“We have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked, but not combined. We are interested and associated, but not absorbed.” Winston Churchill’s famous quote aptly describes Britain’s intentions towards European integration.
In this essay I shall attempt to show that Britain’s relationship towards European integration has been one of a reluctant union, supporting free trade and mutually beneficial cooperation, while attempting to distance itself from economic and cultural ‘unity’ with Europe, and I will finish by describing the effects on Britain’s sovereignty since joining the European Union . The term integration can be understood, in context of the European Union, as a situation of unification between individually sovereign nations into a collective body, sufficient to make that body a workable whole.
A fully integrated European Union could be seen to have two possible outcomes. Either
- Federalist or ‘stewed’ union, where all member states give up their individual sovereignty and form a superstate that would be an economic world power,
- Confederalist or ‘salad bar’ union, where each member state has its own place in a continental alliance, maintaining national sovereignty and individually contributing, through trade and cooperation, to form a greater whole.
Throughout the 1970’s and 80’s Britain’s aspiration for a Europe unified through trade and cooperation arose from a desire to maintain complete control and sovereignty over its own affairs. The history of the British Empire and its position as leader of the Commonwealth in addition to its history of beneficial association with the United States, left many in Britain to believe that it could still maintain its prominent global role and historical status of world leader in political and economic affairs.
However, the fact that Britain had to accept that there was a need for trade barriers to fall and new markets to open, coupled with the realisation that it could not exist successfully as a separate economically independent entity. There was the recognition by some that the only hope to attain these goals was to join the EC as “there was little scope for a United Kingdom outside the community, especially when the six (Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) had done so visibly better than the UK4” Since ‘biting the bullet’ and gaining its membership to the then called European Community in 1973,
Britain has vocally announced that it would prefer the ‘salad bar’ version of integration to the ‘stewed’ version. For example, Margaret Thatcher spoke in Bruges in September 1988 and she said she “sought to lay down a vision of a Europe of sovereign states, economically considerably more liberal, deregulated and interdependent, but a Europe based essentially on cooperation rather than integration5”. Within the EU, Britain could work with the other member nations to guarantee its economic interests and attempt to maintain its influence and continue to hold sway in world affairs.
Inside the EU Britain would “be able to mould the trading systems of Europe to its advantage. As an outsider, it feared being on the uninfluential receiving end of decisions made by the combined power of the original ‘six”. The EU has stated explicitly that its objectives are “to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe the constant improvement of the living and working conditions of the people, and the reduction of differences in wealth between regions.
And so, Britain has had to temper its view that Europe could survive as a system of completely independent yet cooperative states in order to benefit from the advantages, such as open markets and free trade with other members, which is offered by membership in the EU. Britains decision to join the EU was a considered one, to gain economic benefits and submit to some loss of individual control over social matters that concern all members of the Union.
However It appears that they want to ‘have their cake and eat it too’, by gaining the economic benefits of union and not submitting to any social initiatives proposed by the EU. For Example in 1989 the all the member states adopted a Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers, all that is except Britain, this charter was supposed to be a fundamental building block in the construction of Europe, yet Britain rejected it saying that it would disrupt its vision of free and open trade among the member states of the European Economic Community.
This action is a demonstration of Britains attempts at avoiding the creation of the Federalist European Superstate. Sovereignty can be defined quite simply as the supreme authority to not only declare law but create it, deriving this power from a populace who have given up their personal sovereignty and power and vested it in the sovereign8, in the case of Britain the sovereign is the Government, since the King passed sovereignty to the parliament over time.
Britain’s ability to defend its sovereignty has been effectively compromised in the first instance by the very act of joining the EU. The declared intent of the EU, to create an ‘ever closer union’, defines a certain path that the member states must follow. The path may be wide to allow a number of different routes to the intended goal, but in the end it restricts the sovereign nations ability to choose its own course of action both economically and socially. Three specific instances of the erosion of Britains sovereignty are The European Communities Act 1972, which established a principle that European Law would always prevail over British law in the event of a conflict, effectively decreasing the supremacy of Parliament.
The Single European Act 1988 (SEA) withered sovereignty more by replacing unanimity rule, that is, any nations power to veto, with majority voting in certain areas. therefore the power of the European Parliament over Britain was further enhanced. And finally. The treaty of Maastricht 1993 further empowered the European Parliament, it can now block new legislation but cannot itself initiate new legislation. The European court was also given the power to fine member states9.
These examples show that Britains ability to defend its sovereignty really relates to its ability to negotiate within the framework of the treaties that it signs, and also the extent to which it can slow the process of the erosion of its sovereignty down. Britains actions concerning the Single European Currency are a good example of this. Because under a Single European Currency Parliament would lose sovereignty over its currency reserves, the Central Bank interest rate, and the amount of currency minted, since no Act of Parliament could be used to set these things. This sovereignty would pass to the European Central Bank10.
Britain decided to hold itself out of the introduction of the Euro and see what reaction the new currency would create on the world market. It currently plans to join the monetary union in 2003. In conclusion, Britains relationship to European integration since 1973 has been one that sees this as a pragmatic necessity. Britain would prefer a ‘salad bar’ Europe, with sovereign and individual states adding their own flavour to an economic Confederate of European states, though it will concede social integration when it can not avoid it.
The extent to which Britain can defend its sovereignty, has been shown to be limited, it can negotiate to arrange beneficial agreements with other members and really delay the effects of union.
- Almdal, Preben. Aspects of European Integration Denmark, Odense University Press, 1986.
- Edwards, Geoffrey. ‘Britain and Europe’ in Jonathan Story (ed) The New Europe:Politics, Government and Economy since 1945. Oxford, Blackwell Publishers, 1993.
- Stuart,N. New Britain Handbook on Europe, New Britain, 1996 http://web. ukonline.co.uk/stuart.n2/nbrit/nbhandeu1.html
- Wise, Mark. & Gibb, Richard. Single Market to Social Europe:The European Community in the 1990’s . Essex, Longman Scientific and Technical, Longman GroupUK Ltd.
- The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations is licensed from Columbia University Press. Copyright © 1993