The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland joined the European Economic Community (EEC) on 1 January 1973. The decision was made by Prime Minister Edward Heath without consulting the British people by way of a referendum. In 1974 a Labour Government came to power led by Harold Wilson and renegotiated the United Kingdom’s terms of membership of the European Community. In order to gauge the support of the people for the country’s continued membership of the Common Market, a referendum was organised on 5 June 1975. The electorate expressed their support with a majority of 67%.
One could have thought that was the end of the matter. The reality was that the people of the United Kingdom never appeared to be content within the European Community, later the European Union. Over the years there have been constant frustrations about the progressive and never-ending transfer of sovereignty from the United Kingdom to the European regulatory bodies in Brussels. The outcome has been a plethora of new regulations imposed by European institutions in countless domestic matters.
In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher complained about the level of contributions of the United Kingdom to the European Community and fought to get her ‘money back’. After four years of struggle she obtained the consent of her European partners to agree to a rebate which is still in force today.
More recently, David Cameron tried to strike a new deal with his European partners with the view to promoting the ‘remain campaign’ and succeeding in the referendum. To the surprise of many the majority of the electorate voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. In order to understand how this decision could be logical and justified, it is necessary to consider (1) the reasoning behind the creation of the European Union and (2) the particular circumstances of the United Kingdom in relation to the other countries of continental Europe.
1. The reasoning behind the creation of the European Union
After the Second World War, a major concern in Europe was to prevent war at any time in the future between the nations on continental Europe and particularly France and Germany. At the time, coal and steel were the two main natural resources required to make war. The idea put forward by Jean Monnet, was to establish a new European organisation that would merge the production and commercialisation of coal and steel between France and Germany so as to “make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible” according to Robert Shuman, French Foreign Minister, who launched the project on 9 May 1950. Subsequently, the European Coal and Steel Community was established by the Treaty of Paris in 1951.
A few years later the same idea was applied to other sectors of the economy so as to create a comprehensive common market between France and Germany and all other European countries who wished to be associated with the European project. As a result the Treaty of Rome, creating the European Economic Community (EEC), was signed in 1957 by the six founding countries: Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany. The Common Market was run by new institutions which were empowered to impose regulations on member states that would unify the market and replace previous domestic laws. The purpose was to constrain state members towards an ever closer integration by progressive transfer of sovereignty, so as to eventually create the United States of Europe. The Common Market was indeed the first step that would enable State members to move on to financial union with the view to achieving a political union.
Therefore, being part of the Common Market meant not only joining a trade organisation that would make movement of goods and services easier and cheaper, it also implied committing the State to agreeing to surrender their sovereignty to supra-national authorities that one day would become the supreme authority of a federal state of Europe. However, it does not appear that the purpose of the ECC was ever made clear to the people of the United Kingdom, who were made to believe that their country was merely part of a free trade alliance.
In 1973, in order to resolve one of the numerous crises in the development of European Institutions, Jean Monnet suggested the creation of a new body, the European Council, made up of the heads of states or governments of all the member States, with the role of defining the EEC overall political direction and priorities that would be implemented by the European Commission. Monnet showed his plan to Edward Heath, which was to be made public, and which made mention of the ‘temporary European Government’. When Heath saw the proposal he told Monnet that he should remove ‘temporary government’ explaining that otherwise he would cause him great difficulties. Heath knew that the European project was meant to deliver soon or later European political union, but he made sure that this would not be presented as such to his party colleagues or to the British people as a whole.
2. The particular circumstances of the United Kingdom
Although in 1951 the United Kingdom was invited to take part as a founding member in the European Coal and Steel Community, British political leaders refused. A few years later when the European Economic Community appeared to be a success, British political leaders initiated negotiations to join the Common Market. Member States were prepared to open the Community to the United Kingdom but without making any concessions in relation to the principle of integration. If the United Kingdom was to join the Community, it would have to subscribe to all the fundamental rules of the Common Market and also to its political aim, which was to create a unified federal Europe. Once in the Common Market, the other member States would not allow the United Kingdom to change the rules of the organisation nor its political drive or final objective.
Although negotiations had been going on for some years, French President Charles de Gaulle indicated in the course of a press conference on 14 January 1963 that he opposed the entry of the United Kingdom into the European Economic Community. De Gaulle had a good understanding of the Anglo-Saxon world and particularly of the United Kingdom. His opposition to the United Kingdom entering the Common Market was not based primarily on nationalistic antagonism, but on the specificity of the United Kingdom, which would not allow it to be easily associated with the European process of political integration. During the conference, De Gaulle paid tribute to the glorious contribution of the United Kingdom during the First World War. He also stated that the essential role played by Winston Churchill and England during the Second World War should never be forgotten. However he explained why the United Kingdom should not be part of the Common Market unless it was to change itself radically. Indeed, he stated that the United Kingdom had a world-wide international commercial network which of course went far beyond the frontiers of continental Europe, being at the head of a Commonwealth of 53 states which are mostly territories of the former British Empire and which spans all six continents, including a third of the world population (Queen Elisabeth II is the head of state of Canada, Australia and New Zealand).
Without a doubt, the United Kingdom could only become a full member of the European Community if it was prepared to transform itself and sever its social, economic and political ties and special relationship with so many countries around the world. De Gaulle could see that the historical development of the United Kingdom was running contrary to the political integration of Europe. He knew that the United Kingdom would not be prepared to conform itself to the objectives of the economic and political organisation of the EEC. What De Gaulle said over fifty years ago has been proven right. The European political project was tailored to the needs of France and Germany not to those of the United Kingdom.
Brexit is not a disaster and may well prove to be to the advantage of both the United Kingdom and the European Union. The United Kingdom will now negotiate a new relationship with the European Union, regain control of its borders and territorial seas and develop commercial trade agreements with partner countries around the world. Since the United Kingdom has held back the advancement of the European project until now, the fact that it is no longer a member of the European Union will enable the other member States to move towards an ever closer and more rapid integration, which should favour the emergence of a federal State of Europe.