by Larry Siedentop
Wednesday, 22
July 2020
Idea
15:56

To understand EU tensions, remember William III

The Dutch king warned that Europe must be saved from the French
by Larry Siedentop
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.

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Esmon Dinucci
Esmon Dinucci
2 years ago

We must be very careful what we wish for.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
2 years ago

It seems the “struggle” is over and the French have triumphed, with a package reported by MSM to be about 750 Bn euros. Or is there something else?

This essay also skilfully avoided to mention the unpalatable fact that William III had to invade this islands to take the throne. Had the Catholic incumbent, James II not had a nosebleed, there would have been a major battle near Salisbury, between William’s Dutch, Danish,and German troops, and Jame’s English Army.

You were also too generous to Jame’s elder brother, Charles II. By the ‘Secret Treaty of Dover’, Charles sold the country out to, and became a pensioner of, Louis XIV of France. Clearly the action of a traitor, it is a great pity he was not executed as such, and in the manner he had previously inflicted on the Regicides, in complete contrast to the humane execution of his father Charles I in 1649.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

I’m being a bit speculative, and I believe it’s much more your field, Mr Corby, than it is mine; but it’s surely unclear as to whether the Secret Treaty can be described as an act of treason (which would mean that the sovereign was deliberately jeopardising this country’s security or interests for personal gain).

Most historians seem to consider that the treaty was a disastrous error, but at the time, Charles may well have sincerely judged an Anglo-French treaty as being in the national interest (England was apparently to be awarded valuable Dutch ports after the conquest of the Netherlands). Obviously the King’s pro-Catholic sympathies would have led him to downgrade the existing alliances with Northern European Protestant nations, but even disregarding his personal religious commitments, Charles might have judged that our Protestantism was itself a cause of troubled relations with the major continental Catholic powers, and that closer relations with France and Spain “vaut bien la messe”.

I don’t suppose we can nowadays execute the traitors who are currently arranging a secret trade deal that will turn this country into the 51st state, or, more realistically, a non-voting commonwealth like Puerto Rico.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
2 years ago

Touché, Mr Chamberlain. Your are correct, ‘legally’ it is rather difficult for a King to commit Treason against ‘himself’.

However Charles, egged on by his ‘cabal’ of royalist toadies and his family, managed to achieve it. Had the ‘secret’ treaty become public it would have almost certainly lead to another Civil War. There were still plenty of survivors of the “Good Old Cause”, who would have gone berserk, or worse.

Your interpretation, a rather Whig one, if I may so, is a little too uncritical of the ‘Merry Monarch’. In many ways the whole Restoration was national disaster, rejecting
progress (of a sort) for a world of ‘rotten, deceitful, little snobs’, that was the Stuart Court. (apologies to John Betjeman).

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

If my interpretation is a Whiggish one, wouldn’t that make me the first Whig historian to be relaxed about the idea of Britain reverting to Catholicism?

I guess the establishment of the Commonwealth was progress in some respects, but at the same time, wasn’t Cromwell something of an Ayatollah after a Shah?

I always think of Dryden’s quip about the Restoration era – so neat that the satire comes out only in the last adjective – “A very merry, dancing, drinking, Laughing, quaffing, and unthinking time.”

chrisjwmartin
chrisjwmartin
2 years ago

If my interpretation is a Whiggish one, wouldn’t that make me the first Whig historian to be relaxed about the idea of Britain reverting to Catholicism?

I think that is another touché

David Barnett
David Barnett
2 years ago

One way of looking at the Civil War is as a war between the Puritans and those who wanted a less theocratic state. To what extent was the Restoration in 1660 a reaction to the austerity of Puritan rule?

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
2 years ago

Yes you would be a most unusual Whig. Fortunately we now live enlightened times, or so we are told and thus the hysteria about Catholicism has abated somewhat. You may recall that the late Cardinal, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor nearly made it to the House of Lords.

I think you are bit hard on Oliver Cromwell. Outwardly Puritan he may have been, but I gather his private life was not averse to some ‘pleasures’.

Dryden, denied the schoolboy excitement of seeing Charles I’s head being hacked off, never seems to worked out whose side he was on. Although as a Satirist that is always difficult.

Your quote reminds me of a passage from Pepys where he recalls “waking face down in the street, in my still warm vomit”. There were certainly some advantages to be had in the Restoration.

Vivek Rajkhowa
Vivek Rajkhowa
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Revisionism.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
2 years ago
Reply to  Vivek Rajkhowa

A bit cryptic, who or what is Rvisionism?

Vivek Rajkhowa
Vivek Rajkhowa
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

What the author says about William coming over to prevent us becoming a French satellite. James II for all his Catholicism adopted a stringent anti French policy when he was king, such that Louis was convinced in a future war England would ally with the Dutch and the emperor

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
2 years ago
Reply to  Vivek Rajkhowa

Thanks for reminding us of that.

In all the plethora of propaganda about the so called Glorious Revolution, your important point is completely obscured by the miasma of Protestant cant.

Vivek Rajkhowa
Vivek Rajkhowa
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Happy to help 🙂

Geoff Cooper
Geoff Cooper
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

It was not called the bloodless revolution for nothing. James knew he did not really stand a chance so great was the popular opposition to him. William hardly had to invade, he was mobbed by supporters all the way from the coast to Westminster, James was sensible in getting out while he could.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
2 years ago
Reply to  Geoff Cooper

What popular opposition?Most of the
country, by their very nature were totally disinterested. A faction of the ‘gentry’, how many is anyone’s guess,
thought otherwise.

