As Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee approaches, Europe faces turbulent times. Her near-record-breaking reign shows that she has borne witness to extraordinary change, summed up in two pop songs: Frankie Laine’s optimistic 1953 hit I believe and Ed Sheeran’s The Joker and the Queen.
What’s the betting that Sir Cliff Richard launches his singsong at the Jubilee with Congratulations? Followed by The Young Ones? After all, he has been around almost as long as ‘Brenda’ – as Private Eye famously dubbed the only monarch to have appeared alongside James Bond.
The Queen’s known a great many pop singers, out-lived calls to end the monarchy and seen 14 prime ministers come and go. She’s been head of state longer than any monarch in Europe. She’s known all the holders of the most important positions in the EU since European integration was a twinkle in the eye of post-World War 2 European leaders – who had resolved to make war between France and Germany economically impossible.
When she ascended to the throne, the European Economic Community (EEC) had not been established but its precursor, the European Coal and Steel Community, was just getting going. In 1954, France vetoed the creation of a European Defence Community when the UK refused to join it. Shortly after Britain felt the fall-out from the Suez crisis, the EEC was instituted and Britain countered with EFTA – the European Free Trade Area. After EFTA failed to meet the UK’s economic expectations, the UK’s first bid to join the EEC was rejected by French president Charles de Gaulle in 1961.
From Cold War Europe to Glasnost and back again?
The Queen is probably struck by parallels to the 1950s and 1960s today. For example, fear of the ‘Russian bear’ was acute in 1960, and British schoolchildren wrote to Soviet Union President Nikita Khrushchev as the Cuban missile crisis and nuclear threats shook the world.
She will have experienced the shock of US president John F Kennedy’s assassination, US president Richard Nixon’s impeachment, the Vietnam War, and myriad wars in the Middle East.
She would have also witnessed the building of the Berlin wall in 1961 and its pulling down in 1989, heralding German unification. She will have closely followed the promise of Glasnost and the great hopes of détente in the late 1980s and 1990s, bringing reconciliation and closer relations between Western and Eastern Europe.
Closer to home, she will have seen the peace process on the island of Ireland culminate with the signing of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement in 1998, having that same year stood alongside Irish president Mary McAleese to commemorate all Irish war dead at the all Ireland Messines peace park in Belgium. Some 100 years after her father George V visited Ireland, she made a historic visit in May 2011.
The Queen will have experienced the 1970s energy crisis, wars around the world, and Europe responding by pushing for greater cooperation and very gradually moving towards the kind of defence cooperation among the now 27 members precipitated by the war in Ukraine, hitherto unforeseeable when the UK, Ireland and Denmark joined the EEC in 1973.
Witnessing Europe’s arc of expansion
The Queen met EU Commission presidents when their role on the world stage was limited, unlike that of the current Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. When the UK joined, there had been four presidents of the EU Commission. The first (and only) British Commission president – Roy Jenkins – took up office in 1977 at a time when monetary union and a common currency were on the threshold of becoming more than an integrationist’s dream.
Best remembered in the UK – and the butt of British tabloid scorn – was the reformist Jacques Delors, who headed the EU Commission for three successive terms from 1985 to 1995. The Queen would have seen the optimism surrounding the launch of the single market, the realisation of EU citizenship, common EU passports, and the EU’s member states growing from six to nine, to ten, then 15, over the same period.
She would have seen many EU members opt for the euro in 2002; and witnessed referendums in different member states – including Ireland – on EU reforms. She would have seen European countries clamouring to join the EU at the time Euro-scepticism was beginning to grow in the UK. But she will have witnessed all the years of UK membership of the EU where the UK was a fair but constructive critic and builder of major EU policy reforms, including on the single market and also judicial and defence cooperation.
The capricious mood music of a changing Britain
By the time the Queen was 90, she had seen the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence fall. She will have seen the first referendum on EU membership in 1975, and the divisive and destabilising results of the second British referendum on EU membership in 2016 – pro-EU marches by over a million people in London failing to deter successive Conservative governments from either Brexit or working obstructively and antagonistically with our former European partners.
She will have seen world and European leaders come and go. She will have seen fashions and music change – and with it the mood music of the country. The optimism of the 1960s, 1990s and Olympics in 2012 has long since evaporated but the quintessential pro-European sentiment of a defiant many has grown stronger since the referendum.
Until 2016, those under 50 may not remember life outside the European Economic Community, as the EU was originally called. And fewer still may recall voting in the first referendum. Only children under seven years old will not have had any experience of being in the EU. The rest of us know what it was to be an EU citizen able to travel, settle and work freely across our continent whenever we liked and for as long as we liked. Many now will recognise how much more their local communities received in regional and social funding from the EU than from post-Brexit Conservative governments.
From optimism to uncertainty, the Queen embodies continuity
Few may realise that the Queen formally visited the EU and, in a speech to the European parliament on 12 May 1992, applauded European unification and closer relations among EU countries. This was at a time when EU reform was proceeding and, as usual, Conservative-led governments were deeply divided over it.
But the Queen had seen it all before, having received EU dignitaries and leaders since 1952. She met both the French president (de Gaulle) who rejected the UK’s first application to join the EEC in 1961, and the French president (Pompidou) who enthusiastically supported Britain’s bid to join in the 1970s.
The Queen may recall all this too and wonder what her next prime minister will bring. She may speculate whether British political scandals will still be the stuff of European comedy shows modelled on The Crown. She will doubtless see that the European media’s fascination with the lives of the royals remains. But above all, she must worry that the UK’s disintegration outside the EU is a very real and present danger and hope that sense, in some form, will prevail.
Peace is fragile at the best of times. Queen Elizabeth’s long reign started on an optimistic note of reconciliation after the Second World War. Her Jubilee is tarnished by the war in Ukraine, political turbulence at home and darkness threatening Europe. Will Britain continue to stand aloof from European solidarity?