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Great Britain and the European Union

The Creation of the European Economic Community

Europe after the end of the Second World War saw a new set of politicians running the countries of Western Europe. Many nationalist right wing politicians had been discredited by collaboration with the Nazis, less so in France because General de Gaulle had gone into exile and supported the resistance and returned after the war to set up the conservative Gaullist party.

The centre-right vote was taken over by Christian Democrat parties which had an internationalist outlook and they shared power with Social Democrat parties, equally internationalist. In occupied countries and in Italy there had been cooperation between parties in the resistance movements which had undermined the German war effort and contacts developed between the movements across countries.

The concern of French, Dutch and Belgian politicians was to bind West Germany (East Germany was now in the Soviet zone) so closely into the rest of Western Europe that another European war would be unthinkable. Churchill in a speech in 1946 talked about a ‘United States of Europe’ though he did not expect Britain to be actively involved. French politicians took two initiatives:-

– Robert Schumann in 1950, in what is now called the Schumann Declaration, proposed a federal organisation for Western Europe starting with a common agency for iron and steel production, symbolic industries, as they were vital for military production. The Treaty of Paris in 1951 created the European Coal and Steel Community with France West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. The principle of equality among states, cooperation but also the preservation of national interest in a Council of Ministers, community institutions and a legal basis for the Community, which have become features of the European Union are all to be found here.

– The Americans were keen to rearm Germany to strengthen the West in the Cold War and so, in 1950, René Pleven, the French Prime Minister proposed a European Defence Community which would have a joint military force but with command under national control except for Germany, whose forces would be under the control of the Community. Proposals were drafted but in the end the French Parliament rejected the idea.

Thus integration had political objectives from the beginning. The six ECSC countries created a much broader Common Market in 1957 with the Treaty of Rome which removed all export and import duties, allowed free movement of labour, capital and services and allowed firms from any individual country to operate across the whole area.

Although Britain joined NATO and took part in other European initiatives and would have been interested in the European Defence Community if it had limited supranational elements, she decided not to take part in European integration in the period 1945-60. There were a number of reasons for this:-

– Britain was the country that had won the war and not been occupied, despite physical disruption and huge financial indebtedness at the end of the war. Britain still felt secure with its Empire, including the independent dominions, which had helped in the war, and was still at its maximum extent in 1946. Conservative politicians did not expect all parts of the Empire to proceed to a rapid process of de-colonisation and there were strong economic and social links with Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. With independence in 1947-8 for the countries that had made up the Indian Empire, the Empire began to be transformed into the Commonwealth and Labour politicians, some of whom had ties of friendship with the politicians who had led the independence movements, found it attractive as a new economic and political association. The idea of an Imperial trading group had also been important for many Conservatives.

– The involvement of the United States in Europe and in the Cold War, in contrast to its isolation after the First World War and the friendship during the war of Roosevelt and Churchill led to the idea of a Special Relationship between Britain and the United States. There has been a debate over the years as to what this really means, with some writers seeing it as only existing when the two countries have a common foreign policy objective, but certainly there has been security and defence collaboration and contacts at the elite political level, including between Prime Ministers and Presidents. Certainly the idea of an Atlantic rather than a European orientation has always been a powerful one (Churchill told De Gaulle that if there had to be a choice between Europe and the open sea, Britain would always choose the open sea).

– Having just nationalised the Coal and Steel industries, the post-war Labour Government and the Trade Unions were reluctant to hand them over to a European authority.

– Britain had a worldwide international economic outlook with an international currency, with many countries holding sterling reserves in London, an international financial centre in the City worldwide trading patterns and the advantage of cheap food imports.