In order to examine Britain’s’ attitude towards European integration following the establishment of the EEC between 1957 and 1992 General Election, it is important to consider several factors. Firstly, I will attempt to examine the events, which led up to the formation of the EEC from the end of the Second World War. Secondly, Britain’s relationship with the EEC prior to becoming a member in 1973. Thirdly, the attitudes of other EEC members towards Britain and finally the legislation and its affect on Britain’s attitude towards the EEC must also be considered.
Following the end of the Second World War, Europe was shattered in both economic and infrastructure. Europe needed rebuilding after six years of war and it was Winston Churchill who in a speech in Zurich in September 1946 first talked of a “kind of united states of Europe”. Following the earlier customs union of the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) the creation in 1949 of the Council of Europe, of which Britain was a member, was one of the first moves towards a close integrated Europe.
In 1951, inspired by a speech Robert Schuman the French foreign minister, led to the signing of the Treaty of Paris to establish the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). The original six members were France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux nations. Britain chose not to take part at this time feeling that its trade and contact with its fast diminishing Empire and growing Commonwealth would serve its interests better.
The ECSC was a great success and after the Messina Conference in 1955, to which Britain only sent a low level delegation, set out the move to fuller integration and led to the 1957 Treaty of Rome (enacted in 1958) which established the European Economic Community (EEC). Britain did however later join the European Free Trade Association in 1960 along with Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Switzerland and Sweden.
Britain and the other EFTA members were not looking towards European integration but more to increase trade and wait for the EEC to open its markets to them as well. This perhaps could be seen, as been a pragmatic approach to European integration on the part of Britain. Britain must have realised very soon however that membership of the EEC was worthwhile economically as in 1961 a formal application for membership was submitted along with applications from Denmark and Ireland.
Interestingly, the application was under the leadership of a Conservative Prime minister, Harold Macmillan. However, Britain at the time was having major balance of payment difficulties and joining the EEC was possibly in the hope that integration into EEC and the opening of those markets would help the economy rather than a move to join through an ideological argument. Macmillan had also speeded up the process of decolonialisation in a further attempt to reduce Britain’s overseas expenditure.
In 1963 however, France’s President De Gaulle announced that France would veto Britain’s application for membership stating that “whilst it is true that Britain lies close to Europe, her heart is across the Atlantic” in reference to Britain’s then very close ties with the USA over the Polaris nuclear deterrent and its involvement in NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) from which France had resigned. This certainly had an effect on the Britain’s attitude to the EEC and its integration ideas, and became one of mistrust.
Following France’s later boycott of EEC institutions in 1965 over voting rights on issues which affected domestic politics and that unanimity must be achieved in these matters all applications for new members were suspended until 1967 when Britain reapplied. De Gaulle again attempted to veto this application with the argument that as Britain had just devalued the pound sterling he predicted that that entry by Britain would damage the community to nothing more than a free trade association and not a political union as well. Again the EEC, and in particular France and De Gaulle, had blocked Britain’s application to join.
It must be said that De Gaulle distrusted the British after the appalling way in which Churchill and Roosevelt treated him during his exile in London during World War Two as leader of the Free French Forces. Again it can be seen that Britain’s attitude would have been affected by a second rebuttal of their application for membership. Indeed it was only after De Gaulle resignation in 1969 and in his first speech his successor Georges Pompidou stated that he had no objection to a further application by Britain to join the EEC.
In 1973 Britain joined the EEC along with Denmark and Ireland with Norway rejecting membership in a referendum. In Britain a parliamentary majority of only seventeen secured ratification of membership for Edward Heaths Conservative government again from a party, which in the modern era has been staunchly, anti-Europe was responsible for Britain’s entry to it. At the time the opposition Labour Party would not select members to sit in the European Assembly, the forerunner to the elected parliament in protest.
