de Sapinmont as he nodded towards me to indicate that this was another of my ignorant compatriots.

You see, said Gordinne... No one understands Maastricht... Maastricht is French... Until two generations ago, the middle classes here spoke French in their homes, not Dutch.

But at Heerlen, said von Tennenberg, only twenty kilometres east of here, the middle classes spoke German, not Dutch... And this is the Europe they want to unite.

Unity will come, my friend, said Tirlemont... Today all Maastrichters and all Heerleners speak Dutch at home... And they speak English at work... And they watch television in Dutch and English and French and German... The common languages create unity.

The Benelux grouping is fifty years old, said von Tennenberg... It was the basis for the Common Market, which became the basis for the European Union... But even in the Benelux there is no unity... The Belgian Government complains that Luxembourg banks help Belgians avoid taxes and that Dutch laws help Belgians smuggle drugs... And look at the different ways in which the Dutch and Belgians treat criminals... The Dutch are always ready to blame "society" for the growth in crime... "We are all guilty," the magistrates and social workers say... So criminals are treated leniently... In Belgium the criminals are either ignored or they are treated harshly... How can such divergent attitudes be harmonised and integrated?

Oh, you can go further than that, said van Amstel... Belgium itself is not united... It's at war with itself, Flemish against Walloons... Flanders is rich, economically progressive, while down in the south the French-speakers have been impoverished by their regional governments subsidising heavy industries that were bankrupt decades ago... Brussels sits in the middle and listens to European Union bureaucrats plot unity while other Belgians talk about a disintegration that will give independence to Flanders and unite the Walloons with France.

That will never happen, said Tirlemont.

He is our token optimist and is much more at home in Brussels... His arguments in favour of a truly united Europe are always intellectually sound and very persuasive ~ until one remembers the temptations faced by the nomenklatura running affairs in Brussels, and the frailties of the political masters responsible for their performance.

But look at what has happened, said von Tennenberg... Louvain was one of the world's great universities ~ until it was decided that because it was situated in what was officially the Flemish-speaking half of Belgium, a new Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve, must be built in the French-speaking half... Then all the French-speaking aspects of the university had to move south... The library had to be divided into two halves and the French books sent south, so researchers have since had to shuttle back and forth chasing cross-references.

That's a fair point, said de Sapinmont. It demonstrates that no matter what the governments decide, ultimately the people will make the decisions... The Louvain affair was madness, of course, but it was a decision of the people prompted in part by the riots in the streets.

No, said Tirlemont... These are minor issues... What is really important is that the great economic powers want unification and that the political decision-makers they support are conscious of the great heritage Charlemagne gave us... The Carolingian tradition demands a centralised Europe.

Nonsense, said Rumigny.

I had watched him approach, his emaciated figure slipping between the crowded chairs on the pavement, sliding flexibly around the bustling waiters, and sensed he would jump into the argument immediately, as he usually did, without fully understanding its underlying purpose.

Charlemagne created a great empire, said Rumigny... And he governed it well by the standards of the time... But its relevance to history is that he, Charlemagne, governed it, not the Pope.

Expound, I said.

Rumigny sat down in the chair the waiter pushed towards him and turned towards me, hunching his shoulders and jutting his chin.

You had a great trading empire once, he said... But huge distances and travel times ensured you decentralised its administration... Modern communications that allowed continual interference from London coincided with its loss... After Charlemagne the Popes wanted a united Europe under their own control... The Carolingian tradition was to have every country governed by its own king, the bishops and abbots owing their allegiance to the kings... Delors is just another Urban II.

Delors has gone, Gordinne said.

Urban II went also, said Rumigny... But he left the same legacy as Delors, the dogma that the spiritual value of unification ranks above all else, that independent sovereignty must yield, that all who resist must be defeated... When Urban excommunicated the King of France, all who continued to honour their feudal obligations to him feared for their immortal souls... That the conflict was notionally about a woman is irrelevant... The real issue was sovereignty.

John Major won't be excommunicated, said van Amstel.

But that's the fear many have in Britain nevertheless, said Gordinne after a pause... It's the same problem, he said after a longer pause... Sovereignty and excommunication from the European paradise, or submission and loss of identity within it.

And then we left... It was Easter Day... A celebration of resurrection... We meandered slowly across the thronged pavements towards our cars... The Maastricht flags and the European Union flags around the square hung limply on their staffs.

(c) 1998 William Forbes

After twenty years of marriage King Philip I of France repudiated his queen, Berthe de Frise, and confined her to the chateau he had received with her dowry... He then took into his bed Bertrade de Montfort, wife of the Count of Anjou, and arranged to marry her, thus adding bigamy to the sins of adultery and divorce... Students of European Union regulations may find it intriguing that not only were these matters considered to be of less importance than the incest the two principals were said to have committed, but that the charge of incest was based on the fact that Philip and the Count of Anjou were related, and not on a shared blood relationship between Philip and Bertrade (of which none existed).

A View from Westminster

An Earlier View from Maastricht

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