“Freight to EU may change November 1. Check papers,” declare signs on the M5 motorway in Gloucestershire. The cryptic lines, on electronic signs that are used generally for announcing road traffic congestion ahead, are a mark of a return to the mid-Twentieth Century, to times that were not typical in the history of international relations.
Prior to 1914, common currencies and open borders were normal in Europe. Turn to the 1913 edition of the Bradshaw’s Continental Railway Guide and on page lxx, there is “A Concise Table of Foreign Moneys”. France, Italy Belgium and Switzerland each have the Franc as their currency, and while Greece has the drachma, the Franc is readily acceptable. A note to the table says,
“In France, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, and Greece, 5 franc pieces are legal tender in each country, irrespective of their country of origin. Smaller Italian coins only pass in their own country; French, Belgian and Swiss small silver coins pass indiscriminately, but not the copper or nickel centimes”.
Nine decades before the Euro became a hard currency in 2002, there was a common currency in wide circulation in a Europe where borders were more open than they would be for the next eighty years.
More significant than the acceptance of currencies across five countries, passports were not considered to be a necessary requirement. Pages lxvi-lxvii of the 1913 Bradshaw have “Regulations respecting Passports”. Denmark, Iceland, Greece, Norway and Sweden have “No Regulations in force”. The notes on Austria and Hungary and the Netherlands say Passports are not legally necessary. In France, “the possession of a Passport may save inconvenience” and in the German Empire “the possession of a Passport is not obligatory”.
In the current atmosphere of antipathy towards European integration, it seems extraordinary to imagine that in 1913, a single Europe seemed a possibility. It would have been a Europe without the accumulation of bureaucracy and regulation that accompanied the development of the European Union. Freedom of movement did not mean freedom of trade,, the drawback of travel in those times was that customs duties were imposed at every border. The only duty free goods that were permitted were those that might be used in the course of a railway journey.
Had the catastrophe that befell Europe the following year not occurred, a single Europe might have been possible at a much earlier date, and it might have done so without commissions, councils and parliaments.
After 1st November, Britain may return not to the situation that existed for much of history, but to the officialdom and restrictions that arrived after 1914.