Britain in Europe- Awkward partner or exasperated reformer? | Cameron Bradbury
Considering it took three laborious attempts to join the club, it might seem strange to those who negotiated our entry that we are the first to head for the exit door. The UK has always been seen as the awkward partner in Europe, but is that a fair description? When Britain wanted to lead in Europe- we almost always have done.
It fell to Britain under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher to end the years of “Eurosclerosis” by championing the Single European Act. Britain has always positively engaged with our European partners- in good faith- to attempt to establish an intergovernmental organisation which genuinely promotes free trade, capitalism, and economic cooperation.
We should not be surprised, however, the grandees in the European Union establishment have always held a different vision on what direction the European project should take. Supporters the European project have been open from the start for the desire to create a federal union.
The Treaty of Rome- signed in 1957 forms the constitutional basis on the European project. In the treaty, it outlines the principles of the community: “Determined to lay the foundations of an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe, Resolved to ensure the economic and social progress of their countries by common action to eliminate the barriers which divide Europe”.
I am not passing judgement about the aim of federal Europe or claiming these intentions are inherently iniquitous. The fathers of the European project were crystal clear from the outset in their desire for ever closer federal union. I just personally believe a fully federal Europe is a misguided utopian vision that will be hindered by competing parochial interests, bureaucracy and unaccountability.
Or- to use Margaret Thatcher’s later opinion on the EU- Europe’s reputation as a serious player in international affairs is unenviable. It is a feeble giant whose desperate attempts to be taken seriously are largely risible. It has a weak currency and a sluggish inflexible economy, still much reliant on hidden protectionism. It has a shrinking, ageing, population and, with the exception of Britain, rather unimpressive armed forces and, not excepting Britain, muddled diplomacy”.
Cards on the table, I did vote Brexit. I viewed the European project as having gone too far. I dislike our laws being subsidiary to the European Court of Justice. I find it baffling that the only democratic organ of the EU- the European Parliament- does not possess legislative initiative. Yes, I do recognise that the Commission is accountable to the European Parliament, however, commissioners are not directly elected and the Commission still yields an extraordinary amount of soft influence and power.
In the interest of balance, I do happen to like certain aspects of the European Union. For instance, I like free trade and I acknowledge the great progress that has been made in the fields of environmental protection and animal welfare. It is also laudable that the EU made democratisation a prerequisite to join the European bloc, which probably did compel some member states to commit to democracy, preventing a regression back to authoritarianism.
These positives do not change the fact that the European Union is the ultimate bureaucracy, wrapped in red tape regulated by pen-pushers. When Heath’s Government took the momentous constitutional decision, without the full support of a national consensus, the European project was forever seen as something “foreign”, something that happened onto us and with something we held no emotional investment in.
This mistake has come back to plague all of Mr. Heath’s successors.
In 1975- a year after the UK ascended to the European Economic Community a referendum was held. The UK voted to remain within the European Economic Community- this was a wise decision considering the political climate of the day. The UK economy was ravaged by socialism, inflation reached 24%. We were the sick man of Europe. It would have been economic lunacy to pull out of a club when the UK was in economically weaker position than most of the other members of the EEC.
Every single British Prime Minister since Edward Heath has attempted to make membership of the European Union work for Britain. Wilson attempted fundamental renegotiation. Maggie negotiated the Single European Act and got the British rebate. Major declared “Game set and match” whilst negotiating the Maastricht Treaty and in 2016 we are back to David Cameron with another fundamental “renegotiation”.
The only difference in 2016- is that the European project has evolved into something far more than a pro-market, free trade organisation. This evolution would not have surprised Eurosceptics. I mentioned above that the fathers of the European project did not conceal their ambitions to create a federal united Europe.
I believe, that if we were going to join the European project we should have done so from the very beginning and the UK did have the opportunity to do so, in fact, Jean Monnet came to London in 1950 to persuade the UK to sign up when the project was known “Schuman Plan”.
