What a real joy to read a well argued and thoughtful book on the European Union which takes a rational, objective view rather than the strident Euro-bashing all too available in Britain. Sir Stephen Wall himself makes the point that there is nowhere near the level of anti-EU feeling in any other member state that we see in Britain.
A Stranger in Europe proved a surprisingly good choice for Christmas, not too heavy and showing real insight. So much so that, now fully back in the swing of things in Brussels, I thought it deserved a review.
The author, a leading diplomat whom I met at 10 Downing Street when he was Tony Blair’s Europe Advisor from 2000-2004 shows in the course of his book that he represents the very best of the British Civil Service – hugely intelligent, balanced with great analytical ability. Wall’s essential thesis is that Britain’s major problems with the EU, especially the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) came about because we weren’t there at the beginning. By the time Britain finally got over its distaste and joined in 1973 it was too late, France and Germany ruled the show and weren’t going to make any major moves to accommodate late comers. Britain had to take it on their terms or not at all.
Wall, always the quintessential civil servant, tells how Margaret Thatcher had no real friends in Europe. Although she joined the UK up to the single market her stridency in securing the British rebate ultimately prevented her from forging real alliances. Having been John Major’s Private Secretary, Wall is immensely qualified to write about the Maastricht Treaty and the concession which allowed Britain to decide when to join the single currency.
Wall, an insider though not a politician, brings a welcome objectivity to this and other seminal moments in Britain’s relations with the EU. Tony Blair sought to move public opinion in the UK in a more EU friendly direction. Wall mentions Blair’s speech to the European Parliament in Brussels during the British presidency of the EU in 2005. I was there and the speech was, indeed, a masterpiece. Outstanding rhetoric aside, Blair put climate change on the EU agenda, a significant achievement for the UK.
I generally find books by civil servants about their time at the top very illuminating. Wall’s book is no exception, drawing as it does on his wealth of experience. As well as working for Prime Ministers Major and Blair, Sir Stephen Wall was posted to Paris in 1972 as Private Secretary to the Ambassador. From 1979 to 1983 he served in the British Embassy Washington. On return to the FCO he was Assistant Head and then Head of European Community Department (Internal). From 1988 to 1991, he was Private Secretary to three successive Foreign Secretaries – Geoffrey Howe, John Major and Douglas Hurd.
Wall’s practical knowledge of the EU which began at the very beginning of Britain’s accession is second to none. He is not only uniquely qualified but uniquely coherent. This relatively recent book published in 2008 is a must for all those genuinely interested in Britain in Europe.