Europe as a point of discussion has a tendency to inflame passions and polarise opinion. There’s certainly not much middle ground. In this article, I’m going to look at Britain’s relationship with Europe, both the positives and the negatives, and also the pros and cons of “Brexit”.
One of the first to conceive of a union of European nations was Count Richard Nikolaus von Coudenhove-Kalergi, who wrote the Pan-Europa manifesto as far back as 1923. The debate really began to develop, however, after World War 2, when the continental political climate favoured unity in democratic European countries; unity was seen by many as an escape from the extreme forms of nationalism which had devastated the continent. In a speech delivered on 19 September 1946 at the University of Zürich, Switzerland, Winston Churchill postulated a United States of Europe; “In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living.”
However, the same speech contains remarks, less often quoted, which make it clear that Churchill did not see Britain as being part of this United States of Europe: “We British have our own Commonwealth of Nations … France and Germany must take the lead together. Great Britain … must be a friend and sponsor of the new Europe.”
The idea of European integration led to the creation of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg in 1949, which pursues greater integration and cooperation against corruption, money laundering, doping in sport, or internet crime, for example.
In 1951, Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany agreed to transfer powers over their steel and coal production to the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in the Treaty of Paris, which came into force on 23 July 1952. This transfer of national powers to a “Community” continued under the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which established the European Atomic Energy Community (or Euratom) and the European Economic Community (EEC) in Brussels.
In 1967, the Merger Treaty (or Brussels Treaty) combine the institutions of the ECSC and Euratom into that of the EEC. They already shared a Parliamentary Assembly and Courts. Collectively they were known as the European Communities. In 1987, the Single European Act (SEA) was the first major revision of the Treaty of Rome that formally established the single European market and the European Political Cooperation. The Communities originally had independent personalities although they were increasingly integrated, and over the years were transformed into what is now called the European Union – 28 member states that have delegated certain powers to common institutions.
The Free Trade Area, which allows for the free movement of goods and services, and the Eurozone,which covers the single currency. Free trade allows people greater access to goods from more countries, and gives us a greater market for our own services. I’m more nervous about financial union, to be honest; the euro’s inflexibility was shown up in the 2008 financial crisis. Smaller European countries – Greece, for example example – could not fully control their response to the crisis, instead being dictated to by other, financially stronger members of the union such as Germany and France. There is a way to go before the euro can truly be successful; I have no fundamental problem with a single currency, as long as it is flexible enough to adjust for differences across a very wide political and cultural milieu.
There are three political institutions which hold the executive and legislative power of the Union; the Council represents governments, the Parliament represents citizens and the Commission represents the European interest.
The Parliament’s 751 members are elected every five years by universal suffrage and sit according to political allegiance. They represent nearly 500 million citizens (the world’s second largest democratic electorate) and form the only directly elected body in the Union. It has weaker powers than the Council in some sensitive areas, and can’t create legislation. It does, however, have powers over the Commission, which the Council does not.
The European Commission is the executive arm of the Union. It is composed of one appointee from each state, but is designed to be independent of national interests. The body is responsible for drafting all law of the European Union and has a near monopoly on proposing new laws. It also deals with the day-to-day running of the Union and has the duty of upholding the law and treaties.
Pro-Europeans believe that strength in unity is particularly important in today’s polarised world. They argue that a united and independent Europe has become increasingly necessary. A major argument is the relative small size and importance of the individual European countries with respect to the current and rising powers on the world scale. The individual countries, they argue, would then have limited geopolitical influence and would be unable to represent their own interests effectively. On the other hand, a united Europe, with a population and an economy larger than that of the United States, would make a viable partner.
Citizens also have benefits such as the right to free movement across the EEA, employment rights, greater choice, belonging to a community of people, and acting as a peacemaking force.
However, Euro-scepticism also exists, in two forms;
- Hard Euroscepticism is the opposition to membership of, or the existence of, the European Union as a matter of principle. In western European EU member countries, hard euroscepticism is currently a hallmark of many anti-establishment parties.
- Soft Euroscepticism is support for the existence of, and membership of, a form of European Union, but with opposition to specific EU policies, and opposition to a federal Europe.
The United Kingdom joined the EEC, commonly referred to as the Common Market, on 1 January 1973. This was done under the Conservative government of Edward Heath. The opposition Labour Party, led by Harold Wilson, contested the October 1974 general election with a commitment to renegotiate Britain’s terms of membership of the EEC and then hold a referendum on whether to remain in the EEC on the new terms.
This referendum was held in 1975; all of the major political parties and mainstream press supported continuing membership of the EEC. However, there were significant splits within the ruling Labour party; its membership voted 2:1 in favour of withdrawal at a one-day party conference on 26 April 1975. Every county in the UK had a majority of “Yes”, except the Shetland Islands and the Outer Hebrides.
Withdrawal from the union has continued being debated ever since; the Referendum Party was formed in 1994 by Sir James Goldsmith to contest the 1997 general election on a platform of providing a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. It fielded candidates in 547 constituencies at that election and won 810,860 votes. It failed to win a single parliamentary seat as its vote was too spread out.
The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a Eurosceptic political party, was also formed in the early 1990s. It achieved third place in the UK during the 2004 European elections, second place in the 2009 European elections and first place in the 2014 European elections. This last was the first time since 1906 that any party other than the Labour or Conservative parties had taken the largest share of the vote in a UK-wide election.
In 2012, British Prime Minister David Cameron rejected calls for a referendum on the UK’s EU membership, but suggested the possibility of a future referendum “to ensure the UK’s position within an evolving EU has ‘the full-hearted support of the British people”. In January 2013, Cameron announced that the Conservative Party would hold an in-out referendum on EU membership before the end of 2017, on a renegotiated package, if elected in 2015. We now, of course, have the date, and it’s an important one; either choice will define our political direction for a generation and beyond.
