THE EUROPEAN UNION
This is a recent newspaper article. I can't remember which paper. I think it was penned before M Delors and pals suggested that Britain be given an 'associate' relationship with the EU. Or what one columnist has today labelled "Second class membership".
It's an interesting review. All the bolding is mine . . .
The EU: so where did it all go wrong?
It is exactly 40 years since a cautiously enthusiastic Britain joined the Common Market. Today, few are celebrating
In the first week of 1973, the week Britain joined the Common Market, the Government put on a festival of European culture so that the British people could share what their Prime Minister, Edward Heath, called his “heart full of joy” at their country’s shiny new Euro-future. Alas, the “Fanfare for Europe”, though now entirely forgotten, ended up symbolising the ambivalence of the 40-year relationship that has followed.
A plan to borrow the Bayeux Tapestry and show it in Westminster Hall was dropped after it was pointed out that the butchery of Saxons by Normans was hardly a suitable theme for the occasion. Instead, the centrepiece was a showcase of European treasures at the V&A – the French refused to lend the Mona Lisa, despite Heath’s personal plea, on the grounds that the British Museum had just refused them a loan of the Rosetta Stone. As an alternative, with a certain unintended symbolism, they offered Georges de la Tour’s Le Tricheur, a picture of someone cheating at cards.
There was also, among other things, an exhibition of European sweets at the Whitechapel Art Gallery; a “Dutch breakfast” and food festival at a London hotel; and co-ordinated demonstrations of “Continental cooking” at Scottish gas and electricity board showrooms. Three hundred anti-EEC demonstrators gathered outside the Royal Opera House, booing and chanting “Sieg Heil” as the Queen, Prince Philip and Heath arrived for a gala performance to celebrate the new dawn.
Yet despite all the opposition – and it was serious – what also strikes one now is the strength of support. Every single national newspaper, including the Daily Mail, the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs and Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, was enthusiastic (the Express papers had been opposed, but came round). Most of the business community was fervently pro-EEC.
Despite widespread doubts over whether Britain would ever actually join, and despite the opposition of the Labour Party to membership on the terms proposed, the key Commons vote had been won comfortably, 356 to 244. Sixty-nine Labour rebels voted for entry; only 39 Tory rebels voted to stay out. And within two years, 67 per cent of the British people endorsed the UK’s membership in a referendum. The Labour leadership reversed its position – and one Margaret Thatcher, leader of the opposition, also took a prominent role in the Yes campaign.
The No forces were represented by the likes of Tony Benn and the Tory hard Right. In the end, only the Western Isles and Shetland voted against. Both on the political spectrum and geographically, it seemed that only people on the margins were against the EEC.
So exactly 40 years on, with a substantial majority of the British people – and even members of the Cabinet – now apparently backing withdrawal, how did Britain’s relationship with Brussels go sour?
Part of the difficulty had, of course, been sown decades before 1973, when Britain, still seeing itself as much a world as a European power, chose to stand apart from the Common Market, and its forebear, the European Coal and Steel Community. So now we were entering a club whose rules were set long before we joined, without our involvement, and not necessarily in our favour. The terms of British membership were particularly poor.
At the beginning, Britain – though one of the less prosperous members – was the second-biggest net contributor to the EEC, behind only the far richer Germans, pouring large sums into subsidising French farmers, butter mountains and wine lakes through the Common Agricultural Policy. Not until 1984, 11 years after joining, did Margaret Thatcher secure a permanent two-thirds rebate. “They say it’s their money, and I say it’s mine,” she remarked at the Brussels summit in March of that year.
Yet this significant victory involved loss as well as gain for Britain: Thatcher’s grating personal negotiating style permanently damaged relationships between her and the other European leaders. She thought they were hypocritical, attacking her as “not a good European” for opposing a system from which they benefited. They thought she didn’t understand what Europe meant to them: their countries, devastated by war, had been given lasting peace and prosperity.
One of the reasons Britain used to be keen on Europe was precisely that. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Continent looked like it was doing a lot better than us: more modern, more prosperous, more socially harmonious. By contrast, throughout the power cuts and strikes of those decades, the UK was haunted by fears of terminal national decline.
“For 25 years we’ve been looking for something to get us going again,” said Heath in the 1971 debates over membership. “Now here it is.”
Unfortunately, Britain’s entry into the Common Market was swiftly followed by perhaps the worst few years its economy has ever known: the oil crisis, the three-day week and double-digit inflation. The EEC was (largely unfairly) blamed for quite a lot of this.
