A Lesson From History

Unequal treaties usually come unstuck later, sometimes with terrible consequences.

versailles-1In January 1919 twenty seven (!) nations began negotiating the terms of peace after World War I ended; Germany was excluded from the talks. This soon reduced to just the major allied powers. The French wanted huge reparations and to ensure its adversary was neutered as a threat by weakening its industrial might, including the annexation of its iron and coal resources. The British wanted to ensure a recovered Germany would be a counterweight to French ambitions to become the dominant European nation; it also wanted the Royal Navy to remain supreme. Both countries wanted to annex Germany’s colonies but America thwarted that ambition. Germany had no option at the time but to sign what became the Treaty of Versailles, losing territory, resources, ships (scuttled at Scapa Flow) and big money (and building huge resentment, which led to the next confrontation). None of the Allies were really happy with the outcome and several revisions were made through later plans and treaties; Germany regarded the settlement as unfairly punitive. The Treaty signed 100 years ago did not resolve Europe’s conflicts; will a treaty mostly imposed upon the UK end Europe’s current trouble? Or an agreement currently being slowly and torturously imposed on Switzerland? [For the material on Switzerland below we drew on the Daily Telegraph article by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, on 2nd July.]

Switzerland has prized its neutrality for more than 200 years. Although it was criticised by some for its balancing act during World War 2, others respected its position. Winston Churchill, in a letter to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden in 1944, said:

Of all the neutrals, Switzerland has the greatest right to distinction…What does it matter whether she has been able to give us the commercial advantages we desire or has given too many to the Germans…? She has been a democratic state, standing for freedom in self-defence…and largely on our side.”

During the War Switzerland became completely surrounded by Axis countries and their forces. For a while Germany planned to invade but either thought better of it or was dissuaded by Switzerland’s defences. Germany had the power then but didn’t use it; now, under the guise of the EU and without the need for military force, Germany—sorry the EU—is back, using its economic might to threaten the formidably and directly democratic Swiss.

Swiss in EUSwiss leaders’ fight with the EU, which is trying to impose its will on Switzerland, is becoming increasingly difficult to manage, in the David v. Goliath action that is on-going as we write, though the Swiss scored a point in the first round. The EU is determined to shut down the idiosyncratic “Swiss model”. It aims to bring the country within the EU’s legal and regulatory control once and for all, under a new framework agreement.

This means suspending 120 bilateral accords one by one as they fall due, progressively shutting the Swiss out of the EU’s economic, transport, and political system until they capitulate. It amounts to a sanctions regime. So far the Swiss are resisting the EU pressure and this resistance cuts across the political spectrum from right to left. The Swiss parliament has refused to accept the imposed framework agreement unless it is renegotiated, which the General Secretary of the European Commission (and thus its chief civil servant), Martin Selmayr, has reportedly said is a “non-starter” (which reminds us of Michel Barnier’s statement on the UK withdrawal ‘agreement’).

The EU’s position is that Switzerland must accept the writ of the European Court of Justice and “dynamic alignment” of EU legislation over migration, social security rules, and key areas of economic policy, in perpetuity. [1] It seems that Swiss popular democracy will not submit easily. The Swiss government’s response to the EU was that it is “practically certain” that any ‘final’ text will have to pass a popular vote.Graffiti

Although the weapons employed by the EU are economic, the ambition is purely political. However, the EU risks paying a high price with its bullying; it displays a damaging inability to live peacefully within near abroad.

Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty has this:

The Union shall develop a special relationship with neighbouring countries, aiming to establish an area of prosperity and good neighbourliness, founded on the values of the Union and characterised by close and peaceful relations based on cooperation. [2]

For Britain, which also may be regarded as the ‘near abroad’, the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) [3] and [4], set up between the EU and the UK Government, is the ‘treaty’ we have in mind, which would have to be imposed given that it has been rejected three times so far by the UK Parliament. As with Versailles, all those years ago, the WA is “the only deal on the table”, according to the EU, the Government and furious Remainers. What are the prospects for the UK leaving the EU on 31 October this year, if a deal cannot be achieved? [5]

WTO-1One possibility is that some, lightly varied, version of the WA will be accepted by Parliament as better than no deal at all. The other, which we have discussed before, is that Article 24 of the WTO/GATT regime gives some prospect that a non-disastrous ‘no deal’ exit can be fashioned. [6] and [7]


The history lesson we draw from this is that unequal, enforced treaties don’t last, they will be challenged, then modified or overthrown.

[1] Dynamic Compliance – Endlessly Trapped (26/09/2016)

[2] Only Believe (if only) (07/02/2019)

[3] A Withdrawal Agreement (18/01/2019)

[4] Draft Withdrawal Agreement: a Fatal Flaw (04/12/2018)

[5] What might Adam Smith think? (16/01/2017)

[6] This and GATT (26/03/2019)

[7] The Boot’s on the Other Foot (05/07/2019)


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