Gas pipeline (picture Roger May)

There is a new trade war in Europe, between Russia and the Ukraine over the cost of gas. The EU is convening its experts over fears that it might get dragged in. Much of the EU’s own gas supply comes from Russia through pipelines that cross the Ukraine, and any disruption could be very damaging. (Read the BBC report on the issue here

There have been proposals to improve the way that the EU goes about its energy policy. Article III-256 of the constitutional treaty would have done this, but of course this remains in suspended animation for the time being.

There were British critics of the constitutional treaty who were afraid of this article because, they feared, it would give the EU control of Britain’s North Sea oil. Not so, of course, it wouldn’t have done that.

What’s more, Britain’s fabled North Sea oil is running out. We are joining the rest of the EU as a net importer of energy, with the same interests as them in ensuring a secure supply at reasonable prices. (Remember this, the next time that someone says to you that Britain should try to emulate Norway as a non-member of the EU.) A collective EU policy as regards purchasing gas would be better for all of us than allowing ourselves to be drawn into an auction, bidding against each other. As an example of the common European interest, this is a very good one.

And actually, this is how supranationalism in Europe started. It wasn’t to make peace, it was to win war. Jean Monnet tells the story in his Memoirs.

For the first two years of the first world war, the different Allied countries – Britain, France and Italy – had been bidding against each other for supplies of wheat from Canada, Argentina and the United States, sometimes pushing up the prices which they all had to pay. Slowly, arrangements were introduced whereby information was exchanged between the different national purchasing operations to try and bring some kind of order to the system. It worked, but not very well, until on 29 November 1916 a fully-fledged joint operation was established. This coordinated the acquisition and shipping of wheat, despatching it to wherever it was needed most.

In one sense, this was a substantial step forward. Each combatant power was willing to give up exclusive control of a part of its war effort in the common interests of the alliance as a whole (the same step was not taken with the armed forces, by the way). In another sense, this was merely the expression of the notion that a defeat for France would inevitably lead to defeat for Britain and that, therefore, keeping France in the war was an integral part of the British war effort. It should have been obvious.

The same principle was adopted at the start of the second world war, too, to acquire food, raw materials and above all aeroplanes. The Anglo-French Coordinating Committee was chaired by Monnet (“the first federal official of the New World”) and set up a Purchasing Board in Washington DC to maximise the buying power of the western European allies in the face of the Nazi threat.

Supranational institutions turn out to be the best way to protect a common interest, when the different national policies might actually serve to undermine each other. We Europeans are going to get a much better deal from the Russians over gas, or anything else, if we stick together.

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