(The original article can be found by subscribers at The Telegraph online here.)
It was at a lunch with several grandees of old Vienna where I was forcibly reminded that it was in this city that the longest European peace since the original ‘Pax Romana’ – from the fall of Napoleon to the rise of the Kaiser – was negotiated between a British Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, and Prince Metternich, the chief negotiator of the European Unionists of that epoch, the Habsburg Monarchy, who had only just renounced the title of Holy Roman Emperor.
The 1815 Congress of Vienna was soon followed, in 1820, by Britain’s official and complete withdrawal from European affairs into “splendid isolation”. The effects of this, the original Brexit, were so positive that one US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, would later publish his Harvard PhD thesis on the period under the title ‘A World Restored’.
Personally, there is no denying that as a British citizen living in Mitteleuropa, and who spent the first lockdown as a resident in Spain, I have encountered a great deal of incomprehension among my Continental friends as to why Britain would want to leave this benevolent, if quasi-Imperial, set up.
And, as an Englishman with an Austrian fiancée, a Belgian shepherd dog and a breeding herd of horses all descendant from an Irish thoroughbred (El Star, first cousin to the legendary Frankel no less), I truly do see myself as, in Metternich’s own phrase, “a Citizen of Europe”.
However, this does not necessitate my seeing the post-Maastricht Treaty European Union as an unequivocally good thing, and certainly not for Britain.
Yes, selfishly speaking, it helped my work as a travel writer, allowed my fiancée to bring clients, including the British Army, out to her Polo Andalusia; and for the City stockbroking firm, Fiske plc, of which I am a director, to run European clients without a hitch.
The question, which I could not myself answer at the time of the referendum, is whether giving up the power of autonomy is worth all the personal financial and general economic gains that our membership brings. Especially when what at least one President of the European Commission has referred to it as the “the spectre of war in Europe again”, is seen to be just that: a spectre with no reality.
My doubts about the direction of travel of the European Union towards greater integration began in the ‘90s when I first started visiting Spain on a regular basis. I could see the vast benefits that the EU could offer them: a country where citizens still remembered the stinging epigrammatic wit of Talleyrand – who inveigled his way into representing France at Vienna – when he dismissed the whole Iberian peninsula with the phrase: “Africa begins at the Pyrenees.”
The poorer countries of Europe soon found out that EU gold came at a price, and it did not take long for the Franco-German axis, which rules the EU in everything but name, to show their authoritarian side during the various financial crises since then. As Yiannis Varoufakis, a man about as far from my own classical liberalism as is democratically possible, put it so succinctly – Marxists do have the advantage of always trying to see history on the grand scale – “what is the Euro if not the Deutschmark rolled out to the borders of Europe.”
In the end, I spoiled my ballot paper in the referendum, still seeing great advantages to being a member, but seeing them as perhaps rather overrated, and tied to an underestimation of the United Kingdom’s capability for economic independence.
However, it was always a question of how the divorce was executed, and by that I do not necessarily mean the terms. As the financial markets show clearly, it is uncertainty that is the greatest problem. Any conclusion will be more positive than this simmering purgatorial limbo.
That said, as any close student of EU politics knows, a deal will most likely be signed a few hours after the deadline. And it will be a deal of which all sides can be “slightly proud”; or so they will tell their electorates.
As one ageing Graf remarked at that lunch, over our post-schnitzel schnapps, “where any given state or institution loses ground, and where they gain it, will have been decided – as between Metternich and Castlereagh – long before the final statement in public, with the electorate treated once again like school children told by their headmasters they ‘tried their best for the school on their behalf.’”