I have always had a sneaking regard for the new Italian Prime Minister, Romano Prodi – a feeling which, as far as I can tell, is wholly unreciprocated. Shortly after he was appointed President of the European Commission in 1999, I conducted an interview with him, during which I asked about the curious episode of Aldo Moro. Aldo Moro, you may recall, was the former Italian Prime Minister who, in 1978, was kidnapped and later murdered by the Red Brigades. While he was being held, Prodi, then an academic, went to the police and told them (correctly) that Aldo Moro could be found at a place called Gradoli. Asked how he knew, he replied that he had been playing with a Ouija board when the spirits of dead Christian Democrats had moved the glass to spell out G-R-A-D-O-L-I.
Prodi became more than a little testy when I raised the subject. Later, when the interview was published, his press officer falsely claimed that he thought he had been speaking off the record. But the episode did nothing to diminish my admiration for the old boy. Don’t be fooled by the grey bureaucrat act. Prodi is a man who speaks his mind with admirable clarity. When other Commissioners were denying that EU armed forces were under construction, he cheerfully told a British newspaper: “If you don’t want to call it a European army, fine – you can call it Margaret, you can call it Mary-Ann”.
Now, evidently still under the influence of those dead Christian Democrats, he says he wants an advance guard of EU states to push ahead with much deeper integration, leaving the sceptics to stew in their indecision. To which I say: bravo! Most of the acrimony among EU members these past 30 years has been caused by differences over political union. Whatever compromise is reached, it is always a step too far for the British, but never enough for the founding, federalist states. The result is that no one is happy. The British – and, to a lesser extent, the Swedes and Danes – feel they are being dragged à contre coeur into a union that they do not want, while the Belgians and Germans and Italians feel that they are being impeded by constant British whingeing and vetoing. In consequence, a project that was meant to be all about friendship among Europe’s nations ends up causing friction.
If the core, Carolingian countries want to merge themselves into a single polity, if they want an EU army, a European police force, a President of Europe, a Continent-wide tax system, good luck to them. Britain should look on as a friend and sponsor, an external flying buttress. It is no part of our business to tell other sovereign countries how to relate one to another – even if they want to abolish their separate sovereignties.
By the same token, though, Britain should be allowed to opt out of a number of policies currently under EU jurisdiction. Although it is reasonable to accept a degree of harmonisation of cross-border questions, Brussels is currently administering a number of policy areas of essentially domestic concern: farming, fishing, employment law, industrial relations, the status of local government, the interpretation of human rights, transport policy, immigration, defence, energy policy. In return for allowing the Euro-enthusiast states to use the EU’s mechanisms and procedures to forge ahead on their own, Britain should seek to recuperate its autonomy in these areas – and to allow other states to do the same.
I suspect, although I have no way of knowing, that if Britain were to set the precedent in this way, others among the EU's more free-trading, maritime members would seek a similar status. They may even team up with the EFTA states, so that Europe would divide into two amicable associations: an inner core, with most of the attributes and trappings of a federal state, and a peripheral aureole of free trading nations, looking as much to the open main as to their Continental neighbours. These two blocs would be bound together through the constant nexus of a free market, and also by frequent collaboration on other matters. They would support each other diplomatically, commercially and, in extremis, militarily. Indeed, they ought to get on far better than they do now, when every budget negotiation and every EU summit ends up pitting them against each other.
So go for it, Prodi. We’ll be cheering you on from the sidelines. After all, Churchill always envisaged a European federation with Britain outside it – a compromise that, had it been adopted at the time, would have spared us all a great deal of anguish. You’ll be better off without us and, in your heart, you know it. You’ll lose a bad tenant, but you’ll gain a good neighbour.