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The UK and Europe

From the outset, the UK's attitude to the emerging institutions of the European Community has been ambivalent. Winston Churchill considered that the UK was 'with' but not 'of' Europe, 'associated, but not absorbed'. The country took no part in the discussions that preceded the Treaty of Paris in 1951 and sent only an emissary to the Messina Conference in 1955 which culminated two years later in the Treaty of Rome and the establishment of the EEC. By contrast, the UK was a founder member of the Council of Europe in 1949 and of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in 1960.

Retreat from Empire and the 1956 Suez fiasco (where the UK was humiliatingly forced by the USA to abandon an Anglo-French incursion to secure the canal from Egyptian expropriation) inaugurated a low point in British confidence. Twice in the 1960s, first under the Conservative Harold Macmillan in 1963 and next under the socialist Harold Wilson in 1967, the government's application to join the Community (which would have meant abandoning EFTA) was vetoed by President Charles de Gaulle. In an epoch of high tariffs the Commonwealth was too far-flung to provide a viable alternative and in the dispirited mood of the times successive prime ministers could offer no better prospect than the hope that Europe's vigorous economic revival, led by Germany, would somehow brush off on the UK.

Unless you are prepared to moor yourself off the coast of Europe, you are not really fit and ready to become a member of our European Community. General de Gaulle, explaining why France could not accept the UK's application to join the Common Market, 1963

De Gaulle's retirement gave Edward Heath the opportunity to succeed in 1971 where his predecessors had failed. By dint of assurances that the UK would not turn its back on the Commonwealth, that its fishing industry would be protected from the Common Fisheries Policy and that its sovereignty was not in jeopardy, Heath got the European Communities Act of 1972 through Parliament, assisted by the rebellion of Roy Jenkins against the Labour Party's new-found hostility to Europe. Perhaps the Bill would have passed anyway, but its merits were exaggerated, its defects glossed over and a legacy of mistrust was left which dogs the European question to the present day.

Returned to government in 1974, Wilson headed a Labour Party whose collective opinion had shifted. His first act in Europe was to embark on a token renegotiation of the Tory terms of accession, to be followed by a nationwide referendum, in which the all-party pro-European campaign led by Heath and Jenkins repeated the earlier assurances, laying particular stress on the promise of economic growth and the safeguard to national interests provided by the veto. The pro-Europeans outspent the opposing independence campaign by more than ten to one and the final vote showed a majority of just over two-thirds in favour of the UK retaining its membership of the Common Market.

De Gaulle's objection to British membership, which was not shared by any other country in the Community, had been based not only on fear of admitting a rival to French leadership but also on his cool assessment of the UK as maritime, Atlanticist, tied to the Commonwealth and naturally inclined to free trade. To this list could justly have been added the UK's outspoken press, its common law, its adversarial style of democracy - and also its lack of commitment to the ideals of the Community. Indeed, by 1983, four years after Margaret Thatcher obtained power in the 1979 election, Labour had yet again switched sides and was formally in favour of withdrawal.

Thatcher's first years in office were largely taken up by argument over the UK's excessive contribution to the European budget, a dispute not settled until 1984, when the UK was granted its right to an annual rebate. More positively, the UK was an enthusiastic proponent of the single market and later of the Community's enlargement by incorporating the former communist countries of Eastern Europe, which in the early 1990s were starting to embrace democracy and open markets. These enthusiasms reflected the UK's concept of Europe as a free trading area bound together more by voluntary co-operation than by the compulsion implicit in supranational institutions. Yet paradoxically the Single European Act of 1986 did more to extend majority voting than any other of Europe's key Treaties. Thatcher's later term of office coincided with the growing influence of her German political contemporary, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and with Jacques Delors' first presidency of the Commission; in clashes reminiscent of those between de Gaulle and Walter Hallstein, Thatcher strenuously resisted a new onslaught of federalism, which Delors no less resolutely pursued.

