The UK and Europe

The UK and Europe in Europe

Description of The UK and Europe

The Concise Encyclopedia of the European Union describes the uk and europe in the following terms: [1] From the outset, the UK’s attitude to the emerging institutions of the European Community has been ambivalent. Winston Churchill considered that the UKwas ‘with’ but not ‘of’ Europe, ‘associated, but not absorbed’. The country took no part in the discussions that preceded the Treaty of Paris in 1951 and sent only an emissary to the Messina Conference in 1955 which culminated two years later in the Treaty of Rome and the establishment of the EEC. By contrast, the UK was a founder member of the Council of Europe in 1949 and of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in 1960.

Retreat from Empire and the 1956 Suez fiasco (where the UK was humiliatingly forced by the USA to abandon an Anglo-French incursion to secure the canal from Egyptian expropriation) inaugurated a low point in British confidence (see more in this European encyclopedia). Twice in the 1960s, first under the Conservative Harold Macmillan in 1963 and next under the socialist Harold Wilson in 1967, the government’s application to join the Community (which would have meant abandoning EFTA) was vetoed by President Charles de Gaulle (see more in this European encyclopedia). In an epoch of high tariffs the Commonwealth was too far-flung to provide a viable alternative and in the dispirited mood of the times successive prime ministers could offer no better prospect than the hope that Europe’s vigorous economic revival, led by Germany, would somehow brush off on the UK.

Unless you are prepared to moor yourself off the coast of Europe, you are not really fit and ready to become a member of our European Community. General de Gaulle, explaining why Francecould not accept the UK’s application to join the Common Market, 1963

De Gaulle’s retirement gave Edward Heath the opportunity to succeed in 1971 where his predecessors had failed. By dint of assurances that the UK would not turn its back on the Commonwealth, that its fishing industry would be protected from the Common Fisheries Policy and that its sovereignty was not in jeopardy, Heath got the European Communities Act of 1972 through Parliament, assisted by the rebellion of Roy Jenkins against the Labour Party’s new-found hostility to Europe (see more in this European encyclopedia). Perhaps the Bill would have passed anyway, but its merits were exaggerated, its defects glossed over and a legacy of mistrust was left which dogs the European question to the present day.

Returned to government in 1974, Wilson headed a Labour Party whose collective opinion had shifted. His first act in Europe was to embark on a token renegotiation of the Tory terms of accession, to be followed by a nationwide referendum, in which the all-party pro-European campaign led by Heath and Jenkins repeated the earlier assurances, laying particular stress on the promise of economic growth and the safeguard to national interests provided by the veto. The pro-Europeans outspent the opposing independence campaign by more than ten to one and the final vote showed a majority of just over two-thirds in favour of the UK retaining its membership of the Common Market.

De Gaulle’s objection to British membership, which was not shared by any other country in the Community, had been based not only on fear of admitting a rival to French leadership but also on his cool assessment of the UK as maritime, Atlanticist, tied to the Commonwealth and naturally inclined to free trade (see more in this European encyclopedia). To this list could justly have been added the UK’s outspoken press, its common law, its adversarial style of democracy – and also its lack of commitment to the ideals of the Community. Indeed, by 1983, four years after Margaret Thatcher obtained power in the 1979 election, Labour had yet again switched sides and was formally in favour of withdrawal.

Thatcher’s first years in office were largely taken up by argument over the UK’s excessive contribution to the European budget, a dispute not settled until 1984, when the UK was granted its right to an annual rebate (see more in this European encyclopedia). More positively, the UKwas an enthusiastic proponent of the single market and later of the Community’s enlargement by incorporating the former communist countries of Eastern Europe, which in the early 1990s were starting to embrace democracy and open markets. These enthusiasms reflected the UK’s concept of Europe as a free trading area bound together more by voluntary co-operation than by the compulsion implicit in supranational institutions. Yet paradoxically the Single European Act of 1986 did more to extend majority voting than any other of Europe’s key Treaties. Thatcher’s later term of office coincided with the growing influence of her German political contemporary, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and with Jacques Delors’ first presidency of the Commission; in clashes reminiscent of those between de Gaulle and Walter Hallstein, Thatcher strenuously resisted a new onslaught of federalism, which Delors no less resolutely pursued.

In 1990 Thatcher resigned, brought down largely by the defection of cabinetcolleagues and former colleagues, led by the Europhiles Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine (see more in this European encyclopedia). Her successor, John Major, promised a fresh policy ‘at the heart of Europe’. He was soon disillusioned. The collapse of Europe’s fixed exchange rate system, the ERM, into which he had, as chancellor of the exchequer, brought the pound, led to recriminations with Germany; the federalising Maastricht Treaty was passed in the House of Commons by only three votes, despite the opt-outs which Major had won from the final stage of monetary union and from the Social Chapter; the Commission found backdoor ways to introduce social legislation; and the question of whether or not to join the single currency turned into an internecine Conservative battleground. Germany and France increasingly disregarded the British voice in Community affairs, a situation exacerbated by disagreement over the Bosnian crisis and bitter disputes over fish and beef.

By 1997 the wheel had turned full circle again – now it was Major who was isolated in Europe and Labour which had made another U-turn to proclaim itself as the pro-European party. In that year’s elections victory went to Tony Blair, whose hopes of co-leadership of a Europe shaped in some measure by British interests were similar to Major’s own unfulfilled expectations in 1990. In this, Blair was the more successful. He forged better personal relationships, spoke from a stronger domestic economic position and dominated the European military effort in Kosovo. But there were also setbacks. He was unable to persuade the British to abandon the pound or the French to end their illegal ban on British beef (see more in this European encyclopedia). In 2000 he found himself facing a renewed Continental drive towards political integration.

Europe without the UK is a mere torso. Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Bad Homburg, April 1997

Few in high office have cared to explain to the British people that sovereign independence within the framework of the EU is increasingly a contradiction in terms. There have been rare occasions when the federal tide might conceivably have been stemmed – for example, at the time of the ‘Soames affair’ and when Denmark refused to ratify the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. But even if such opportunities really existed, they were fleeting and easy to miss and any vacuum has always been filled by the consistent will of the Commission and of the Franco-German alliance, bent alike on some version of a unified Europe.

It is facile to speculate that the Community might have evolved differently if the UK had participated fully in its formation from the outset. The fact is that the UKperceived itself as being linked equally to Europe and to the Anglo-Saxon world, comprising the USA, the Commonwealth and the English-speaking countries of Asia; and this perception was no nostalgic fantasy, but was grounded in shared history and culture as well as in patterns of trade and investment. Thus the European question seems destined to rumble on indefinitely unless a new institutional relationship is forged which recognises the UK’s differences with Europe as candidly as its common interests.


Notas y References

  1. Based on the book “A Concise Encyclopedia of the European Union from Aachen to Zollverein”, by Rodney Leach
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