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How did the UK become a member of the European Union?

The United Kingdom has been a member of the European Union since 1973 but the idea that the UK should be in a political union with parts of Europe was around much before this time, Winston Churchill suggested it in 1940 before France fell to the Nazis. Churchill wanted the UK and France to unite as a single country. With a single cabinet in control of the both defence and the economy. Since the quest of Normandy Britain and France have had close ties, with their future's being closely intertwined but the Franco-British Union (as it became known) was rather unthinkable, even for today.

It was first sold to Churchill as an idea by Jean Monnet and backed by the British cabinet (so long as an independent currency was maintained) the idea at the time was so that France could continue the fight against Germany without surrendering but of course history tells a different tale, France fell to the Nazis and they did indeed surrender and with it, for the time, went the idea of political union.

A second attempt at political union would be made by Churchill after the Second World War was won by the allies, he called for a United States of Europe in his Zurich speech in 1946. Back then he lost some support and the main opposition to his proposal came when he insisted that Germany must be part of this union:

Nothing substantial came of it until 1950, when the Shuman plan was being introduced. France and Germany along with four other countries began pooling their steal and coal resource this started with, the well intentioned idea of preventing another World War but the prospect of a federal Europe was something we in the UK larger could not accept. For weeks it was unclear if the UK would or would not sign, until France gave us an ultimatum, a dead line to sign or get lost. Though we were asked, we were never present in these initial negotiations and we never signed up for this policy. The reason for this being, was simply that the prime minister was away, elsewhere. 

This agreement with those six states that did sign, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Luxenbourg and the Netherlands are today largely considered the six founding members of the European Union. 

The next big step for the EU came in 1955 with the negotiations over the Treaty of Rome, this brought about the common market or what was called the European Economic Community. Instead of sending a minister, we sought to send a gentle named Russell Bretherton who imparted the typical skepticism of the UK toward the possibility of a common market between European countries. In fact Bretherton didn't bother returning to negotiations on the following day, he left and with it, the UK's membership of the EEC. Nevertheless the other member states pressed on and the treaty was signed in 1957. Allegedly, some of those at the 1957 signing like Helmut Schmidt were utterly dismayed by the UK's absence but once again those states which did sign pressed on with further integration, borders between these countries were abolished so that trade could travel more easily between countries.

In 1957 the UK elected Harold Mcmillian as prime minister who started off his political career as a Eurosceptic believing that the rest of Europe should not be trying to help aid the Germans. Mcmillian would experience a dramatic u-turn in his attitude. He sent one of his then ministers Edward Heath to try and investigate how to align the UK's economy with the rules on trade set out by the EEC, this next series of negotiations lasted for 15 months and required us to abandon our previous trade relationship with the common wealth. 

Unfortunately this is where many people in the UK were mislead into believing that joining the EEC would be an economic and not a political community, but that of course wasn't true. Even back then, there were certainly people such as Hugh Gaitskell who opposed our membership, in 1962 he famously said it would be "the end of 1000 years of British history". By this time though Mcmillian had become enthusiastic and he himself would go and see De Gaulle about our membership at which point De Gaulle told Mcmillian that the UK's entry would not be possible at this time. Our entry in 1963 was then vetoed by France and the UK would once again not become a member of the EEC

You can imagine the kind of treachery it must of felt like for Mcmillian, its alleged that De Gaulle had left him in tears, it's especially upsetting when it was a French secretary who had convinced Heath that the UK would be accepted. This was a great blow to many Englishman but Ted Heath who was elected in 1970 became somewhat obsessed with over turning the ruling. Heath had ordered our then foreign minister for France Christopher Soames (who happens to be Churchill's son in law) to begin secret negotiations with the French president Georges Pompidou. Heath and Pompidou called a press conference in 1971 announcing their intentions to bring the UK into the common market. But Heath had another hurdle to overcome, he had to convince the majority of MPs to vote in favor. Both the Conservative and the Labour parties were divided on the issue of Europe. In the end the pro-Europe side won with a majority of 112. For many this was a cause for great celebration (a bonfire was lit on the cliffs of Dover just as they were when Germany lost the Second World War). 

When Heath went to sign the document (which was so large it took two people to carry it) securing our membership in the EEC a protester, caught on film attacked Heath. It's fair to say that many people, including MPs like Enoch Powell believed that Heath had betrayed the country. 

But before the document became law, there was still further debate in the House of Commons. For this reason Ted Heath made sure that the bill passing our membership would be very short, with just 12 clauses. He intended to make it more difficult for his opponents by keeping it at this length. But more was still to come. Heath began secret negotiations with pro-Europe Labour MPs that would ensure that our membership went through, There was no referendum for the people because Heath knew the majority of the people opposed what he was doing! 

It wasn't until 1975 that the British people would get a referendum on their membership in the EU, at this time Harold Wilson was Prime minister, our foreign secretary (and future Prime minister) Jim Callaghan began meeting with European ambassadors. This government was bound by its 1974 manifesto to a period of renegotiation with Europe. 

At this point there was hope for some, and worry for others that Wilson would pull Britain out of Europe. Helmut Schmidt was invited to speak in Britain in 1974 pleading with the British public to stay in the common market (just as Obama did recently), in return for a number of concessions, Wilson agreed to back the UK's membership. Unfortunately nothing fundamental came out of these negotiations and public opinion at this time was still largely anti-EU. By 1975 the conservative party had a new asset in Margaret Thatcher who had just been elected as leader of the party. Thatcher backed membership of the common market (and played a fundamental role in changing the European Union). This is a decision she would later regret, and become known as the most anti-EU Prime minister in UK history. But for the time she was pro-European. 