In 1990 Thatcher resigned, brought down largely by the defection of cabinet colleagues and former colleagues, led by the Europhiles Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine. Her successor, John Major, promised a fresh policy 'at the heart of Europe'. He was soon disillusioned. The collapse of Europe's fixed exchange rate system, the ERM, into which he had, as chancellor of the exchequer, brought the pound, led to recriminations with Germany; the federalising Maastricht Treaty was passed in the House of Commons by only three votes, despite the opt-outs which Major had won from the final stage of monetary union and from the Social Chapter; the Commission found backdoor ways to introduce social legislation; and the question of whether or not to join the single currency turned into an internecine Conservative battleground. Germany and France increasingly disregarded the British voice in Community affairs, a situation exacerbated by disagreement over the Bosnian crisis and bitter disputes over fish and beef.

By 1997 the wheel had turned full circle again - now it was Major who was isolated in Europe and Labour which had made another U-turn to proclaim itself as the pro-European party. In that year's elections victory went to Tony Blair, whose hopes of co-leadership of a Europe shaped in some measure by British interests were similar to Major's own unfulfilled expectations in 1990. In this, Blair was the more successful. He forged better personal relationships, spoke from a stronger domestic economic position and dominated the European military effort in Kosovo. But there were also setbacks. He was unable to persuade the British to abandon the pound or the French to end their illegal ban on British beef. In 2000 he found himself facing a renewed Continental drive towards political integration.

Europe without the UK is a mere torso. Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Bad Homburg, April 1997

Few in high office have cared to explain to the British people that sovereign independence within the framework of the EU is increasingly a contradiction in terms. There have been rare occasions when the federal tide might conceivably have been stemmed - for example, at the time of the 'Soames affair' and when Denmark refused to ratify the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. But even if such opportunities really existed, they were fleeting and easy to miss and any vacuum has always been filled by the consistent will of the Commission and of the Franco-German alliance, bent alike on some version of a unified Europe.

It is facile to speculate that the Community might have evolved differently if the UK had participated fully in its formation from the outset. The fact is that the UK perceived itself as being linked equally to Europe and to the Anglo-Saxon world, comprising the USA, the Commonwealth and the English-speaking countries of Asia; and this perception was no nostalgic fantasy, but was grounded in shared history and culture as well as in patterns of trade and investment. Thus the European question seems destined to rumble on indefinitely unless a new institutional relationship is forged which recognises the UK's differences with Europe as candidly as its common interests.


See Permanent representatives.


EU decisions taken in the Council are subject either to majority voting or to a unanimity requirement. Unanimity applies to a dwindling number of areas, notably the Common Foreign and Security Policy, the raising of Community budget revenues, treaty amendments, new treaties and some aspects of Justice and Home Affairs. (See also Luxembourg Compromise, Qualified majority voting, Variable geometry and Veto.)

Uniform electoral procedure

The 1957 Treaty of Rome stipulated that elections to the European Parliament should be held under a uniform procedure. Interpreted strictly, this would mean that each member state would have to adopt the same form of proportional representation, the same voting age, the same national or regional list system, the same electoral thresholds, and so forth - it might even mean eliminating the disproportionate weighting of votes and seats as between large and small countries. The subsequent 43 years have led to numerous proposals, but no solution has been found which could win the necessary unanimity in the Council, absolute majority in the Parliament and ratification by member states. The 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam softened the definition of uniformity: and for the 1999 elections Tony Blair's Labour government abolished the unique British 'first past the post' method in favour of a new proportional representation system based on regional lists. This amended procedure resembled systems used elsewhere in Europe and removed at least one obstacle to the fulfilment of the Treaty of Rome's objective. But doubtless the most insuperable obstacle was apathy.

United Nations (UN)

The UK and France are permanent members of the UN Security Council, together with China, Russia (succeeding the Soviet Union) and the USA. Under the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy the European member states confer with each other regularly and vote together whenever possible. Integrationists have even canvassed the idea that the British and French seats on the Security Council should be merged into a single EU seat.

