Last Thursday Britain – along with the rest of the European Union – went to the polls to elect our MEPs. Because of the number of votes across the EU, results were not announced until Sunday night, and there were plenty of upsets for the UK politicians. The EU provokes opinions from all shades of the political spectrum here, largely concerning whether Britain should still be in the EU at all, so I decided to find out how Britain joined the European Union. Below is an extract from The European Union: A Very Short Introduction by John Pinder and Simon Usherwood, which gives the low-down on when Britain, along with Ireland and Denmark, became a member.
President de Gaulle resigned in 1969 and was replaced by Georges Pompidou. Nationalist fundamentalism as a basis for French policy gave way to pragmatic intergovernmentalism. Britain, Denmark, Ireland, and Norway still sought entry; France’s partners supported it; and, instead of vetoing enlargement as de Gaulle had done, Pompidou consented, providing it was accompanied by conditions of interest to France: agreement on the financing of the CAP, as well as elements of ‘deepening’ such as monetary union and coordination of foreign policy. In addition to serving the French agricultural interest, these were intended to integrate Germany yet more firmly into the Community, as well as guard against the danger that widening the Community would weaken it.
France’s partners favoured both widening and deepening. Germany’s new Chancellor, the federalist Willy Brandt, played a leading part in a summit meeting of the six government heads in The Hague in December 1969. While he became famous for his Ostpolitik, relaxing tension with the Soviet bloc and with East Germany in particular, Brandt accompanied it with a Westpolitik for strengthening integration in the West. At The Hague he both promoted enlargement and proposed an economic and monetary union. This was agreed in principle, along with the other French conditions; and these projects were developed within the Community alongside the entry negotiations.
The principle of economic and monetary union was not, however, realized in practice until the 1990s. France, showing a preference for federal policy instruments rather than institutional reform, wanted a single currency. For Germany, this would have to be accompanied by coordination of economic policies, together with majority voting in the Council and powers for the European Parliament. But these were reforms too far for France in that early post-gaullist period. The result was a system for cooperation on exchange rates that was too weak to survive the international currency turbulence of that period. The system devised for foreign policy cooperation, kept separate from the Community owing to French insistence on sovereignty in this field, was strictly intergovernmental. Though quite useful, its impact was limited. It was the hard financial interest of French agriculture that secured a solid outcome, in a financial regulation that was to be highly disadvantageous for the British, whose small but efficient farm sector differed from those of the six member states.
The financing of the CAP again raised the question of powers for the European Parliament, on which the Dutch, supported by Belgium, Germany, and Italy, continued to insist. Pompidou’s reaction was to accept the principle that the European Parliament would share control of the budget with the Council, but to exclude as much as possible of the expenditure, including in particular that on agriculture. This was accepted, faute de mieux, by France’s partners in an amending treaty in 1970; and the Parliament’s role was enhanced in a second treaty in 1975, after Pompidou had been succeeded by the post-gaullist President Giscard d’Estaing. While this was just a foot in the door to budgetary powers for the Parliament, it was to grow into a major element in the Community’s institutional structure.
Though agriculture and Commonwealth trade still presented difficulties and the British public appeared unconvinced, Prime Minister Heath established good relations with President Pompidou and drove the entry negotiations through to a successful conclusion. Britain, together with Denmark and Ireland, joined the Community in January 1973, though the Norwegians rejected accession in a referendum. The British too were to vote in a referendum in 1975. Harold Wilson had replaced Edward Heath as Prime Minister in 1974 following an election victory by the Labour Party, which was turning more and more against the Community. After a somewhat cosmetic ‘renegotiation’, the Wilson government did recommend continued membership; and in 1975 the voters approved it by a two-to-one majority. But Labour became increasingly hostile, to the point of campaigning in the 1983 elections for British withdrawal. Meanwhile Margaret Thatcher had become Prime Minister as a result of the Conservative election victory in 1979. While French post-gaullist governments were moving back towards support for earlier concepts of the Community, she was developing a stormy relationship with it, fighting to assert the principle of intergovernmentalism. Until 1984 she also fought to ‘get our money back’, as she put it, by blocking much Community business until she secured agreement to reduce Britain’s high net contribution to the Community’s budget.
In 1974 President Pompidou died and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing succeeded him. Although Giscard had been de Gaulle’s Finance Minister, he was not of the gaullist tradition and wanted to mark his presidency with measures to develop the Community. Ambivalent about federalism, he acted to strengthen both the intergovernmental and the federal elements in the Community’s institutions, with initiatives to convert the summits into regular meetings, as the European Council of Heads of State and Government, as well as to launch direct elections to the European Parliament.
Following consultation with Monnet, who had remained active until then as President of the Action Committee for the United States of Europe in which he had brought together the leaders of the democratic political parties and trade unions of the member states, Giscard successfully proposed both the European Council and the direct elections. The European Council was soon to play a central part in taking Community decisions, settling conflicts that ministers in the Council were unable to resolve, and agreeing on major package deals. Provision had already been made for direct elections in the treaties of the 1950s, subject to unanimous agreement in the Council, which had been unattainable while gaullists ruled France. But the governments now agreed and the first elections were held in June 1979. This step towards representative democracy was to have a big impact on the Community’s future development.
That year of the first direct elections also saw a significant move towards monetary union. On becoming President of the Commission in 1977, Roy Jenkins, formerly a leading member of the Labour government, who without being explicitly federalist favoured steps in a federal direction, had looked for a way to ‘move Europe forward’ and concluded that the time was ripe to revive the idea of monetary union. This was taken up by the German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, who saw it as a way to spread the burden of a difficult relationship with the US that resulted from the weakness of the dollar and the strength of the mark, and who was also influenced by Monnet’s ideas. Schmidt and Giscard had forged a close relationship as Finance Ministers before becoming Chancellor and President in 1974; and they readily agreed on a proposal for a European Monetary System (EMS), with a strong mechanism for mutual exchange rate stability, and a European Currency Unit (ecu) to perform some technical functions. This was accepted by all save the British government, in the context of the Labour Party’s growing hostility to the Community. So all but one of the member states participated in the EMS when it was created in 1979, alongside the Community rather than within it: an example of a recurrent pattern, with a number of states proceeding together while Britain, sometimes with one or two others, stands aside – usually deciding eventually to participate.