If you can’t join them, beat them: Denmark, football, Maastricht and Brexit’s genesis

If you can’t join them, beat them: Denmark, football, Maastricht and Brexit’s genesis

David Herdson looks back to 1992

They shouldn’t even have been there, and had it not been for the disintegration of Yugoslavia, they wouldn’t have been. However, they didn’t let their second chance go to waste and as the leaders of the twelve EC members met in Lisbon, the plucky Danes overturned the natural order of things and defeated Germany’s assumed unstoppable progress.

As metaphors went, the football team’s 2-0 victory was perfect. 24 days earlier, the Danish electorate had rejected the Maastricht Treaty by the slender margin of 50.7 to 49.3. As the Danish Foreign Minister, Uffe Ellemann-Jensen – sporting a football scarf in the Portuguese summer – put it, “if you can’t join them, beat them!”

How the European Community handled that vote was seen even at the time as one of the most important decisions it would take in determining its future direction. In retrospect, it was all the more so, and ultimately set Britain on its path to Brexit.

In essence, two choices lay open: to try to assuage Danish concerns and to push on with Project Euro, or to use the Danish vote as the excuse to drop that project and to limit the EC to the Single Market and other single-issue cooperative initiatives.

That choice didn’t lie solely with the governments collectively, it lay with them individually too. John Major must have been sorely tempted to abandon a ratification process that he knew even then would cause his government, with its small and dwindling majority, any number of difficulties. However, he’d negotiated the agreement – and Britain’s opt-outs – in good faith and rightly saw himself as honour-bound to try to ratify it, providing that the other signatories were doing likewise.

There is a school of thought that says that had Britain refused to ratify, either the other countries would have signed their own agreement or they would have waited for a change of mind in the UK. I don’t think either assertion is right. To have tried to have pushed ahead with the Euro outside the structures of the EU would have been practically difficult: those who tried to would have had to have created a parallel organisation. That would have had a political spillover, to the extent that France, which only just ratified Maastricht (by 51-49) might not have done so without the guarantees that the Euro being overseen within the EC/EU institutions brought.

On the other hand, had they waited for a pro-European British government – 1997, in effect – then it wouldn’t have been just the British personnel that had changed. The Euro was born out of a confluence of political interests and beliefs of three men whose relationship allowed it to happen: Helmut Kohl, Francois Mitterrand, and Jacques Delors. Kohl and Mitterrand, who both lived through WWII, were scared about the consequences of an excessively powerful Germany, particularly with the end of the Cold War meaning a lessened superpower presence in Europe and the re-emergence of weaker states to the East. They saw the Euro as the means to prevent that. By contrast, Delors was not just an advocate for European federalism but also had the forceful and dynamic personality to drive it. His plans provided the framework that Kohl and Mitterrand saw as necessary to restrain German power. However, by 1997, Delors had left office, Mitterrand was dead and Kohl’s authority was waning amid high unemployment and poor election results. Their successors had different interests, different personalities and were not operating in the heady days of the afterglow to the happy revolutions of 1989-91.

Put simply, had the Maastricht Treaty been dropped in 1993, there’s a good chance that it couldn’t have been revived and that the EC (the EU was a creation of Maastricht) would have remained a primarily economic rather than political project; the one, in fact, that Britain signed up for in the concept of the Common Market. (It is true that Ever Closer Union has always been an objective of the EEC; it’s also true that for thirty years after 1957, that supposed objective meant very little in practice).

Not that we should be too critical of the politicians of 1991-3. For one thing, we don’t know that their prime motive wasn’t right – after all, Germany’s strength was enough of a problem within the Euro; what greater problems might it have caused had it been freer to determine its own tax, spending and interest rate policies?

Back in 1992 though, Denmark managed to both beat them and, later, join them – at least as far as signing the Treaty went; it remains outside the Euro, protected by an opt-out. That worked for Denmark but not for Britain, which in the passage of Maastricht and the follow-on treaties, lost the EEC it was comfortable with and found itself faced with the increasingly stark choice of membership of a club it didn’t really want to be part of, or leaving a club it didn’t really want to be outside.

In an echo of history, the next EU summit opens in Brussels on 28 June, the same day as England’s last World Cup first round match, against Belgium. Perhaps Mrs May should turn up in an England scarf. You never know: perhaps Gareth Southgate’s boys might pull off something remarkable.

David Herdson

p.s. I appreciate that unlike with Denmark, the England football team doesn’t represent the whole of the country the PM represents but you can only make do with the opportunities given. It’s not Mrs May’s fault that Scotland, Wales or N Ireland didn’t qualify.

p.p.s. England were 12/1 at the time of writing (SkyBet) to match Denmark’s 1992 achievement and win the respective tournament. Given the performances of Brazil, Argentina and Germany so far, those are not unreasonable.

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