United States of Europe

A resonant expression, associating Europe's aspirations for power and prosperity with the federal political model of the USA. In 1946, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Winston Churchill famously used the phrase in a speech in Zurich to describe his vision of a Europe made peaceful by Franco-German rapprochement. The origins of the phrase, however, are at least 150 years old. Victor Hugo used it after the revolutions of 1848 to express his own dream of a peaceful and united Continent. Indeed, the contrast of America's freshness and simple purpose with Europe's convoluted politics has inspired European idealists since the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. 'United States of Europe', then, is not so much a working blueprint for European integration as an evocation of the New World, designed to cloak the horse-trading and grinding detail of EU negotiations in the aura of manifest destiny.

The USA and Europe

In the history of post-war US-European relations, three main themes stand out. First, US determination to contain Soviet communism. It was this that led to the Berlin Airlift, the formation of NATO and the commitment to station US troops and missiles in Europe. Second, enlightened economic self-interest. It was this that led to the Marshall Plan and the reconstruction of Europe as a market for American goods. Third, unremitting support for European integration.

Isolationism is a recurrent temptation to Americans - the attraction of a retreat from foreign entanglements into the security of their own rich and self-sufficient democratic society. But NATO and Marshall Aid established the USA for 50 years after World War II as a European power, a development that often wounded French pride but was warmly welcomed by the UK, America's traditional ally, and by Germany, whose eastern borders faced the Warsaw Pact armies. It is scarcely too much to say that the American presence saved Europe from succumbing, whether politically or militarily, to the Soviet Union.

American policy ... has urged European unity while recoiling before its probable consequences. Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state

Throughout this period, the USA strongly favoured European federation. It saw Europe's fragmentation as the cause of protectionism, narrow markets and wars in which American servicemen had died. A united Europe would be a stronger buffer against communism, a richer outlet for American exports, an assurance against another European war. Mistrustful of the British empire and its successor, the Commonwealth, the USA pressured the UK to abandon Commonwealth preference and be fully absorbed into the Common Market. There was also an element of simplification in Washington's approach. It was an easy assumption that if a United States of America was the ideal political system on one side of the Atlantic, then a United States of Europe must be the ideal counterpart on the other side. The complex antagonisms of European history were a challenge to the USA's patience.

Not that support for Europe's chosen path always led to harmonious relations. De Gaulle was nakedly antipathetic to US influence. In the 1960s and 1970s Vietnam and the collapse of the dollar soured feelings and lessened the awed respect in which the USA had been held. Europe was rebuilding its industry and recovering its poise. But if the balance of economic power was beginning to shift, the Community had nothing to offer militarily, or in foreign policy terms. The left complained bitterly of the deployment of NATO missiles in Europe; and the French resented US predominance in the Middle East: but in every international crisis Europe proved impotent and divided. Frustrated, it looked inward, concentrating on the single market and the prospect of monetary union.

The collapse of the Soviet empire around 1990 and the growing assertiveness of the EU after the 1992 Maastricht Treaty inaugurated a new phase. The Community no longer needed the American nuclear shield and in matters of trade it had come to regard itself as a rival as much as a partner - the Uruguay Round of GATT negotiations was especially painful. As for foreign affairs, the EU talked strategic independence but simultaneously cut defence budgets. Its discordant policies produced a lowest common denominator approach, rendering the Atlantic alliance indecisive, as was cruelly clear in the Balkan and Gulf crises. Even the single currency was tinged with chauvinism; the euro was presented by Brussels as a competitor to the dollar. As the 20th century reached its end, an array of eminent American economists, who had previously dismissed EMU as a flawed idea waiting to be discarded, came out in alarm to criticise it as a recipe for dislocation which, far from cementing social cohesion in the Union, might lead to a fatal weakening. Other observers expressed concern that European attitudes to defence might undermine NATO. It would be an exaggeration to speak of a rift, but relations with France deteriorated and for the first time some thoughtful Americans wondered aloud whether the USA's interests had been best served by supporting European attempts to build a monolithic technocracy in preference to a 'Europe of Nations'. By now, however, the USA's ability to influence events had waned and the Continent had travelled a long way down the federal path. (See also NATO and World Trade Organisation.)

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