Articles - March April 2019

Britain's Long Goodbye to Europe

A Historical Perspective
By Roland Flamini

In the summer of 1963, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan visited Rome. Days earlier, Charles de Gaulle, president of France, had blocked Britain’s application for membership of what was then the European Economic Community, the largest experiment of voluntary economic integration in human history. With his country being kept out of Europe, the British Conservative leader joked to a group of reporters that he had decided to come and visit the historic sites of Ancient Rome “for the last time.” In reality, he was there for talks with Italy’s government, but de Gaulle’s rejection had been a blow to Britain’s prestige.

Britain had previously turned down an invitation to join the six original European countries (France, what was then West Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands) in signing the 1957 Treaty of Rome that created the EEC, forerunner of the European Union. At the time, the British had felt they could do better by sticking with the British Commonwealth.

In the early Sixties, however, Macmillan changed his tune. Concerned at the rapid postwar economic advances of Germany and France, in contrast to Britain’s much slower recovery, he announced that the government was applying for European membership. Macmillan’s statement in the House of Commons brought cries of disapproval, with shouts of “Shame” coming from both sides of the aisle. Opposition to closer ties with Europe had found its voice for the first time, and certainly not the last.
Somewhat to the surprise of the British, President de Gaulle vetoed the application, casting doubt on Britain’s commitment to Europe, and warning that Britain would be a Trojan Horse for United States interests –a major obstacle given the French leader’s anti-American mindset.

That one veto was enough to thwart British hopes. However, Sir Crispin Tickell, a senior British diplomat who was involved in later negotiations to join Europe, has recently put forward the idea that what was understood as a veto might have been a breakdown in communications. In his crucial meeting with de Gaulle, Macmillan insisted on speaking French, even though he was certainly not fluent in the language. As a result, he understood “no” when the French president, “in fact had said something rather more subtle. But for that, we might have joined ten years earlier,” said Tickell.

True or not, four years later, Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson made a second attempt to apply for membership, and this time there was no question of misunderstanding the bluntness of de Gaulle’s rejection. In a speech, de Gaulle called Britain “insular and maritime,” and the British deeply hostile to the idea of constructing a unified Europe. Only after a radical change of their attitude should they be allowed to join the European Economic Community, he went on.

Then in 1973, a new French president, Georges Pompidou, and a new British prime minister, Edward Heath, finally opened the way for Britain’s entry. Opinion polls showed the British overwhelmingly against EEC membership, but Heath, a strong Europeanist, was determined to make entry into Europe his political legacy. He had earlier promised not to commit the country to membership “without the full hearted consent of parliament and the people,” but no such consent was sought.

There were celebrations when Britain joined Europe, but there was also resentment at what critics in six days of parliamentary debate called a loss of sovereignty. The term Euroskepticism came later, but many of the key objections now heard in the anti-European revolt that led to Brexit were already being voiced at the time.

Harold Wilson, once again prime minister in 1975 and unhappy with the conditions of British membership, held the first referendum on whether or not to remain in the EEC. The ruling Labour Party, dominated by its left wing, was seeking a result calling for withdrawal. Instead, the British public voted in favor of remaining by a significant 67 percent to 31 percent.

Given the inconsistencies of the past, who can say with any certainty that Brexit is the last word on Britain’s relationship with the European Union? Almost from the moment of joining Europe, Britain has managed to give the impression that it has one foot out the door; so can this really be the end? Comparing the referendum of 1975 with the Brexit vote of 2016 reveals the fatal flaw in Britain’s relations with Europe. In 1975, it was the Conservative Party that strongly supported membership.

The new Tory leader, Margaret Thatcher, called for a “massive Yes” vote to Europe, and toured the country wearing a woolen sweater featuring the flags of the member states. Even so, as prime minister, the same Margaret Thatcher bickered constantly with Brussels, and forced a reduction in Britain’s annual contribution to the European common budget. But her official biographer, Charles Moore, told Reuters, “The whole time she was in office she supported our membership though with increasing lack of enthusiasm.”

The decisions of the European Court of Justice, which are legally binding in all member states and take precedence over the national courts, increasingly stoked British opposition to the EU – although, ironically, the United Kingdom had the best record in Europe for prompt adoption of the tribunal’s decisions. The introduction of the euro was another divisive issue, with the Labour government insisting on staying out of the single European currency (along with Denmark). After which the European Union –as it was now called –made joining the euro zone mandatory for all other member states.

During the 2015 general election, in the face of growing criticism of the European Union in his own party, Tory leader, David Cameron, made renegotiation of the terms of Britain’s membership a key pledge and promised committed himself to a “remain or leave” referendum on the “new settlement” he intended to negotiate with Brussels. The Conservatives won an outright and largely unexpected electoral victory; Cameron completed the EU agreement - and the Leave campaign won the June 2016 referendum by about 52 percent. Theresa May, who actually favored remaining in Europe, took office three weeks later, committed to make the United Kingdom the first country to leave the EU.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, a pro-European, summed up the experience thus: “The tragedy for British politics –for Britain – has been that politicians of both parties have consistently failed, not just in the 1950s but on up to the present day, to appreciate the emerging reality of European integration. And in doing so they have failed Britain’s interests.”

In January, the British parliament voted overwhelmingly to reject the phased exit from the EU that Prime Minister May had negotiated with Brussels.   As the clock ticked inexorably towards the March 29 deadline, May survived, but seemed without further options – except the non-option of a “hard” Brexit to end Britain’s EU membership without a deal - amid predictions of damaging economic consequences for the United Kingdom.

Among the most difficult issues – and potentially one of the most dangerous - May faced was the status of Northern Ireland once Britain left the European Union. A tentative agreement between London and Brussels, known as “the backstop,” would continue to allow free access between Northern Ireland (part of the United Kingdom) and the Republic of Ireland, which remains an EU member. An open border between the two Irelands is guaranteed by the so-called Good Friday agreement of 1998 ending decades of sectarian strife on the Emerald Isle. Restoration of a hard border could result in a renewal of old tensions. The backstop, however, is a sticking point for Brexit hardliners because free access at the Irish border will constitute an open back door for people and goods into the United Kingdom from the European Union.

In desperation, some British politicians pushed the eleventh hour idea of yet another referendum -with no solid indications that the result would be any different. It seemed more likely that Britain’s emotive, internally divisive, complicated relationship with the European Union has gone full circle – and Charles de Gaulle had the last word.

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