Bargaining on Europe

Britain and the First Common Market, 1860-1892
Marsh, Peter
Date published: 
October 1999

In the year in which the Euro has been formally launched as the common currency of the countries of the European Union, the fact that this is not the first, but the second major attempt to establish a common European marketplace - and currency - is clearly of striking interest. Through painstaking research in disparate archives, Peter Marsh has retrieved a thirty-year attempt at pan-Europeanism, and written a compelling account of its rise and fall.

In the late Victorian age, tariffs rather than interest rates, were the levers of commercial negotiation. The network of tariff-reducing treaties that spread across western and central Europe in the 1860s grew from a British initiative, and was inspired by British experience. It precipitated a prosperous expansion of trade among the participating nations and, in a century riven by debate between free trade and protection, held the European market open. But when economic depression revived protectionism on the continent, Britain refused to restore its tariff barriers. The result, especially during an era of high tariffs in the United States, was marginalisation from the commercial diplomacy of Europe. With Britain's relegation to poorer markets overseas, France withdrew from the free trade network which was then reconstructed around Germany.

The British experience of founding and then distancing itself from the first common market is barely remembered today. But there are many intriguing resonances with the modern European experience, and in particular the current debate about the membership of the European Monetary Union.