July 22, 2020 - 3:56pm

William III Portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1680s. Credit: Wikipedia

The impasse in Brussels negotiations over a proposed coronavirus rescue fund for the EU has been described in parts of the British media as a ‘squabble’.

But that description is superficial and misleading. For what is going on in Brussels is a struggle over the future constitutional nature of the European Union. It is a struggle between the French conception of the goal for the EU, a centralised structure in many ways resembling the French state, and a decentralised model in which the EU would be at best a confederation.

This is a struggle of great importance for the UK, for on its outcome depends no less than the political future of Western Europe. For centuries it has been a maxim of British foreign policy that the emergence of an overweening, centralised power in Europe was to be avoided. It is striking that the maxim was introduced by William III, our Dutch king — a ruler who spent his life opposing the encroachments of France under Louis XIV. Those encroachments took the form of military invasion of the Netherlands and a real reduction of English independence by means of the generous subsidies on which Charles II depended.

Faced with the threat of French conquest of his native land and the prospect of England becoming a French satellite, William III’s entire career was dominated by a maxim he asserted when still quite young: “Europe must be saved from the French”. That conviction gradually came to guide British foreign policy. Adapted to apply not only to France, it became opposition to the emergence of any single, centralised state on the other side of the Channel.

Disengaging from the European Union has not reduced the UK’s proximity to Europe, yet there has been remarkably little discussion of how Britain’s exit was likely to affect the future shape of the EU itself. This is one of the most important matters that British policy must now address.

It is not a mere accident that the Dutch prime minister and finance minister have taken the lead in opposing the proposed coronavirus rescue fund. But they are not alone: Austria, Finland, Denmark and Sweden have joined. These EU states, which previously took British membership for granted and relied on the UK to defend the cause of a relatively decentralised EU, have now been awakened from their slumbers.

They can no longer rely on British scepticism about integration — something that often prevented centralising measures being put forward in the first place. Nor can they rely on Germany, despite its own relatively decentralised form of the state, to stand up to French pressures to extend the EU’s competences. Though Germany has recovered some confidence, even now it seems unable to stand up to French pressure at critical moments.

The current struggle is such a moment.

Sir Larry Siedentop is a political philosopher. His most recent book is Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (Penguin, 2014)