Britain and the European Union: A Brief Introduction

Prime Minister David Cameron at the European Council (Image: Number 10)

Unless one has been living in a drab, vacuous cave for the past year or so it will not be a surprise to hear that the future of Britain as a composite part of the European Union is set to be put to popular mandate at a date as yet unspecified by our Prime Minister. Scholars, politicians and insiders across the political spectrum have been espousing varied, conflicting and often convoluted opinions in attempts to enlighten and persuade the British public to become involved in the ‘In/Out’ debate.

This article, the first of a special ‘EU: In or Out’ series for The Worldly, will provide a succinct foundational backdrop to the history of the European Union, Britain’s role within the body’s evolution and finally the current political climate referencing the impending Referendum.

Indeed the inception of meaningful and formal European cooperation was underpinned by the ultimate aim of ‘ending the frequent and bloody wars between neighbours’ following the devastation of the Second World War. The European Coal and Steel Community, proposed by the French Interior Minister Robert Schuman established at the Treaty of Paris in 1951 was a way by which to unite France, West Germany, Italy and the Benelux economically and politically, incrementally but concretely, creating the world’s first truly supranational institution.

The much cited Churchillian vision of a United States of Europe has not transcended generations in Britain

Britain as a nation state was finally accepted into the European Economic Community in 1973 under the stewardship of Ted Heath after over a decade of fervent hostility in accession from France. The French president Charles de Gaulle twice vetoed membership in 1963 and 1967 citing the insignificance of British economic weight and benefits that would be brought to the table, despite the other five members of the Community supporting British membership. It seems pertinent to note the vast yet unsurprising difference in perspectives of the British public towards the European Union taking into account Britain’s improved relative economic climate against members within the Eurozone in comparison to the 1960s and 70s.

David Cameron’s 2015 manifesto pledge to bring about the process of referendum upon Britain’s continued membership within the European Union by the end of 2017 marks only the third UK-wide plebiscite, the second being the AV referendum in 2011.

Since 1975, what was initially the European Economic Community has expanded exponentially both economically and most importantly politically, with the establishment of the directly elected European Parliament in 1979 and the creation of the Single European Act in 1987 to the further enlargement rounds to 28 member states in 2004.

Opinion polls suggest a far narrower run in this time around

When John Major negotiated an opt-out clause of the Euro but to remain in the European Community, it become clearer than ever that the European Union for Britain was, above all, a facilitator for national economic benefit and neither national sovereignty nor the ability to utilize monetary policy as a stabilizer would be sacrificed for the benefit of holistic European political integration.

It would be fair to say that the European Union’s evolution from its initial conception of a customs union to a fully-fledged economic union and a consequent widespread economic collapse in the Eurozone sparked and reignited respectively the widespread skepticism within the Conservative party and the wider public towards the bureaucratic regime in Brussels. It is somewhat apparent that the much cited Churchillian vision of a United States of Europe has not transcended generations in Britain.

‘Cleanest, neatest and simplest’ way of establishing and cementing Britain’s relationship with Brussels

In 1975, following less than two full years of membership, Harold Wilson instigated a post legislative referendum, the first UK-wide plebiscite that culminated in a conclusive 66% ‘YES’ vote with 65% of the electorate turning out; the last time that the public of the United Kingdom were directly consulted on their position within the European Union. David Cameron at the Conservative party conference of 2012 claimed that a referendum would be the ‘cleanest, neatest and simplest’ way of establishing and cementing Britain’s relationship with Brussels. Current opinion polls suggest a far narrower run in this time around.

It is an issue that has not only divided those present within Westminster, but has also drawn the opinion and participation from a number of previously prominent office holders. The aforementioned John Major, along with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have publically supported Britain’s continued role within the European Union, a group spearheaded by former Marks and Spencer’s chief executive Stuart Rose. The most vocal actors of the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign, namely Daniel Hannan MEP and Douglas Carswell as well as their chair Nigel Lawson also can claim to have cross-party support, creating an umbrella organization for previous members Conservatives for Britain, Labour Leave and Business for Britain.

Within this letter is a diplomatic ambiguity that allows David Cameron room to manoeuvre

Britain’s continued membership within Europe is dependent on a renegotiation package of its relationship with the European Union, a prospect that voices from the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign suggest is implausible. Indeed, David Cameron set out four key areas in a letter addressed to the president of the European Parliament Donald Tusk in November 2015; namely economic governance, competitiveness, sovereignty and immigration (incorporating welfare). Instilled within this letter is a diplomatic ambiguity that allows David Cameron room to manoeuvre around the central tenets of conflict, a trade-off between establishing a pedestal of negotiation with the European Union but without restricting himself to the vehement Eurosceptics back home.

The referendum is set against the worst possible European political backdrop

Whilst there is no doubt that a referendum on the European Union will take place prior to 2017, the most pressing issue is the timing of said referendum, with June 2016 being the most widely reported date being put forward by various sources close to Number 10. Following David Cameron’s indulgence in a lengthy European trip enviable of many an adventurous post A-level student equipped with a rail card and moderate sense of adventure, European leaders will meet next week to finalise terms of a deal which will redefine the UK’s relationship with the European Union. To paraphrase Donald Tusk, the referendum is set against the worst possible European political backdrop taking into account the migrant crisis that has seen ‘swarms’ of migrants desperately take up camp across the continent, with the refugee camps at Calais being of particularly note to the British populous.

With an already exhausted public seemingly tired of European bureaucratization and a strong and relatively successful Eurosceptic movement far beyond the populist UKIP continuing to berate the Brussels machine, it would be fair to say that the Prime Minister is charged with substantially delivering at the EU summit scheduled for February 18th/19th. With growing pressure on Cameron to adequately achieve a beneficial deal for the United Kingdom going forward, I foresee the week ahead being the most important yet with regards to our position in Europe and it would be a deep shame if a failure in diplomacy on the part of one individual swayed the decision of the British public upon decision day.

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