In the lead up to next week’s European elections, voters seem to be disenchanted with the European Union. Around a quarter of the seats in the European parliament are expected to go to anti-EU or protest parties – almost double the proportion those groups won in the last elections five years ago. Ukip is in the lead in the UK and nearly a third of Britons support Nigel Farage and his campaign to take power away from Brussels.
When the European project first got going in the early 1950s, sceptics had concerns about sovereignty – but the combination of economic enticements with the objective of preventing war in Europe meant that most people thought unity was too good to miss out on. Six European countries got together to form the European Coal and Steel Community, creating a common market and neutralising competition. Even before it had been formed, The Spectator counselled the British government that it was already too late to start raising objections about compromising sovereignty:
The British Government must rid itself of its rather negative attitude… [It] bodes little good for independent relations between Britain and the new iron and steel community. There are already fears that the clauses in the treaty which permit the signatories to raise protective barriers against third parties in times of crisis might be awkward for British industry. Such a situation would be very dangerous, and the sooner the British Government and the new High Authority begin discussions about it the better.
In 1957, the six countries involved in the Coal and Steel Community signed up to the Treaty of Rome, creating the European Economic Community. Britain was faced with a choice: remain outside it and be faced with tough competition, or enter it and risk losing our special position with the United States and Commonwealth. Economics should trump sentiment, the magazine argued in an editorial.
Closer association with Europe, in spite of its economic side, is primarily a political gesture. If such organisations as the Coal and Steel Community are not steps on the way to an increasingly federal Europe they are nothing. To this process Britain has its contribution to make—a contribution which the existence of the Commonwealth only makes the greater. To hang on too long to the idea of special advantages to be gained from the US at a time when we are seriously threatened economically might be to lose the substance of power for the shadow. It would be a pity were Mr. Macmillan not to achieve the one positive aim his Government has set itself in the field of foreign affairs.
By the time Britain applied to get involved in the EEC in 1961, the other members were ready to strike a hard bargain. They anticipated any objections or demands that the then Lord Privy Seal Edward Heath might bring up and rejected them before he even got to the table.
So now it is Britain’s turn to move. On October 10 Mr. Heath and his team will have the delicate task of persuading the Six that their demands for special consideration will be reasonable—whilst at the same time leaving themselves the greatest possible margin for negotiation. If incentive were lacking, they need only recall that the Six…are not going to wait for Britain: every month will see a further consolidation of the Common Market, every Council session a new set of decisions which Britain can neither influence nor delay until she is a member.
He didn’t manage it – Charles de Gaulle vetoed this application. A decade later, when he was Prime Minister, Heath did sign Britain up to the EEC, but The Spectator was not enthusiastic.
It is not as if the Rome Treaty itself is negotiable, or being negotiated. The Treaty is written, and the Commissioners have for some years now been interpreting it. Those interpretations have the overriding force of supranational law: and one of the first acts the Commons would have to pass following accession would be an Act of Parliament declaring the precedence of Community over British statutory and common law…It has already been made plain as a pikestaff that the claim that in joining the EEC this country will suffer no loss of sovereignty nor any diminution of national identity is a dishonest and fraudulent claim which cannot be made by any responsible statesman conscious of his public duty.
The problem, argued John Vaizey in 1974, was that the Foreign Office had become obsessed with the Common Market.
What is paradoxical about this is not only that certain long-term interests may well have been jeopardised by the recent neglect of America and the Commonwealth by the United Kingdom, but also that Britain’s long term economic interests cannot be limited to the EEC…A Britain whose Foreign Office is mesmerised by getting agreement within the limited area of the European Economic Community is unlikely to be best aware of its own major diplomatic and strategic interests. It is at this sort of moment that the sentimental rot about feeling oneself to be a European is particularly dangerous, at least as dangerous as the previous mumbo-jumbo about the Commonwealth was. It is greatly to be hoped that the new government, when it takes office, will be more concerned with a shrewd and realistic assessment of British interests than with taking part in some enormous collective Western European folk myth.
Later on, after the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, which led to the establishment of a single currency, John Keegan looked back at the roots of Europe’s gradual federalisation process in an article entitled ‘From Albert Speer to Jacques Delors’.
To re-read the objections made in 1950-52 by French, Dutch, Belgian and even German constitutionalists to the intended nature of the Coal and Steel Community — that it required ‘jumblings of legislative, judicial and executive functions’, that its High Authority would be ‘autocratic’, its parliamentary assembly ‘powerless’ and its court an instrument of ‘economic review’, and that ‘a permanently outvoted member would not be able to threaten to withdraw’, in which case ‘how would unity be preserved if one member wanted to leave?’ and ‘how would the infidel be punished?’ — is to be carried not into the past but face to face with the present. The objections were not answered then. They have resurfaced to torment us now. If they are not met, and if constitutional measures are not framed to accommodate them while Britain — the one member state unafflicted by memories of occupation — holds the Community’s presidency, the EEC is unlikely to survive as an entity.
David Cameron has pledged to reform the UK’s relationship with the EU, but without compromising the common market. No one yet has found a way of securing economic union without cast iron rules that some feel compromise British sovereignty, but perhaps he’ll come up with something.