It’s time to preserve the story of the decades-long campaign for British independence from Brussels

It’s time to preserve the story of the decades-long campaign for British independence from Brussels

The visitor to Brussels has long been spoiled by its museums. Despite its street feel as a provincial Gallic backwater, the city is a national capital with Roman foundations, Hapsburg buttresses, and the spoils of colonial dominion.

But none of these museums have suited the city’s growing role as the capital of the European Union. The Museum of National Sciences is renowned for its astonishing collection of iguanodons, but a herd of dinosaurs that plunged off a cliff and got dug out of a now-redundant coal mine is an EU metaphor for all the wrong reasons. The remarkable little Resistance Museum is a harrowing reminder of recent history. The Africa Museum has infamously glossed over institutionalised atrocities. Any Magritte offers itself too easily to allegory. We won’t even go into potential similes arising from the Museum of the American Confederacy.

That lacuna, however, is no more, for now Brussels has its own EU Museum. The House of European History, originally a dental clinic for disadvantaged children, holds several floors narrating the continent’s evolution, particularly in the context of industrialisation and social change, the horrors of the Second World War and the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

This has not come cheap, coming at a reported bill to the taxpayer of €56 million, although the end cost may actually be very much higher. That’s on top of the Parlamentarium, a new visitor centre explaining the wonders of the world of MEPs (except the expenses scandals); and other EU-subsidised buildings associated with the “Fathers of Europe” – the politicians most responsible for setting the EU in motion.

Why all this interest? The EU is insecure about its own corporate narrative. Lacking a sense of collective identity, it pursues a founding myth. Its story, which at least had the merit of being partially true in the 1950s, was that a group of bureaucratic visionaries saw their countries in ruins because of Nazism and fascism, under threat because of Stalinism, and believed they needed to politically merge in order to avoid future wars and foreign domination.

The problem with that narrative, however, is that we are now three generations on. Economically, the centre of gravity is shifting towards the Pacific, while global commerce is now based on low-tariff principles. Politically, the borders of Moscow have retreated hundreds of miles, and Eastern Europe is free. Societally, the likes of Baader-Meinhoff and the Red Brigades no longer constitute an existential threat.

The EU, however, has itself failed to adapt; indeed, like the driver heading towards a deer, it has responded counter-intuitively by accelerating its integration, removing vetoes and reducing into deeper subservience the legislatures and judiciaries of its component states. It is now obliged to justify this administrative route by retrospective recourse to the narratives of institutionalised economic union instead of the benefits of free trade, and of federal union instead of intergovernmental cooperation.

For these very reasons, the continent’s Eurosceptic movements and the democratic ideas and principles that underpin them sit awkwardly in the House of European History. There are a couple of bits of shelving for past referendums in the UK and Denmark on one floor; and a few inches of space reserved for the 2016 referendum on the top floor.

As an historian, on one level I find such parochial photoshop revisionism mildly amusing. But it’s also remarkably revealing of a bubble mindset in play, and a “combat indicator” of future troubles ahead. As they have done with every single lost referendum in the past, the EU institutions follow the precedent of the restored Bourbon monarchs after the guillotining of Louis XVI, when they infamously are supposed to have ‘forgotten nothing but learned nothing’.

Beyond the bubble, I would suggest those interested in the history should and can be more ambitious. Whatever your views on the Brexit debate, the fact is that the decision carries extraordinary consequences not only for this country, but in the decades ahead for the whole of the continent. The monopoly of the EU membership model has now been shattered.

The story behind this remarkable swerve now forms a part of our nation’s tale. It slots into a thread on sovereignty stretching back through the breaking of the line at Trafalgar or the fireships at Calais; or in less incendiary terms, via our founding role in EFTA, the volumes of Adam Smith and the Statute of Praemunire. Our country, of course, is spatially European, but its history is also that of an ancient nation state; one with a profound sense of the limitations of its institutions that was already considered shocking by its Capetian and Valois counterparts.

Brexit is not, it turns out, a blip. Nor is it the response to a few months’ activities one recent summer. That vote was the consequence of four decades and more of controversy, debate and campaigning. It often involved ordinary citizens from across the political divide, doggedly rejecting the received and unchallenged wisdom of a pessimistic Whitehall that signed up to EEC membership simply to manage decline.

It is the nature of potential archives that they quickly disperse, are lost, or decay. The task now begins to slowly assemble source material and artefacts that help tell that story of popular revolt, from as wide a range across the debate as possible. Unlike the House of European History, we should not forget that it is an argument that involved two sides – indeed, rather confusingly for all concerned at the time, sometimes more.

The end display and its associated archives may not end up quite as grand as the multi-million pound shopping centre of Eurofederalism that sits in the heart of Brussels. But if it preserves the memories, voices and snapshots of those who for long decades thanklessly campaigned against European integration – and indeed conversely who honestly expounded its cause – then it will be fulfilling its purpose for future generations of intrigued visitors and puzzled historians to come.

For further details about the proposed Museum of Sovereignty and how you can contribute to it, please click here.