Britain’s vocation in Europe

This post is the first of series of posts by CEFEUS Jean Monnet Studentship Holder 2015-16, Francesco Violi on Britain’s European future.

For better or for worse, Britain’s European vocation has always been a complex one, subject to considerable change over the decades. British history is replete with examples of just how multifaceted and changeable the question of Britain’s relationship with the EU has been.

Every Prime Minister had different ideas about Britain’s role in the EU (or EEC, as it was prior to 1993). Some, like Edward Heath, were pro-European and favoured British membership of a political union. Heath was prime minister when Britain joined the European Economic Community and he was personally very committed in promoting the British membership. Referring to De Gaulle’s rejection of British accession, Heath remarked: “The end of the negotiations is a blow to the cause of the wider European unity for which we have been striving. We are a part of Europe, by geography, history, culture, tradition and civilization … There have been times in the history of Europe when it has been only too plain how European we are; and there have been many millions of people who have been grateful for it. I say to my colleagues: they should have no fear. We in Britain are not going to turn out backs on the mainland of Europe or the countries of the Community.” Over the course of his life he defended his decision to pursue membership, describing British accession as “the most enthralling episode in my life” and stating that both political union and a single currency were on his mind from the very beginning.

At the time, it was the Labour party that was more associated with euroscepticism, although as is usual in British politics, party opinion was generally divided on the issue. Harold Wilson, Labour prime minister from 1964-70 and 1974-76, was not all that dissimilar to David Cameron when it came to Europe, calling in 1975 the first referendum on British EEC membership. During his first term – prior to Britain joining – his attitude to Europe was conditional:“Given a fair wind, we will negotiate our way into the Common Market, head held high, not crawling in. Negotiations? Yes. Unconditional acceptance of whatever terms are offered us? No”. Two years after British accession, in 1975, he turned this conditional support into reality, holding a referendum on continued British membership (his personally favoured outcome) and issuing a vague statement of British demands remeniscent of David Cameron’s more recent call for a ‘renegotiation’ of Britain’s relationship with Europe. Whilst the referendum passed in favour of continued membership, the Labour goverment maintained its distance from Europe, keeping the UK outside the European Monetary System, even though the proposal was tailored and implemented by the British/Labour Jenkins Commission.

Labour’s defeat of in the 1979 general election ushered in a more sceptical, more complex relationship with Europe, as Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher took the helm of the British ship of state. Thatcher shaped the British relation to Europe during one of its most significant phases. The Bruges speech of 20th September 1989, in which she clearly stated her objection to political union, was remeniscent of the strong commitment to sovereigntism undergirding her approach. Days later, during a debate in the House of Commons, she stated: “The President of the Commission, Mr. Delors said at a press conference the other day that he wanted the European Parliament to be the democratic body of the Community, he wanted the Commission to be the Executive and he wanted the Council of Ministers to be the Senate. No. No. No.” While Thatcher had been a strong supporter of an intergovernmental community, and opposed moves towards ‘ever closer union’, she was a staunch supporter of the single market, an ideal that meshed with her free-market, laissez faire philosophy (the so-called ‘new right’). She was also an early supporter of the expansion of the community into Central and Eastern Europe, remarking: “We must never forget that east of the Iron Curtain, peoples who once enjoyed a full share of European culture, freedom and identity have been cut off from their roots. We shall always look on Warsaw, Prague and Budapest as great European cities”.

Thatcher’s successor, John Major, Conservative prime minister from 1990-97), put forward a more moderate agenda. While his predecessor was committed to avoiding the single currency at all costs, Major negotiated additional opt-outs. By ring-fencing the British concern for sovereignty and allowing the remaining countries to establish deeper ties, the opt-outs facilitated the transformation of the EEC into the European Union and made possible the creation of a single currencly (the Euro). Major can thus be viewed as one of the principal contributors to the idea of a ‘two-speed Europe’. Major himself was a committed supporter of Britain’s EU membership. “Let us not forget why we joined the Community”, he argued, “it has given us jobs. New markets. New horizons. Nearly 60 per cent of our trade is now with our partners. It is the single most important factor in attracting a tide of Japanese and American investment to our shores, providing jobs for our people. It is absolutely vital for businesses, big and small – and for our prospects of economic growth. There isn’t a single business leader who believes Britain’s interests lie outside. And I hope they will make their views clear – and public.  He strongly supported the adoption of the treaty of Maastricht, which he helped negotiate, although many in his party opposed the treaty, and the Major was forced into declaring the parliamentary vote on the treaty a ‘vote of confidence’ in order to stave-off a bachbench rebellion.

In the 1997 general election ‘New’ Labour swept to power under Tony Blair, regarded as the most pro-European British prime minister since the era of Macmillan and Heath. Under Blair’s leadership Labour’s stance on the EU became more supportive. As Blair explained in a speech at the European Research Institute: “Britain’s future is inextricably linked with Europe; that to get the best out of it, we must make the most of our strength and influence within it; and that to do so, we must be whole-hearted, not half-hearted, partners in Europe. We have a vision for Europe – as a union of nations working more closely together, not a federal superstate submerging national identity. It is the right vision for Europe. Let us have the confidence to go out and win support for it” He was supportive of monetary integration and made noises that Britain may one day join the single currency. In the end, this did not occur, not only because Conservative election campaigns continually emphasised the need to ‘Keep the Pound’, but also because Blair’s Chancellor, Gordon Brown, led opposition to the Euro from within the Treasury. As he stated in a interview in The Times: “I’m a great supporter of the European Union. I didn’t support entry to the Euro, not because I’m against it in principle but because I didn’t think it was economically right for Britain. But that doesn’t make me any less pro-European.

However, Brown was no eurosceptic; after all, after 2007, when Blair finally resigned and Brown ascended to the prime ministership, it was Brown’s failure to call a referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon which contributed to the precipitous decline in popularity that was to ultimately lose Labour the 2010 election.

From the statements above it is clear that none of the above put Britain’s European vocation in doubt. Opininions may have changed. Some PMs may have been federalist or antifederalist, more or less pro-European, but none of them ever questioned that the future of Britain was in Europe. Although the incumbent prime minister David Cameron is currently seeking a renegotiation of the terms of British membership, he has indicated on numrous occasions that he would prefer Britain to remain in Europe. Nevertheless, we are now facing one of the most historic moments in British history, and British citizens must decide whether the future of their country lies within Europe or outside. The future of the European vocation, shared by successive British prime ministers, now hinges on the promised 2017 referendum. Watch this space.

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