The European Union as it is today has developed from the European Economic Community created by the Treaty of Rome in 1957. However it’s origins precede that date. In the aftermath of war Europe was a continent ravaged by crippling economic and social dislocation. In reaction to this sorry state of affairs the leading politicians of Europe set their sights on a future of close co-operation between all European countries, leading eventually to some form of economic and political union. The early co-operative initiatives were characterised mainly by the relative prominence of functionalism over federalism within them. The highly federalist goal of the 1949 Council of Europe ‘for collective collaboration in economic, social and cultural matters, and for collective self defence’, and the subsequent reluctance to be involved of Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia was the first indication that not all countries viewed the international security bound up in closer integration as being so desirable as to override the importance of national sovereignty. Therefore it is not surprising that the following pan-European initiatives were, at least in terms of presentation, created with far more emphasis on the functional importance of collaboration than on any romantic notion of a future of federal union.
The first such initiative was the European Defence Community of the early 1950’s. Borne out of the perceived necessity to unite militarily against the Soviet threat, the EDC gained a warmer reception from the British. However, once it became apparent that such an undertaking was only viable if it were to be conducted under the auspices of some form of European government, not only did Britain insist on a purely associated status, the French refused to ratify the proposal. This particular episode is perhaps characteristic of the traditional pattern of European relations, for whilst Britain is constantly portrayed as the awkward wrecker of all things European it was in fact Britain who had espoused the necessity for an assembly. As would become the case many times thereafter, Britain found itself in the position of agreeing with the principle of functional integration for the goal of a stable continent, whilst not automatically viewing herself as a necessary member of any such movements.
The legacy of the war is inevitably stamped all over such episodes. Britain, in its own eyes the island nation who stood alone and successfully defended it’s sovereignty were understandably reluctant to sign away an ounce of that sovereignty regardless of any possible benefits for the wider community.
The next attempt was the true birth of European functional integration. The European Coal and Steel Community of 1951 was set up with the aim of integrating the administration of these important industrial materials. This was far more successful than the previous initiatives, although Britain again declined a role in favour of continuing to look to its trade relations with the empire and North America.
So Britain’s post war relationship with Europe is characterised by a great deal of watching cautiously from the sidelines, an attitude which itself is characterised by two things; a reluctance to agree to diminished sovereignty in the wake of a long struggle to maintain it, and the continuing emphasis on the empire and America as major trading partners. It is not surprising then that when the 1957 Treaty of Rome created the EEC as a body which would evolve from a loose confederation of countries concerned merely with targeted functional integration into a tightly knit federal organisation, Britain declined membership. The attitude of the government of the day is a familiar one in that it applauded the basic principle of creating a customs union but saw no need to stray into the pooling of political sovereignty.
This attitude is identical to that of the majority of the modern Conservative party, a party that has teetered on the brink of self destruction over the European issue in the last decade; in the wake of his predecessor John Major’s enduring difficulties over the European issue William Hague knew how important it would be to find the right line on the issue to keep all of his members on board and towing the line. As John Major probably could have predicted from the start, he failed badly. No amount of pragmatism and carefully constructed wording of his policy on Europe and particularly the single currency was ever going to heal a divided party who were simply not ready to reunite. His catchphrase “In Europe but not run by Europe” does in fact do well to crystalise the mainstream Conservative attitude to the European Union. However, his line on the single currency, a far more sensitive political subject, was nothing other than a badly coded plea to both wings of his party to effectively shut up on the issue in order to save the party from self induced capitulation. His policy of opposing membership for ten years was mocked at a meeting of the Positive European Group of Tory MPs, at which Hague was asked “If ten years, why not nine and a half?”
Having introduced the subject of the Single Currency it is imperative that it’s huge significance to this question of choice between two federal powerbases is noted. The notes and coins of the Euro are now in use across Europe and with that has come the rule of the European Central Bank. For all the avoidance and sly downplaying of the matter it is incontrovertible that this one change in the state of European affairs will be the most important yet. Despite the attempts of successive British governments to deny the reality openly admitted by many of our mainland counterparts, that the EU project has always been about working towards federalism, nobody can be in any doubt now that nations such as Germany and France have pooled a sizeable amount of sovereignty.
This has already been demonstrated in several incidents of ECB intervention in the economic decision making of member states. When in 2000 both the United Kingdom and Ireland were advised by the ECB to alter their spending plans in order to meet ECB criteria, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth in Ireland. Meanwhile Gordon Brown easily swept aside such an imposition on his control of the UK economy. The difference here is that by staying outside the Euro zone the UK had also stayed outside the fiscal control of the ECB. Ireland was just beginning to realise that she hadn’t. In recent weeks it has been Germany, that proud economic superpower for so long the envy of sick man Britain, that has incurred the wrath of the ECB. Unless things improve pretty quickly Germany may be the first member state to face the ultimate dilemma of euro membership; do we act upon the national finances in the way that will best alleviate the problems of substandard growth and high unemployment or do we comply with the strict rules of the ECB for the perceived good of the currency’s stability in the long run?
In time all the member nations will come to face such problems and the future of the euro and indeed the entire federal project may hang largely on the reaction of the governments concerned. Meanwhile Britain is characteristically watching from the sidelines.
John Redwood’s original question is essentially an attempt to counter the culture of euro inevitability so blatantly nurtured by New Labour. In the face of such manipulation of the people it is only just and responsible to seek out and propose tangible alternatives to the choice on which we are being gradually led to believe we have no actual choice. The question for Mr Redwood and his ilk is, what are the viable alternatives?