Charles Moore recalls that Margaret Thatcher's reasons for doing so primarily came from attempt to unite Europe against the Soviet Union, for peace in Europe and for free trade negotiations with other European countries. On the 5th of June 1975, the British people voted to remain in the common market in a vote of 67.2% yes, to 32.8% no. 

In 1979 Margaret Thatcher was elected as Prime minister, she began to demand at her first meeting in Dublin, "her money back" as it were. She wanted the common market to pay the UK back the difference between what we paid in and what we got out. This became known as "Thatcher's billion", at the meeting Thatcher was never repaid, but she would continue the fight at just about every European meeting she went to. In 1984 at Fontainebleau in France she got some of her money back, and in effect since 1985, the UK has had a rebate on its contribution to the European budget. 

Thatcher would also make another very important contribution, she turned the common market into the single market. The common market meant that all those countries within, would have free trade agreements with each other and no tariffs between them. The single market meant that regulations and rules between countries businesses, that anyone had to meet in order to trade between a particular country, were the same for all member states and that each member had to accept the free movement of goods, people, capital and services. This meant that a country only has to sign a trade deal with the EU and not all of its member states individually. This became known as the 1986 Single European Act. For many this was the changing moment, then the European Economic Community went to toward political and monetary union and was seen as a big expansion of majority voting. At this time the president of the European commission Jacques Delor (whom Thatcher had backed), went on to try and revise the idea of a single currency across Europe. 

The UK had given up the right to veto a number of policies coming from Brussels. Thatcher had felt remorse for her decision when the EU began promising to the Labour party pro-trade union reforms that a conservative government couldn't overrule, she said it was "etched on her heart" and saw this as a kind of betrayal when the EU went on to further political and monetary union. She gave a famous anti-EU speech right at the capital of Europe, in Brussels:  

Apparently Thatcher was concerned with rising west German power, she saw more political integration as strengthening Germany. She was witnessing the very thing she thought the EU was set out to stop. In 1989 the fall of the Berlin wall lead to greater German power, and many more countries joining the EU.  Her fears of a "federal Europe" would cost her dearly

In 1990 our longest serving and most successful Prime minister, Margaret Thatcher would loose office after winning three landslide victories in general elections, her party called for a vote of no confidence, and she stood down. Leaving her place to John Major. But not before the deputy Prime minister, Geoffry Howe resigned because, Thatcher refused to give into the demand and swap the UK currency, the pound, for the euro.  

Since Thatcher left office a considerable amount of the debate has been on currency. John Major wanted to give the UK the choice of joining the euro at a later date. The disadvantage of monetary union without fiscal union is that when the UK is going through a recession or when inflation is high, the bank of England can devalue the pound and save anything worse from happening, however, the euro isn't controlled by the bank of England. It isn't possible to adjust it for the UK economy because it has to suit 28 other member states as well.

Under Thatcher when Major was chancellor, Britain joined the Exchange Rate Mechanism which valued the pound sterling at a high and fixed value. In response to rising unemployment Major and Lamont asked for Germany to devalue the Deutsche mark but on September 16th 1992 Germany announced that the UK would have to devalue the pound and rapid selling off of the sterling began soon after. The government tried to create economic stimulus by buying shares and increasing interest rates (twice) up to 15% percent but none of this was able to stop the selling of the pound, till at last Lawson withdrew the UK from the ERM in what we now refer to as 'Black Wednesday'. 

The Maastricht treaty in 1992 which lead to the creation of the European Union and the euro as the official currency was signed by John Major and put into a parliamentary vote, the ayes 319 the nos 316 a difference of only three parliamentary votes lead to out membership of the institution we now call "the European Union".

Tony Blair came to power in 1997 and very quickly began negotiations on the north sea coast. Politically he found the case for joining the euro overwhelming but economically, he conceded, later that it would have been a detriment. in 1999 he set up the cross party group "Britain in Europe" to persuade the public on the benefits of a single currency. During his wider tenure, 12 other states would join the European Union and immigration would go up from around ~ 30 thousand a year to ~ 300 thousand a year. Tony Blair willfully chose not to impose a 7 year waiting time, freezing mass immigration until that time was up, as Germany did with east-Europeans.

Given the fundamental changes in the European Union a managerial shift occurred and the EU wrote its own constitution. Pushing towards, even further political integration. Tony Blair announced that there would be a referendum on the constitution. France had already voted out of the idea followed also by the Dutch. But the European Union wasn't content to give up, they renamed the constitution the "Lisbon treaty" and pushed it through anyway with no referendum for the UK.

The next government was a coalition government between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Who have secured a referendum for the UK whenever any power is transferred to the European Union, when the Eurozone crises hit, riots erupted across the continent. But it was Nigel Farage and UKIP whom we owe thanks for the current referendum. David Cameron announced in his Bloomberg speech that the UK would hold an in-out referendum and so we come to the debate we're having today in response to rising UKIP membership. 


  1. “If voting made any difference they wouldn't let us do it.” – Mark Twain . ;D

  2. Politicians are duplisatous, and we've always been in a political realtionship with Europe, given the geographical proximity. Given the benefits of the relationship on offer, it's worth the cost. So I'll be voting remain.

  3. Politicians are duplisatous, and we've always been in a political realtionship with Europe, given the geographical proximity. Given the benefits of the relationship on offer, it's worth the cost. So I'll be voting remain.


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