Richard North, 28/06/2020  

I don't know where I got it from, but I had nurtured the impression that the Daily Express was a halfway decent paper before Richard Desmond got his hands on it. Even though the Guardian suggests he "found ways to lower even a denuded brand", it is hardly in a position to talk.

Anyhow, still working on the new edition of The Great Deception - which is definitely going to occupy me to the end of the year, I've reached the chapter on the negotiations of the Single European Act – the treaty which launched the process of "completing" the Single Market.

In the process – as one does – I happened upon a copy of the Daily Express, published on 2 December 1985, the very day Margaret Thatcher flew to Luxembourg to take part in the final summit which agreed the treaty text.

And there, on page 6 under "World News" is a report headed "Maggie backed in battle to beat Europe terrorist threat" (pictured). Written by Express reporter John Fraser in Luxembourg, its sub-heading tells us: "Border controls to stay", while the text is a classic of its kind.

"Mrs Thatcher", we are told, "won backing last night against Common Market plans which could have flooded Britain with terrorists and drug smugglers". Fraser adds, "The Prime Minister is flying to Luxembourg today for a crucial summit after Euro Ministers were persuaded to keep tough border controls".

These proposals, we learn, "would have forced Britain to open its doors to visitors and goods from EEC countries". What is more, the idea seems to have been "dreamed up by Brussels bureaucrats and backed by many Continental Euro MPs, was to create a barrier-free Europe without travel restrictions".

However, we are assured that doughty "British officials evidently took a hand. They feared it would have led to an invasion of terrorists, drugs, illegal immigrants and rabies into this country".

Needless to say, their concerns "met will little sympathy from other EEC countries and the dastardly French – it had to be the French – "accused Britain of inventing objections to cover up plans to impose trade barriers against European imports".

At the least minute, it seems – according to the Fraser narrative – "sense" prevailed. EEC Foreign Ministers spent the weekend trying to reconcile differences on this and reached agreement. Thus, we were told, Mrs Thatcher's main objective at the summit was, Fraser went on to say, "to preserve Britain's veto over EEC reforms".

Obviously, this would save us from a fate worse than death, as "some militant Euro-MPs" wanted the European Parliament "to have the final say". But that, Fraser opined, "would leave Britain powerless to block the fanatics' more hare-brained schemes".

Seen from this distance, the report has distinctly comedic elements, right down to the formulaic device that the proposals (there is no mention of a treaty) must have been "dreamed up by Brussels bureaucrats", with the idea that opening borders would have led to an "invasion of terrorists, drugs, illegal immigrants and rabies into this country".

Apart from the tone, which the Guardian was later to describe as "malignant and crude", but only after Desmond got his hands on it, what offends is the sheer inaccuracy of the report – at so many levels it is difficult to know where to start.

The Single Market, of course, was very much wanted by Thatcher, although she disputed the need for a new treaty. She thought existing procedures would suffice. But, after that famous "ambush" in Milan earlier in June, when she was bounced into agreeing to an intergovernmental conference, she had enthusiastically pursued an agreement.

The point of contention with Thatcher was not the prospect of "opening borders" but the attempts by Commission President-elect Jacques Delors, to insert in the treaty preamble a reference to Economic and Monetary Union.

At the summit in Luxembourg, therefore, Thatcher was actively considering using her veto. But, on the basis of a Foreign Office assurance that the statement had no legal significance, she agreed the treaty. Even then, she had been misled, as Delors had also inserted two technical articles in the treaty text, authorising work on "convergence of economic and monetary policies", the precursor to EMU.

As Howe was later to report to Cabinet, on 5 December (CAB 128/81): "The conclusions were very satisfactory". The United Kingdom, the Foreign Secretary assured his colleagues, "had secured all its main objectives", including changes "which were desirable for the completion of the Community's internal market".

Without explaining the implications, however, Howe did concede that there would be "an amendment of the Treaty articles to provide majority voting on goods and services". But he was being less than candid.

In fact, no less than twelve policy areas had been delivered into the maw of QMV, not only the ‘internal market’ measures, but a new competence on "health and safety", decisions relating to regional development and an extension of Community competence to air and sea transport.

As later explained by the Commission, QMV had become the "new norm", also covering the common customs tariff, rules on the free movement of capital, research and development and the all-important portfolio.

If one takes the broader definition of a lie to include "act, default or sufferance", Howe was not only lying to the nation, he was lying to his own Cabinet colleagues. The Commission had masterminded a huge power grab, and had laid the foundations for the second part of the treaty, which was to come at Maastricht seven years later.

Delors had in his treaty an instrument which took the Community down the road to "a European Union", as foreseen in the Paris Summit of 1972, the objectives of which were very much alive.

Turning back to the Express, the Guardian latter was to describe it as "a fundamentalist voice of anti-EU hysteria", becoming "the house journal of Nigel Farage and Ukip". But back in 1985, Ukip hadn't been invented, Nigel Farage had only recently celebrated his 21st birthday, Euroscepticism, as an organised movement, was in the doldrums – and Desmond was 15 years away from buying the paper.

Oddly, at the time, the significance of this treaty was barely recognised. Amongst the few journalists interested, there was some concern about EMU, but Thatcher dismissed the new text as 'meaningless', otherwise, she told them, she would not have signed it. Delors, interestingly, had different ideas: "It's like the story of Tom Thumb lost in the forest, who left white stones so he could be found", he said. "I put in white stones so we could find monetary union again".

BBC television news mistook the new treaty as "a few modest reforms of the Treaty of Rome", the Guardian considered Britain had been the victor and The Economist called the treaty a "smiling mouse": well-intentioned but too diminutive to make much difference.

But the media weren't the only ones to have lost the plot. On her return from Luxembourg, Thatcher was challenged in the Commons by Tony Benn about the "long-term objective of political union within a fully federal united states of Europe". She replied:
I am constantly saying that I wish they would talk less about European and political union. The terms are not understood in this country. In so far as they are understood over there, they mean a good deal less than some people over here think they mean.
If Thatcher, unlike Benn, had not yet got the message, neither had the rest of Parliament. When the treaty came to be ratified, the necessary Bill amending the European Communities Act 1972 was pushed through an often thinly attended Commons in just six days.

The main debate was started on a Thursday, knowing that MPs would want to get away for the weekend. After only three sessions of the committee stage, the government abruptly curtailed further discussion with a "guillotine". On the final reading, so few MPs turned up that the Bill passed by a mere 149 votes to 43.

By whatever measure you care to apply the British public were let down by their media, their political leaders and Parliament. But in 1985, they sowed the wind. Brexit was the whirlwind.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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