The EU/UK Stand-Off – An Epic Historical Muddle

12/05/2018

JR Max Wheel

As a divided UK wrestles with leaving the EU, it is worth reminding that many of the arguments for and against, over the power of a state to exercise its sovereignty dominated the debates prior to our accession to the then EEC. Many heavyweight politicians from both major parties worried away at the loss of national sovereignty and the fundamental differences in the way that laws are made under the UK’s unwritten constitution. The LSE’s Piers Ludlow has revisited this subject especially the debates of October 1971. Objections from the anti-EEC camp focused on three key areas, UK’s long-standing support for free trade, its internationalist stance and laterally the importance of making its own laws, as proposed and voted on by Parliament.

Interestingly much of the focus was on negative consequences for dominions and former colonies, whether sugar or banana producers in the Caribbean or lamb and butter from New Zealand and Australia, part of the terms of access and a deep-seated issue since the cheap food policy -the need to import food which lay behind the 19thC repeal of the Corn Laws. The “terms of entry” thus assumed a much bigger role than in any in depth assessment of what we were joining and serious public discussion of the terms of the acquis communitaire. The latter imposed a set of circumstances on the UK which included all EEC legislation back as far as 1958. Equally the aims and aspirations of the EEC towards a federal state were both well-known, but never made clear to the British electorate, rather it was presented much more as a trading bloc. This was a mix of sleight of hand, which rather echoes Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s celebrated comment on the proto-constitution contained in the Lisbon Treaty of 2004- “public opinion will be led to adopt, without knowing it, the proposals we dare not present to them directly”.

Failing to inform directly or acknowledge what was envisaged in the acquis was a grave error and the beginning of a long-lasting suspicion over the EEC and later EU that the British media exploited relentlessly, and it sowed the seeds of Euroscepticism, even outright hostility that are still with us.

The nature of the acquis is that not only would a large swathe of EEC agreed legislation from the original six members pass into English law, but thereafter under the terms of the European Communities Act of 1972, all manner of directives, directions and decisions (laws) and treaty obligations would pass into British legislation. Whether these were properly debated and critiqued by successive Parliaments is a moot point. Further interpretation of this body of law was to be subject to the interpretations and rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) effectively making the very point that the anti-membership debaters in 1971 feared.

Such a body of information, with its complexity easily passed over the head of much of the electorate who were sold the benefits of the EEC as a trading bloc, to escape the dire UK economic performance in the 1960s and early 70s. If it had been more carefully explained, there would have been a more realistic appreciation, if not necessarily whole-hearted support. In this way it uncannily mirrors the equally inept arguments used by both sides in the 2016 referendum.

Enlargement of the Community from 1980s and 2004 has brought with it a further layer of complexity, many aspiring members had limited recent experience of democracy, Portugal, Spain, Greece were recent dictatorships and the Central and Eastern Europeans recent escapees from the domination of the Soviet Union.  Their identities, cultural and history was often removed from that of the original members.

Finally, the nature of the now infamous Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty aka EU constitution was never designed to accommodate an orderly and voluntary withdrawal process by a member state but rather to seek actions against “rogue” behaviour by member states, e.g. suspension of the rule of law or similar violations.

That is why it was always the wrong forum for negotiations on the UK’s decision. Whilst it by no means excuses inept UK management of the process, the error was in triggering it and by so doing allowing a completely one-sided arrangement, determined entirely by the EU and creating endless wrangling. No international negotiations are like this except after defeat in a war. The omnipresence of EU laws is like a one-way ratchet whereby they have been caught up in every nook and cranny of UK life and law. It is like trying to reverse an industrial loom, the fabric is now an inextricable mix, where new problems and trip wires appear constantly. Much, if not all of this could have been avoided if the terms of the original deal had been properly presented and understood, for that successive Governments are intimately responsible.