The economic woes underlined another problem that was essentially of Britain’s, not Europe’s, making: the consistent failure of British politicians to be honest with the public about what membership actually involved. As Sir Stephen Wall, a senior Foreign Office diplomat closely involved in British European policy, put it, “ultimately misleading impressions” were given to voters over many years for reasons of “fear” that they would not accept the truth if told it. That is never a sustainable position in any open democracy. Heath’s 1971 White Paper on entry had promised no “erosion of essential national sovereignty”. This, as many have conceded, was quite untrue: European law did and does override British law, and more and more of it was coming down the tracks from Brussels.
In the late 1980s came three pivotal developments that changed the debate dramatically. Until then, the main hostility to Europe had been on the Left, and the main support for it on the Right. On the tenth anniversary of Britain’s accession, in 1983, Thatcher wrote that “the unity of Europe is a goal for which I pledge my government to work”. Labour, meanwhile, fought the election that year on a platform of withdrawal from the EEC.
The arrival of Jacques Delors, a French socialist, as president of the European Commission turned that upside down. Delors was deeply ambitious for a more federal Europe, including a single currency. At a famous speech to the TUC in 1988, Delors won over large parts of the British Left with the argument that they could use Europe as a back-door way of achieving the kind of social-democratic state that they had not managed to win via the British electorate.
The Tories, the Right-wing press and the business world were horrified at Delors’ vision of a Europe where common social policies would be followed. As Thatcher put it in her famous Bruges speech, “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”
But the second big development of the late Eighties — the fall of the Berlin Wall — put rocket-boosters under Delors’ ideas. It made the French much keener on European integration and a single currency, as a way of restraining what they believed would otherwise be a dominant, reunited Germany. The result, in 1991, was the Maastricht treaty, renaming the European Community the “European Union”, and paving the way for the euro and the “social chapter”, which extended Brussels’ powers into a swathe of new areas.
The UK won opt-outs from both these things, but there, essentially, was sown the seeds of today’s arguments. It could be said that Britain did not move away from Europe, but that it moved away from us. The British people joined, and were happy to join, a common market. They did not sign up to a social chapter, a single currency or any moves down the road to a superstate.
It shouldn’t be forgotten, of course, that Margaret Thatcher fell in 1990 precisely because many Tories of the time thought her too inflexible over Europe. But in the years that followed, Euroscepticism came utterly to dominate the Conservative Party. The key event in that process was probably Black Wednesday, in 1992, when the markets forced John Major’s government out of the European exchange rate mechanism, under which the pound had shadowed the deutschemark.
As Stephen Wall, Major’s private secretary at the time, puts it: “We linked our currency to those of our partners and were forced into what looked like a humiliating defeat. Thereafter, our economy prospered and for most people in Britain the logic of joining the euro looked very counter-intuitive.”
Tony Blair came to power with much goodwill from our EU allies after the Thatcher and Major years, and with the clear wish to join the euro. But the fact was that Britain had stayed outside the single currency — launched in 1999, with notes and coins issued from 2002 – and the heavens had not fallen. The economy continued to boom, and the City kept its place as the premier financial centre of Europe (far more euros are traded in London than in the eurozone itself).
That is perhaps the key reason why the country has become more Eurosceptic. Even now, after four years of low-to-no growth, we are a more economically confident nation than we were in the 1970s. For Britain, continental Europe no longer looks like a model to follow. Delors-style regulation has on the whole produced fewer jobs and lower growth than British-style deregulation. Throughout the past decade, as the EU charged on blindly expanding its powers, even “good Europeans” such as Ireland, the Netherlands and even France started rejecting its treaties and constitutions in referendums.
Above all, of course, there has been the debacle of the euro, the decisive wrong turn that changed the EU from a broadly successful institution into one that seems to have condemned many of its members to, at best, years of stagnation and misery. So far, the organisation’s leaders seem to have shown little recognition of the inherent structural flaws of the currency, preferring instead to prop up failure. Across much of the continent, the EU’s fatal lack of real popular consent may be catching up with it.
Yet the British impetus for full withdrawal may be dangerous: in the modern world, the very idea of “UK independence”, as promoted by the eponymous Eurosceptic party, is surely an illusion. Even if we left, given the amount of trade we do with the EU, we would still have to follow most of its rules – while no longer having any role in setting them.
On that day in 1973 when we joined, an opinion poll asked the British people whether they wanted to see in their country Common Market “customs” such as “regular wine with meals”, “more pavement cafes”, “more shops open on Sunday”, “pubs open all day” and “coffee and a roll for breakfast, not bacon and eggs”. The poll respondents said no to all these dangerous foreign innovations (apart from the wine), but now, of course, along with Polish waitresses in London and British pensioners in Spain, they are standard parts of national life. For all our professed hostility to the EU, we are in some ways far more “European” than we were.