Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Anglo-Dutch free trade alliance reminds us what the EU is for

Whilst his MPs are squabbling in the House of Commons about the European Union Bill, the Prime Minister is on the continent making friends.

The Guardian reports that David Cameron, "in his first major EU initiative since becoming Prime Minister", is attempting to create an internal free market area with the Dutch.  This would permit professional and service workers to work throughout the European continent.  The article is just a bit amnesic: Cameron's biggest initiative on the European stage to date has been to limit the increase of the EU budget from 6% to no more than 2.9%, in concert with the French and Germans.  The more cynical might observe that an even bigger achievement has been simply not to cause a row.

That is by the by, for the crux of the matter - an Anglo-Dutch free trade alliance - carries intriguing historical overtones.

England and the Netherlands spent a lot of the seventeenth century coming to nautical blows over the issue of who ruled the waves - and therefore international trade.  The Dutch could not find a way to defeat Cromwell (who could, but Death himself?) but generally they came out on top and in 1667 their raid of the English fleet at Medway ranks as one of this island nation's worst humiliations.

The great French Annalist Fernand Braudel wrote, "history may be divided into three movements: what moves rapidly, what moves slowly and what appears not to move at all.”

The Dutch navy may have been fleeter of foot by the broadside, but moving slowly alongside beneath the swifter current of events was the burgeoning dominance of international finance and trade by the City of London and the nascent British Empire.

The prompt for both of these phenomena - warfare and mercantile superiority - were the Navigation Acts.  These laws, first passed in 1651, were designed to protect English colonial trade with European rivals, particularly the Dutch.  Some historians say that they were a crucial part of the eventual British dominance of world trade and the City's financial preeminnce.  Also pivotal was the accession of William of Orange to the English crown in 1688, which swung the attention of Dutch financiers towards London.

It is oft proclaimed that Britain was at the vanguard of free trade and liberty.  There is some truth in this, if your history books begin with the Pax Britannica.  For much of Britain's rise to global prominence had been on the back of protectionism and naval power.  The Navigation Acts were only repealed in 1849, by which point Great Britain ruled the waves.  Liberalising trade routes did not level the playing field, so much as give British traders more markets to buy and sell in.

With the benefit of hindsight, the respective tales of Britain and Holland could have been quite different.  Both relied on a strong navy to project power and an early mastery of trade and finance.  On the latter count, the Dutch were certainly the superiors.  They even contested similar regions of influence, such as North America, the Caribbeean, the Cape of Good Hope and south-east Asia.  Eventually, Britain came out on top, but it could have been different.

Now Britain and Holland appearto be joining forces to remind their fellow Europeans what the EU is for: liberalised markets for free trade in goods, services and personnel.  Many Conservative MPs have a keen taste for history - not least Bill Cash, who I know to be writing a biography of free trade campaigner John Bright.

Although a free trade alliance between Britain and Holland may seem out of step with the historical record, it sends a message that the European project has lots its way in a search for political, as opposed to economic, union (the clue ought to have been in the title, really).

This, then, is a timely reminder to dissatisfied eurosceptic MPs - particularly those in the new intake - that their Prime Minister has the right idea about Europe.  An idea more nuanced and pragmatic than they might like, perhaps, but this really ought to be a European adventure on which leader and party can see eye to eye.

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