LONDON -- A French civil servant in Brussels once said that the two crucial dates in European history were June 18, 1815, when Britain, at Waterloo, ended "the first serious attempt to unify Europe," and January 1, 1973, when Britain joined the European Community and set out "to put an end to the second attempt."
A quarter-century later, the struggle against European unity rages in Britain, but rather than end Europe's unification it is likely to promote it, either by driving Britain completely out of the European Union, or by relegating it to Europe's outer circles, where it can be ignored by the other European powers.
The British government's objection to a major transfer of sovereignty to Brussels is intellectually and politically defensible. In this writer's opinion, it reflects a realistic judgment of political possibilities; I do not really see that Europe's ancient and rooted nations can be brought into a political union that in any real way resembles the federal union of the American states.
However, the rational argument is drowned out by the ranting nationalism that now rules the debate in Britain. The virulence and ignorance in much of this are astounding.
The European Commission is commonly described in the press and in the House of Commons as a tyrannical and irresponsible bureaucracy, promoting what one Tory Member of Parliament called a "totalitarianism that threatens to engulf" the British isles.
The commission's measures of European harmonization, mostly proposed by industry to simplify manufacturing and trans-European marketing, are treated as dictatorial interference with British business or as designed to cripple competition from British entrepreneurs and farmers. Newspaper circulation and journalistic careers are built on the denunciation of instances of "Eurotyranny" unnoticed or unknown in the other states of the EU.
Recent rulings against Britain by the European Court of Human Rights are denounced as "Euro" attacks on British justice, even though the court has nothing to do with the European Union. (It was set up in 1959 as part of the Council of Europe, created a decade earlier with Britain a founding member.)
There is a note of genuine hysteria in all of this.
The Conservative party is split, with those hostile to Europe now ascendant. Prime Minister John Major has given in to demands, which he once resisted, for a national referendum on adopting the prospective European single currency, and now he faces demands for a referendum on complete withdrawal from Europe.
The rich Anglo-French financier, Sir James Goldsmith, has started his own political party to resist the single currency, and attracts many Tories who think the prime minister "a new Chamberlain" who "appeases Europe" -- even though he has negotiated British "opt-outs" on monetary and social issues. Baroness Thatcher, whose protege he once was, now is Mr. Major's enemy.
The opposition Labour party is committed to Europe, but not entirely convincingly. It is influenced by the national mood, and was itself the anti-European party until Britain's entry into the EC in 1973. The Labour Party conference that year opposed entry by a five-to-one majority (although 68 rebel Labour MPs later voted in the House of Commons for British membership).
Popular as well as political opinion has always vacillated. Three years after Britain joined the EC, hostility to Europe inside the Labour party forced the prime minister, Harold Wilson, to demand renegotiation of Britain's membership terms and call a national referendum. The result was a 67 percent majority for Europe.
When Margaret Thatcher came to power she insisted, to popular acclaim, on still more negotiations with the other Europeans in order to "claw back" some of the money Britain was paying into the EC. When John Major became prime minister in 1990 he said that he aimed to "put Britain at the heart of Europe," and was cheered for it. Today he says that he is "the biggest Euroskeptic in the Cabinet."
The controversy will undoubtedly become even more shrill in coming months, until the next national election (required by April 1997), when "Europe" will be a big issue. Even then, whatever the outcome, one may be sure that the European issue will not be settled in Britain.
The refusal to assume Europe's leadership in 1945-48, and the decision not to sign the Treaty of Rome when the EC was founded in 1957, failed to settle the issue. The bid in 1963 to enter the EC, vetoed by General DeGaulle, did not settle it, nor did the EC's acceptance of Britain's second bid, in 1973, nor the referendum that followed, nor the various renegotiations that have followed that.