Moving on from the narrative of British history concluded in the last post, some thoughts about the way that Britain has existed as a European nation in comparison with other nations, mostly Germany and France. Britain has been defining itself in comparison with these two, in more or less friendly ways since Germany emerged as a modern unified state in 1871. The comparisons with France go back further, as has been partly explored in the narrative posts from Æthelred II’s (the Unready) marriage to a French princess to the Tudor loss of Calais.
The attitude to Germany has been coloured by the pre-1870 Prussian monarchy which became the imperial family of Germany, while retaining the Prussian royal title, in 1871. Even the Prussian monarchy, though, is new compared with the French state. The Prussian kingdom only goes back to 1701, as an elevated form of the Margravate of Brandenburg in which the Hohenzollern family had been the Margraves since 1415, and even that is rather recent compared with the beginning of the history of France. Anyway, we cannot think of Brandenburg-Prussia as a pre-formation of the German state until the early nineteenth century when it took lands on the Rhineland and emerged as the joint leading power in Germany, along, with Austria, after the European settlement at the end of the Napoleonic wars.
It is not entirely clear when we can date the beginning of the French state, since the earliest form, or preformation, of it was the Frankish kings who became rulers of some part of what is now France in the fifth century with the collapse of Roman rule in what had been Gaul. The Franks were German and the sense that the aristocracy of France had a different national origin from the common people lingered into the nineteenth century. It is only in the ninth century that Old French emerges as a written language of state business while the title of King of the Franks was separated from that of the dominant ruler of Germany, holding the title of Emperor of the Romans since the Frankish king Charlemagne was crowned by the Pope in 800.
The official title King of France only stated to replace King of the Franks in the late twelfth century, but it is safe to say that something like a swell defined the French state with a very broadly defined sense of shared culture between king and French speaking subjects goes back to the ninth century, after a preformation going back to the fifth century. Of course it should be remembered in relation to that it was only in the nineteenth century that a shared mass competence in the French of Paris prevailed across France including communities which were historically Basque, Flemish, Breton, German, Italian and Occitan (southern versions of French including Povençal), though a linguistic unity of the educated goes back much further.
One aspect of the sketches of French and German history above, is that the history of the dominant power in western Europe is often the history of France and Germany in various sometimes overlapping forms. This continues into the European Union which is at its heart a Franco-German union and that can be seen in the Euro which comes out of the French belief that it could import German economic success and discipline through a common currency, as well as the belief that it could mitigate German influence in Europe after post-Cold War unification though a shared monetary mechanism. One problem with British membership, maybe the most important, is a lack of interest in the French and German belief in a shared destiny best managed by some pooled sovereignty in a unified Europe, largely if not entirely consisting of countries strongly influenced in their history by contacts with France and Germany.
The most important issue in this post, though, is that France has a history as old and as grandiose as that of Britain, in fact preceding the unified British state history of England and Scotland only going back to 1603. The reason for emphasising this is the British sovereigntist-Eurosceptic tendency to regard France, like all European nations other than Britain in their view, as somehow less proud of their nationality, less patriotic, and less real as nations than Britain.
Really this is preposterous nonsense, and it should not be said that all British eurosceptics hold to this view, but it is hard to imagine the Eurosceptic current existing in Britain without this aspect of its culture, and hard to imagine even many of the more fastidious Eurosceptics do not believe this in their guts. The apparent willingness of France to share sovereignty with Germany in the EU even when Germany has become clearly the dominant EU country may to some degree explain this, but does not justify it.
More on this in the next post
4 thoughts on “Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation XVI, Britain’s Significant Others: France and Germany (1)”
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My latest post at Notes On Liberty in a long running series on Britain and Europe
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