Britain however, still considered itself a world power first and an EEC member first. This perhaps best illustrated by when in 1973 OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) limited their production to drive up oil prices and Britain negotiated its own deal with OPEC and not a joint deal with the other EEC members. This decision again perhaps gave ammunition to those in the EEC who thought that Britain’s attitude was not as a wholly committed partner to the European cause of integration.
Britain’s attitude to European integration was further confused when in 1974 Labour came to power under Harold Wilson, having successfully argued that Britain’s entry terms to the EEC had been unfair. In particular the agreements on the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) had not according to Labour been in Britain’s best interests, with the exception of help for a few isolated hill farmers. Basically Britain paid in more than it got out in funding to the CAP. This in part led to a referendum on membership of the EEC being held and despite 67. % (Nicoll, W & Salmon, C Understanding the New European Community Harvester, UK 1994:p254) of those voting many people still remained suspicious of EEC membership and our EEC partners still saw this as Britain dragging its feet in Europe. In a positive light however the position of Britain’s membership had been settled and now how the country tackled further integration remained to be seen. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government came to power promising a radical movement in monetarist policies and in particular Britain’s contributions to the EEC.
However, Britain again displayed its mistrusting attitude of the EEC by refusing to enter the ERM (Exchange Rate Mechanism) and the continuing exchanges over CAP (ibid:p256) In Thatcher’s second term of office the first stages of what was to become the biggest piece of European legislation to pass through the UK parliament was that of the Single European Act of 1986 (SEA). This fitted in with the ideology of the government at the time with its emphasis on deregulation of markets, unfortunately as ever the social aspects of the SEA did bother the government at the time and Britain’s attitude was one of free market yes, rights to workers no.
Thatcher further infuriated other EEC members with a now famous speech she made in Bruges in 1988 where she stated that Britain had “successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state… only to see them reinposed at a European level” (ibid:p257) This seemed to be the Thatcher doctrine at the time and was seen in Europe that Britain’s attitude was one of taking the best opportunities from the EEC and rejecting those it didn’t like and it was not popular with the other member states.
In some respects the EEC was also Thatcher’s downfall as when she would not commit to further Economic and Monetary Union EMU (a system devised to stabilise exchange rates and inflation within the EEC) and was replaced as leader by the more pro-European John Major. John Major brought Britain into the more integrated Europe through his championing of the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 for the creation of the Single European Market. He wouldn’t though accept any social policies put forward such as those concerned with workers rights.
So still Britain’s attitude to the rest of Europe and further integration on a social scale seemed unlikely under a Conservative government. It was later that William Hague as leader of the party declared that Britain should “be in Europe but not governed by Europe” In conclusion it can be seen that since its inception in 1957 the EEC has been viewed by Britain with a considerable degree of suspicion. What does seem clear is that of the other nations which have joined the EEC since the original six members, Britain has been the slowest to accept that fuller social and political integration is in its interests.
Britain’s attitude of in many respects of sitting on the sidelines perhaps stems from our past history of standing alone as a world power and a mistrust of foreigners. The fact remains that Britain is stronger as a power within the EEC and that our national interests have been well served through membership, particularly in terms of trade. Some of the reluctance to integrate further could be blamed on the attitude not of Britain, but on that of France, and De Gaulle. Further integration has again been postponed in Britain with the decision by the current Labour government not to enter the new Euro currency along with the other member states.
Only Denmark and Greece are outside the Euro zone and this is only because Greece hasn’t reached the agreed convergence point required with the other economies and even though Demark voted against joining it has pegged its own currency to the same value level as the Euro. The British belief in subsidiarity, government taking place at the lowest level (Robertson, D Dictionary of Politics Penguin London, UK 1993:p452), points to an attitude of distrust of a strong central European government.
Britain will it is to be hoped become a more active member of the European Union as it is now and with the proposed expansion to some twenty or so member states over the next decade a fully integrated Britain in Europe would possibly strengthen Britain and Europe. This however will only occur if a new attitude to integration, that perhaps Prime Minister Blair possesses, is achieved nationally with the people and politically in government.