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Dr Esmond Birnie: Always deja-vu when it comes to UK's relations with the European Union

Economy Watch


Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher

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Leo Varadkar

Leo Varadkar



Margaret Thatcher

Well, this time I could obviously have written about the UK Government's latest Brexit plan. The problem is that the plan could have changed massively by the time this article is published! Instead, let's go back a little in history.

A few months ago I read the book This Blessed Plot (1999, Macmillan) by Hugo Young, former political editor of The Guardian, in which he describes the ups and downs (mostly the latter) of the UK's relationship with the development of ever closer European union between 1945 and the early 1990s. Young was a brilliant journalist and writer so at one level his book is a pleasure to read but at another its contents are depressing. It isn't just that the last three years have been consumed by Brexit - the debate about the UK's relationship with Europe has been rumbling on since the end of the Second World War.

Young's account of the process whereby the UK joined the EEC yields some lessons for the current exit process.

First, a depressing point. We shouldn't be surprised that the attempt to leave the EU has been so difficult and protracted. So far we are "only" three years on from the June 2016 vote but the process of joining the EEC took about 15 years.

Along the way there had been one rejected application when French president Charles de Gaulle delivered a "non" and a referendum in 1975.

Second, economics certainly mattered in terms of Britain's policy towards Europe but the way it entered the debate shifted over time. Immediately after 1945, in the era of Churchill and Attlee, it looked as though the UK was still one of the great powers along with the USA and USSR. From that perspective, European unity was seen as something to be indulged without being part of it.

However, by the late 1950s it became clear the UK economy was falling behind that of France and Germany - some UK politicians began to see membership of the EEC's customs union as the economic cure.

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Third, some things do change. Unlike the 1950s and 1960s, no MPs now have to understand the detail of New Zealand butter exports and no one would seriously argue that the UK should introduce a protectionist system biased towards the Commonwealth (as recently as 1962, 32% of UK exports went to the Commonwealth and 39% to western Europe).

Northern Ireland is barely mentioned in Young's book but he does note that the Republic of Ireland, along with Denmark, felt obliged to join the EEC once it was clear the UK was joining. The irony is that the Republic has now become one of the most enthusiastic of the 28 member states.

Fourth, whatever the constitutional theory, senior civil servants were never entirely neutral facilitators of the process.

The irony from today's perspective is that in the 1950s-60s the Treasury tended to be sceptical about moving towards UK membership of the EEC. That changed as there was a generational shift in the senior leadership.

Fifth, one particular change is distressing. Young noted how in the 1950s-70s the debate within the UK about joining the EEC was relatively restrained and courteous. In the 1990s and now again during 2016-19 things have become visceral. It is useful to remember, and Young points this out, how many leading politicians changed their mind on the European question.

He points out the irony that prime minister Margaret Thatcher was an architect of the Single European Act in 1985.

There are other examples of inconsistency - late 1940s foreign secretary Ernie Bevin colourfully explained that his policy was "to go to Victoria Station, take a ticket and go where the hell I like without anybody pulling me up with a passport".

However, it was Bevin who vetoed UK involvement in the European Coal and Steel Community which in many ways was the predecessor of the EEC.

To conclude, whether one favours Brexit or Remain, greater honesty on defining positions would be helpful. Even though Young's book was written 20 years ago it hints at this conclusion.

A more honest Brexit position might recognise a trade-off: being free of some of the EU's legal authority may mean still being influenced by EU regulations we would now have no influence over. A more honest Remain position might recognise that is a misrepresentation of the EU project to see it solely or even mainly about European free trade and economic growth; an objective of political union was always on the agenda.