If we were to leave, the main areas impacted would be;
Trade: One of the biggest advantages of the EU is free trade between member nations, making it easier and cheaper for British companies to export their goods. Some business leaders think the boost to income outweighs the billions of pounds in membership fees Britain would save if it left the EU. The UK also risks losing some of its negotiation power internationally by leaving the trading bloc, but it would be free to establish trade agreements with non-EU countries.
Ukip leader Nigel Farage believes Britain could follow the lead of Norway, which has access to the single market but is not bound by EU laws on areas such as agriculture, justice and home affairs. But others argue that an “amicable divorce” would not be possible. The Economist says Britain would still be subject to the politics and economics of Europe, but would no longer have a seat at the table to try to influence matters.
A study by the think-tank Open Europe, which wants to see the EU radically reformed, found that the worst-case “Brexit” scenario is that the UK economy loses 2.2 per cent of its total GDP by 2030. However, it says that GDP could rise by 1.6 per cent if the UK could negotiate a free trade deal with Europe and pursued “very ambitious deregulation”.
Investment: The general view is that inward investment could slow in the lead up to the vote due to the uncertainty of the outcome and its consequences, following the precedent set ahead of the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. Longer term, there are diverging views: pro-Europeans reckon the UK’s status as one of the world’s biggest financial centres will come under threat if it is no longer a seen as a gateway to the EU for the likes of US banks, while Brexit campaigners argue London’s unique appeal will not be diminished.
Barclays has put forward a different view, which will be seen as positive by those advocating a vote to leave. It reckons the departure of one of the union’s most powerful economies would hit its finances and also boost populist anti-EU movements in other countries. In this event, the UK could be seen as a safe haven from those risks, attracting investors and boosting the pound.
Jobs: Free movement of people across the EU opens up job opportunities for UK workers willing to travel and makes it relatively easy for UK companies to employ workers from other EU countries. Ukip says this prevents the UK “managing its own borders”. But, writing for the LSE, Professor Adrian Favell says limiting this freedom would deter the “brightest and the best” of the continent from coming to Britain, create complex new immigration controls and reduce the pool of candidates employers can choose from.
Regulations: Eurosceptics argue that the vast majority of small and medium sized firms do not trade with the EU but are restricted by a huge regulatory burden imposed from abroad. However, others warn that millions of jobs could be lost if global manufacturers, such as car makers, move to lower-cost EU countries, while British farmers would lose billions in EU subsidies.
Influence: Britain may lose some of its military influence – many believe that America would consider Britain to be a less useful ally if it was detached from Europe.
On the plus side, The Economist says Britain would also be able to claim back its territorial fishing waters, scrap caps on limits to the number of hours people can work per week, free itself from the EU’s renewable energy drive and create a freer economic market. This would turn London into a “freewheeling hub for emerging-market finance – a sort of Singapore on steroids”, it says.
But it concludes that the most likely outcome is that Britain would find itself “as a scratchy outsider with somewhat limited access to the single market, almost no influence and few friends. And one certainty: that having once departed, it would be all but impossible to get back in again.”
To be frank, I’m torn. I genuinely and passionately believe that we as nation states are stronger together; united, we can speak with a more powerful voice. We also have more chance of peaceful co-existence by becoming more than the sum of our parts.
Does that sound too good to be true? Maybe it is. We’re beset by huge political and cultural issues; how will migration (in both the positive and negative senses) affect the future of our nations – and how much does that matter? – how will further political integration change the nature of our individual democracies, and will the vastness of the EU’s structure prove too big and unresponsive, or will it be able to overcome its centralising mania and allow individual areas of the union the flexibility to deal with issues locally as well as internationally?
I hope so. I really do. I don’t know the answers to those questions, so it’s entirely possible that I’m full of hot air with what I’m about to say, but I’m generally in favour of the European ideal. Let me qualify that, however; the European ideal. I support a union that is stronger than its component parts. I don’t have a strong ideological opinion in favour of individual sovereignty; I can’t get vigorously excited about keeping the pound (I will gladly take a financial unit that is the best for me – right now, that’s the pound, but if the euro’s ability to be responsive locally as well as nationally becomes stronger, than I’ll shift contentedly over), I don’t mind ceding legislative ability to another body if done for the right reasons and is for the benefit of all, not just the strongest nations (and only if legislation considers both international as well as local issues – that there needs to be latitude in considering the needs of Greece in the east might well culturally and politically differ from Britain in the west) and I welcome effective free movement of people, on the basis that when it works, it works brilliantly (when we can support and accept migrants with skills, talents and a mix of abilities, as well as taking our fair share of refugees who genuinely – genuinely – need our help as fellow human beings, rather than those who – sadly – take advantage of our good nature, and it’s important to differentiate between the two types).
Being united and strong together is important; however, it needs to be a union of equals, based on the principles that every nation brings different strengths to the table. Any political union should be – and can be – respectful of that. Currently, I think the EU fails to take into account cultural differences that could actually strengthen the union. It’s also far too centralised, there’s not enough oversight, and there’s a top-down approach that forgets that citizens aren’t stupid.
So how will I vote on the referendum? It’s a close one but I’m voting to stay in – with some difficulty, and with some concerns. The EU needs to change, and we need to keep pushing our case; there needs to be more debate, not less, on the issues of the EU, and we need to push – as a fully-paid up member – the case for effective reform and a healthy, constructive union. Right now, I’m pro-Europe but anti-Brussels, and I want to see things change from the inside.We need to be in it to change it.