When he uses the phrase “51st state” Redwood is obviously not proposing Britain becomes part of the United States. What he is most likely referring to is a move to join the North American Free Trade Association. On the face of things NAFTA seems to be tailor made to Britain’s wants and needs. It is a customs union without the baggage of any federal political agenda. Moreover it would involve day to day dealings with the United States amongst less significant others, and it must be noted that for better or worse reasons this would be more palatable to the British electorate than sitting at the same table as many of our European neighbours.
In April 2000 Senator Phil Gramm, a key supporter of George Bush called fro Britain to break free of European protectionism and join Nafta. In an interview he said ” I’m trying to build a bridge between Nafta and the European Union to expand world trade. Where better to site the footings of that bridge than in the two greatest trading nations in the history of the world?” (Gramm 2000) Whilst political decisions of great importance should not be swayed by warmth of language, and the senator continued in an increasingly romantic vein, it is worth noting the difference in attitude towards Britain. For all manner of cultural and historical reasons, some no doubt of her own making, Britain does not share the same close relationship with mainland Europe.
If membership of Nafta is a realistic option, what are the implications for Britain’s EU membership? Those dismissive of the Nafta proposal are so because they assume dual membership to be unattainable. When analysed this is a most curious position for the average pro-european to take. Pro-European politicians have made maiximum capital out of the argument that the euro-sceptics are xenophobes using the language of sovereignty to disguise their dislike of foreign interference and fear of globalisation. Tony Blair himself has been the master of global frontier rhetoric: “the true historical role of Britain has lain in its unique capacity, whatever its circumstances, to be a major global player; that though an island, it has always rejected an insular approach.” (Blair 1995). So if Britain is this historical fulcrum of global relations be they trade or politically based, why is it such pie in the sky to aim for a more formal arrangement that reflects this global purpose?
It is of course possible that the European Union would make it difficult or even impossible for Britain to join Nafta whilst retaining EU membership. Again it is to the self proclaimed internationalists on the government front benches that it must be pointed out that the only way to find out is to at least raise the issue with other member states. Secondly, if the EU was to make such a move impossible then what is its motive for doing so? If there are justified practical reasons then it is better to know what they are now when we still have time to weigh up our options before proceeding with a currency referendum. If however EU objections are borne out of hostility towards the USA and a desire to maintain the union on it’s increasingly isolationist trading course then perhaps that will be the right time to consider what we actually hope to achieve by continuing to put all of our international cooperation eggs in one closed shop basket.
In summary there are three visions of the future for Britain. Firstly we can join the single currency and finally work to become a truly integrated and cooperative member of a Federal Europe whose origins lie in the fear of unrest and military conflict. Arguments in favour of this option are that it would be easy to negotiate to the point where no negotiation would be truly necessary. Those nations already signed up are visibly desperate for the UK to follow suit. Also, much of our trade is with Europe and would probably diminish if we were to become a second tier member of the union. The arguments against are unambiguous and are held by a majority of the British electorate, that handing power to set interest rates over to the ECB is an undesirable loss of sovereignty. Moreover, it is constantly highlighted by defenders of true democracy from all political parties that such a move is undemocratic. Tony Benn is never more passionate these days than when the issue of European integration is raised. He like many others is condemnatory of New Labour’s desire to transfer powers to Brussels whilst talking the language of bringing politics closer to the people. Somehow devolution and stronger regional government don’t seem to square with a desire to hand economic sovereignty over to an unelected European bank.
Secondly, Britain can remain in it’s current position and face the inevitability of a second class citizen status as far as the EU is concerned, whilst comforting itself with the knowledge that economic policy is still it’s own affair and will continue to be shaped by the nation’s best interests. Whilst a certain loss of influence is bound to occur in relation to the Euro zone, and some euro-friendly inward investment may leak out of the UK, the idea that the world’s fourth largest economy can not survive as an independent enterprise is more than a little far fetched.
Finally, there is the Nafta option. Though as yet it has not been taken seriously by the majority of politicians, one must try to imagine a post ‘no-vote’ Britain. After over a decade of debate on the euro, a no vote would be a massive watershed. In the aftermath of such a result there would have to be a new attitude of open mindedness, of a willingness to explore all avenues as vigorously as the Euro was explored. First on the agenda would have to be Nafta. As a customs union characterised by the kind of free trade practices which Britain has always coveted and the EU has often sacrificed in deference to a more socialist workers agenda, would seem to be a very attractive option for Britain were it to close the door on Euro entry.
However it would be folly to do this at the expense of EU membership. To swap one international alliance for another would be a waste of time. Instead, Britain would be best served by actually becoming the mythical bridge between America and Europe which has for so long been whispered about. It should negotiate to achieve this position not for reasons of political preference for one block over another, nor should it do so in an attempt to avoid making a decisive decision either way. Britain should be bold and brave and work towards it’s natural place in a future global community, cooperating in tandem with the two major power blocks with which it shares so much historically, culturally and financially and to whom it can offer so much financially and diplomatically in return. To borrow the words of Senator Gramm on global integration ” People see it as something way off. But the way to bring something to the present is to stand up and start fighting for it.”
Benn Tony, 1995, The Benn Diaries, UK, Arrow
Blair Tony, 1996, New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country, London, Fourth Estate
Budge, Crewe, McKay, Newton, 1998, The New British Politics, Harlow, Longman
Harnden Toby, 6/4/2000, Britain can bridge EU-Nafta gap Daily Telegraph
Nadler Jo-Anne, 2000, William Hague In His Own Right, London, Politico’s