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The Europe that Britain built

UK European Communities Membership Referendum, 1975, also known as the Common Market referendum, was held on 5th June 1975, to gauge support for the country's continued membership of the European Economic Community, picture shows, Pro Europe Campaigners on float, part of South Glamorgan campaign to Keep Britain in Europe, drive through Cardiff this morning, Saturday 31st May 1975. (Photo by Edwards/Western Mail Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

The idea that we have always been a reluctant, recalcitrant EU member is a myth, says James Dunne.

With the clock ticking towards the latest Brexit deadline, it’s better late than never to reflect on the story of the UK’s EU membership, over the nearly half century since it joined.

A familiar narrative about the UK’s membership – in which Britain is portrayed as the eternally awkward and reluctant member state, only ever half-committed to the European project – has gained widespread exposure, promoted by politicians, journalists and commentators in both the UK and Europe.

The story goes something like this: having declined to involve itself in the early negotiations that eventually led to the formation of the European Community, Britain’s late accession (on the third attempt) brought it into an organisation whose rules and direction of travel had already been determined, and with which successive UK governments were ill at ease.

While continental publics and politicians were broadly committed to political union, British administrations, adopting a posture supportive of market integration but defensive of its parliamentary sovereignty, were a difficult presence in Council meetings, demanding special allowances in the form of rebates or opt-outs, and blocking key appointments in Brussels.

The fraught Brexit negotiations seem to have reinforced this narrative. When Xavier Bettel, Luxembourg’s prime minister, quipped last year that the British were “in with loads of opt-outs, now they are out and want a load of opt-ins”, he spoke to a broader, shared understanding that sees Brexit as the unsurprising conclusion of a troubled membership.

This sentiment had been growing ever since David Cameron, in 2011, exercised the British veto over a fiscal treaty, and found himself isolated at the Council table. The following morning, French newspaper Le Monde declared that the British “do not believe in the European idea. They are unrelated to this project”, while Die Welt ran with “The end of Britain’s EU membership”.

Not only is this narrative dangerous, in suggesting an inevitability about the UK’s exit and limiting the potential for a rational debate about its future relationship with Europe, it is also misleading, resting as it does on a selective reading of Britain’s life as an EU member.

If, as the story suggests, the UK and the EU began their relationship on divergent trajectories, then a messy divorce is probably all that could be expected.

The Cameron government’s isolation in Europe was an aberration, rather than part of a long-term pattern. In using the UK’s veto, Cameron revealed his administration’s lack of understanding about how to exercise British influence from within Europe, as his predecessors had so successfully done, and provided an early indication of 
his willingness to take extreme 
and damaging decisions to 
please his party’s eurosceptic right-wing.

Looking back on the experiences of previous British governments, from Ted Heath to Gordon Brown, a very different trend is discernible. British prime ministers have had their disagreements with their European colleagues – and are not alone in having done so – but when Britain has wanted to take leadership in Europe, it has almost always been able to do so.

Taking this long-term view, less coloured by the disastrous and recent exception of Cameron’s involvement in Brussels, also 
raises the question of what British leadership has achieved in Europe.

Since long before the Brexit referendum debate, the subject of what Britain gets out of the EU has been a matter of lively discussion in the UK. Less frequently asked is the question of what the EU has got out of British membership. The answer is that the contemporary European Union bears the clear mark of British leadership.

Among a raft of other innovations which have shaped the EU in the British interest, two major developments can be attributed above all to British influence: the creation of the world’s largest single market, and the eastwards enlargement of the Community to take in the post-communist countries of central and eastern Europe.

These achievements, both of historic significance, decisively shaped the European Union according to British economic interests, while also transforming the post-Cold War landscape in Europe.

In the case of the single market, Britain has likely benefited more than any other member state: services constitute a larger proportion of UK exports than of any other developed country, and the EU is a larger market for UK services than the next eight largest export markets put together.

Thatcher described the creation of the single market as her “one overriding positive goal”, a major reform from which British businesses “would be among those most likely to benefit”, and while acknowledging the trade-offs involved in such a complex negotiation, concluded that she “had surrendered no important British interest”.

Her later turn towards euroscepticism should not obscure the constructive role she played in many of the more than 20 European Council summits held during her premiership.

On the question of eastern enlargement, recent debate has been overwhelmingly preoccupied with the issue of migration from the newer member states. Less noted is the farsighted nature of British policy in the 1980s and 1990s, overcoming significant opposition within the Community to keep the door open to the states in transition, and therefore securing large areas of the continent for liberal democracy, ending centuries of unstable borders and violent conflict.

To hear eurosceptics recall Thatcher’s famous Bruges Speech of 1988, one might believe it constitutes a kind of anti-EU manifesto. In truth, while critical of moves towards federalism, Thatcher set out an expansive view of European cooperation, arguing not only that Britain’s “destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community”, but also calling on her colleagues to remember those nations “east of the Iron Curtain”.

Her successor, John Major, described enlargement as a “debt of honour” to those states, and included a commitment to enlargement among the leading policy pledges in his 1992 election manifesto.

One might assume that the British public would be proud of their nation’s role in these
immense undertakings. The
nearly complete absence of these stories from Britain’s debate on
EU membership reflects the diagnosis of a Conservative MEP, Richard Ashworth, addressing the European Parliament earlier this year. For 25 years, he said, “no British prime minister ever explained to the British people what Europe did, what are the benefits, and why it matters”.

It is not simply a case, as has often been suggested since 2016, that no British prime minister in recent history has set out the positive case for Europe in a sustained manner. Had the reality of Britain’s influence and achievements in Europe been communicated to the British public, perhaps there would have been no need to justify the fact of British membership in the first place.

That is not to say that, before Cameron, relations between British prime ministers and their continental counterparts were always easy. Thatcher was frequently frustrated by the consensus-based approach of the European Council, and Major memorably suggested that “when British ministers spoke the language of Westminster in Brussels it was like spitting in church”. However, Cameron’s approach, whether in isolating Britain through exercising a veto against urgent Community business, or in withdrawing his MEPs from the parliament’s largest grouping in a fit of pique over top appointments, represented a radical departure.

Blair had disagreed with his colleagues on the appointment of Commission president, but worked to organise opposition to the Franco-German choice, and succeeded in gaining support for an alternative figure. Thatcher, similarly, did not simply exercise her veto when she struggled to gain traction. She accepted a need to “seek alliances with other governments, accept compromises and use language which I did not find attractive”. Such an approach, as she put it, “was never going to be easy”, but she never walked away from the table.

By remaining engaged and leading the EU through the momentous development of a single market and eastwards enlargement, successive UK governments ensured that the UK has done as much as any other member state to forge the contemporary European Union. The development of the most successful international project in history has naturally entailed discussions, trade-offs, and protracted negotiations.

These were not symptoms of dysfunction in the UK’s membership, but of a member state which had a strong agenda for Europe’s future, and was prepared to stay at the table and promote it. That history – of successfully pushing visionary agendas that have shaped contemporary Europe – is one that the British public should take pride in.

James Dunne is a PhD candidate in international relations at the Central European University. He has previously worked as a UK civil servant and a strategy consultant, focused on defence, security and foreign policy

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