Had James shown more spine and stood and fought he had a good chance of destroying William and his invaders, just as Monmouth had previously been destroyed.

Why he suffered such an attack of ‘lack of moral fibre’ is unclear. Earlier
in his career he fought bravely enough for the Royal Navy.

Incidentally it was a not a ‘bloodless revolution’ as Williamite propaganda maintains. What happened in Reading for example?
The problem for ‘Whig’ historians and others is that was the last successful invasion of these Islands by foreign potentate, with a very foreign army, exactly a century after the Armada. Thus every possible excuse is used both to sanatize, if not air brush it from History.

Jack Gergiev
Jack Gergiev
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

“Why he suffered such an attack of ‘lack of moral fibre’ is unclear. Earlier in his career he fought bravely enough for the Royal Navy.”

I believe there is a modern view that James may have been suffering from some form of dementia or what is now called ‘Parkinson’s’ at this stage of his life?

Certainly his performance here in Ireland in 1690 bore little resemblance to the man who distinguished himself after the Fire of London or in the New World…

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
2 years ago
Reply to  Jack Gergiev

How very interesting.
However the condemnation for an attack of ‘funk’ will be hard to shift.

A fine example of the adage “history is written by the victors”

Will Judge
Will Judge
2 years ago

There’s a consensus that the electorate was clear about the consequences of voting to leave the EU in 2016: is the author suggesting that this isn’t the case? At the time it was obvious that Brexit would unlock closer integration among the remaining Member States so it’s safe to assume that voters took this into account.

And that rather gives the lie to the suggestion that “the future shape of the EU… …is one of the most important matters that British policy must now address.” I don’t think voters care about that at all. They dream their dreams of global Britain (whatever that might mean) and are waiting for it to be made real. FCO Ministers spending time on the future shape of the EU are more likely to be seen to be stuck in the past.

Martin Adams
Martin Adams
2 years ago

A fascinating and extremely timely reminder that the issues dominating discussions about the UK’s relationship with Europe go back centuries.

In 2016 I voted remain, albeit with a conviction rate of about 51%, and based on the not-unreasonable premise that it is better to work for reform from inside. Within a year of the referendum I was converted to a passionate leaver, even without a deal. That was because of three things;
1) British incompetence in attempting to straddle two widely separated positions;
2) Disdainful superiority from the EU in its purported negotiations with the UK. They were not negotiations. They were absolutist, federalist ultimatums that had to be met ” or else!
3) A realisation that the EU project was an entirely one-way street.

What Sir Larry’s article shows is that this kind of skepticism ” born not of antagonism to our cross-channel neighbours, but out of antagonism to a system ” has the most profound roots. The antagonism can be explained, but in so many ways, it is the product of objections felt rather than rationalised.

I suggest that these objections go back even further than the seventeenth century ” to the belief in the supremacy of parliament over the authority of absolutist monarchy.

In British minds of the seventeenth century, France was the nation most powerfully associated with absolute monarchy ” and with good reason. (The relationship with Spain was always more complicated, the 1588 Armada and all that notwithstanding.) In 1690 the Yorkshire Feast Song was celebrated in London, to demonstrate the loyalty of that independent-minded county to the new Protestant regime. One of its lines, set with extraordinary potency by Henry Purcell’s music, is “This is the knell of falling Rome.” William’s victory reinforced the association between Protestantism and the Liberty of the individual ” of parliamentary authority versus monarchial authority.

How different are the 20th and 21st centuries? Not quite as different as we might think. When, in Yes Prime Minister, Jim Hacker is trying to get defence cuts so that he can increase electoral chances by building more hospitals, schools and so forth, Sir Humphrey Appleby counters with the argument that this would leave us unable to defend ourselves against our enemies. “Who are our enemies”? With great dignity, Sir Humphrey pronounces “The French”. The audience busts a gut laughing, because they know it’s true.

We British tend to love French culture; we marry French people (I nearly did); we love French food; we read French literature, language and authors; we love French architecture, especially in the French countryside where we love to have second of even first homes; in most schools French is the foreign language of choice (for many mixed reasons). But there is always that reservation raised by Sir Larry ” that we must be saved from the French tendency towards centralisation.

That is why there tends to be an instinctive antipathy towards French institutions of government, the tendency to centralise everything, the Napoleonic tendency to standardise everything from systems of measurement to its tendency to dictate from above. I know all this at first hand. For several years I had a French girlfriend, when it was considered an exotic thing to do so; and like me, she was a musician.

It is from looking first at our musical history that I realised that the 20th century’s antagonism between Germany and Britain was an aberration ” a civil war between cousins. Our most profound cultural affinities are historically rooted in the Germanic-language countries of north-western Europe, from Scandinavia to the Netherlands.

As Sir Larry remarks, we are in a moment when all these affinities and tensions are reaching a pinnacle.

Vivek Rajkhowa
Vivek Rajkhowa
2 years ago

A fundamental misunderstanding of the situation in 1688. We wouldn’t have become a French satellite, James ii did everything he could to piss Louis off, it was a surprise to everyone that james fled to France and was accepted.

johnjweyland
johnjweyland
2 years ago

but William III bankrupted his country on this ‘dream/nightmare’.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
2 years ago
Reply to  johnjweyland

So did Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, KG.