Does the political necessity for European co-operation trump economic arguments, asks Joseph Mariathasan

Arundells, the home of the former UK prime minister Sir Edward Heath in the English cathedral town of Salisbury, reopened to the public in March. It provides a spectacular view of Salisbury Cathedral. A painting of the cathedral by the 19th century English landscape painter John Constable ranks as one of his most celebrated works. The house contains Heath’s collections of paintings, sailing and musical memorabilia, and artworks from Europe and Asia. As the story goes, when a guest looked out at Salisbury Cathedral from the front guest bedroom of Arundells and remarked that the view was one of the 10 finest in the country, Heath replied: “Why, what are the other nine?”

The debate still rages on regarding the political structure and economic benefits of the EU in general and of the euro-zone in particular when it comes to Greece and the other euro-peripheral countries. But it is worth remembering that the UK’s involvement with what is now the EU began when Heath took the UK into the European Economic Community in 1973. It marked the culmination of a protracted effort by him to take Britain closer into the Europe community that had started way before the time when he was put in charge of the negotiating team for Britain’s first application to join the then European Common Market in the early 1960s. That attempt was vetoed by the French premier Charles de Gaulle. Even after Heath lost power and was ousted as leader of the Conservative party, Europe remained the great theme throughout the rest of his life and was a prime cause of his famous battles with Margaret Thatcher, his successor as leader of the Conservative party and later prime minister.

I got to know Sir Edward in his later years, when, as an adviser to a China fund I had set up, he travelled with us often to Beijing. He seemed to enjoy the trips – probably because he received much better treatment there than he did back home, where the anti-European sentiments of much of his party had made him an outcast. Despite his success as a politician, it is fair to say he was not an economist, and it was not economic arguments that drove him to take Britain into Europe. It was rather, his experiences as a soldier during World War II, when he saw first-hand the devastation the conflict had caused. For him and many of his generation, joining the European Union was never the result of any economic calculations but rather a means to prevent a third European war in the 20th century by binding the major European powers closer together. That rationale still holds true, but it has been obscured by economic arguments that often appear to have no resolution.

Greece’s problems with the EU are in some respects the opposite of those of the UK. What Greece would like to see is the EU acting more like a community, with members willing to share economic burdens in a much deeper way, reflecting a commonality of purpose and an acceptance of a more intimate political end-goal. Britain is veering towards the opposite, preferring something less like a community, where one has to obey a common set of laws, and more like a trade federation, allowing individual members freedom to pursue their own interests.

But whatever the outcomes for Greece and the UK in their struggles with the EU, Heath’s philosophy, centred on a political necessity for European co-operation that trumps economic arguments, still has some validity. The question, however, for Greece and the UK is whether the attempt to create a very tight economic framework might destroy the chances of creating a longer-lasting, looser political one.

Joseph Mariathasan is a contributing editor at IPE