The Atlee Government responded with ambiguity and with ambiguity came indifference. The UK did not sign up and the Treaty of Paris was signed without UK involvement. From this moment on the rules of the game were drawn up to suit the original member states political aims, not ours.
I am not saying the Government of the day made the wrong decision- interesting side note Churchill himself actually advocated during WW2 full political union with France into a single nation-state- long live frangleterre I say!
But we did have the opportunity to join from the start and lead, to try and influence how the club rules were drawn up.
The UK has always been wary of grand European designs; in fact, we have spent hundreds of years squabbling with our friends and neighbours on the continent to prevent us being party to them. Jean Monnet said of Britain that “Britain will not act on hypothesis and will only act on facts”.
The economic facts of the 60’s and 70’s was that Europe was reaping the benefits of economic free trade whilst socialist Britain was being left behind.
Make no mistake, the UK joined the EEC for economic self-interest with no romantic attachment whatsoever to the grand design of a federal united Europe. When the UK did join, the EEC was in a state of Eurosclerosis- momentum towards ever closer union had been halted by the Empty Chair Crisis of 1965.
In the political environment of the time, it seemed an opportune moment to join both in terms of economic benefit and in terms of preventing moves towards federalisation.
I do not think it is fair to say that the UK has been an awkward partner in Europe, the UK just has a different outlook as to the end goal of the European project. I say again that every single Prime Minister has endeavoured to make Europe work for the UK, by attempting to reconcile irreconcilable ideological differences.
No Prime Minister has tried to alter the direction of the European project more than Margaret Thatcher. Maggie began her political career a committed pro-European- she viewed the EEC as a vehicle for free trade, capitalism and bulwark against the USSR. She ended her premiership as the standard bearer for the Eurosceptic cause.
I believe Thatcherism provides the intellectual foundation for Brexit. The Brexit political earthquake had its first tremors in 1988 when Margaret Thatcher delivered her scathing attack on Eurofederalism in Her Bruges speech.
I referenced above that it was British leadership that saw the Single European Act come to fruition ending years of political stalemate in Europe. Margaret Thatcher, a true believer in capitalism, supported a European wide single market with the free movement of goods, services, and capital.
Maggie believed that the Single Market was the natural end of the European project and was convinced to make concessions on qualified majority voting to bring the single market to life. However, her enthusiasm for the project quickly began to fade.
We can see from her later interventions on the Europe issue- she became angered that the European Commission, under Jacques Delors, used the new powers granted in the Single European Act to push ahead with an increasingly federalist agenda.
She would later tell an interviewer “It is etched on my heart, I trusted them (European leaders). I believed in them, I believed this was good faith between nations cooperating together… so… we got our fingers burnt. Once you’ve got your fingers burnt, you don’t go back and burn them again”.
History tells us that successive UK Governments underestimated the resolve of European elites to recklessly push ahead to reach their utopian end goal of a United Europe.
It is fair to say that it has usually been the UK which has put its foot on the federalist brake, standing in the way of the European grandees and their desire to move towards greater integration. But, I do not think it is fair to say Britain has been an awkward partner in Europe. We have compromised, bartered and negotiated to try and make Europe work for us.
Brexit is the result of exasperation from a country which has battled with the EU internally for years to reform its federalist ambitions.
The EU should learn the lessons from Brexit and adopt a more pragmatic approach to its member states instead of dogmatically sticking to a misguided vision of Europe, decided in the 1950s by France and West Germany.
If you’d like a simplistic summary of Brexit- it really is a struggle between two traditional ideologies. A British intergovernmental view of Europe or a supranational approach favoured by the European Union.
Far from being an awkward partner, we are more an exasperated reformer, attempting to inject some realism into this “Grand plan”. Without the UK’s steadying influence the EU will undoubtedly forge ahead towards ever closer union without us, but expect to see more and more political instability on the continent because now, moderate eurosceptics will not have the UK around to put its foot on the federalist break.