By PETER YOUNG
The decision by Britain to withdraw from the European Union following a referendum in 2016 continues to stimulate endless debate and controversy, not least because of a relatively narrow poll margin of 52 to 48 percent in favour of departure. In a high turnout of some 72 percent, 17.4 million voted to leave.
Termed Brexit, the nation’s departure is due in March next year after Prime Minister Theresa May last year invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which provides for a two-year negotiating period on withdrawal. As a main player in the EU for more than 40 years, the United Kingdom’s departure will have seismic effects in Europe as well as, potentially, serious repercussions elsewhere in the world.
During the last 18 months, various matters have been resolved like budgetary issues in relation to existing commitments and the status, post-Brexit, of EU citizens already living and working in the UK and vice versa. There are also ongoing negotiations about Britain’s trading relationship with the remaining 27 EU members and extension of existing co-operation across-the-board; for example, areas like security, policing and counter terrorism, intelligence sharing and the environment as well as many others.
Despite detailed discussions, no agreement has yet been reached about new trading relations. But, with growing pressure to secure an agreement, rather than Britain leaving without a deal, events are now moving fast.
So, with six months to go until Britain’s departure, it is timely to take stock of recent developments. However, before doing this in a separate article, it might be useful to examine the historical background to Britain’s involvement in Europe.
Over several centuries, Britain has had a long and troubled relationship – a mix of conflict and cooperation – with its European neighbours. Europe has always presented a strategic challenge because of ideological, religious and political differences and Britain’s primary concern has traditionally been about the balance of power on the continent. Her main enemies at varying periods have been France, Spain, Tsarist Russia and, more recently, Germany and the Soviet Union.
Apart from her formidable military capacity in famous battles ranging from Agincourt to Waterloo or the Battle of Britain in 1940, Britain has also been a major political player on the European stage. Examples range from the defence of Protestantism (some say, not entirely in jest, that Henry VIII’s rejection of Catholicism and break with Rome was the first Brexit) to the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 and the subsequent remodelling of Europe – and, much later, to promoting liberalism and pioneering the concept of the nation-state and the spread of democracy.
All this was in marked contrast to Europe with its absolutism, Jacobinism and Napoleonic tyranny followed by Hitler and Soviet communism and now an EU which, in the view of many, has become an unelected dictatorship despite the supposed checks and balances of a Council of Ministers and a separate but largely toothless European Parliament.
After the two world wars of the last century, Britain’s main foreign policy objective was to guard against German revanchism and its capacity to engage in hostilities again. But a revived and strengthened nation was needed to provide a bulwark against the Soviet Union to the east.
Policy-makers believed to achieve this it was essential to bring about a European integration that would lead to Germany being embedded in a wider union and its resources being mobilized for the common defence against the USSR. At the end of the Second World War, Churchill himself is quoted as looking forward to a “United States of Europe in which barriers between nations will be greatly minimised”. But, in the thinking of the time, although Britain would continue to be closely involved in the affairs of Europe, there was no suggestion of any countries giving up their sovereignty as nation-states.
In the 1950s, the EU Founding Fathers sought to fulfil the ideals of a united, prosperous and peaceful Europe designed to end the frequent and bloody wars on the continent. Establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community as a first step was followed in 1957 by the Treaty of Rome which created a European Economic Community or Common Market of six nations – Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and The Netherlands. Gradual enlargement followed with Denmark and Ireland and Britain’s accession in 1973, and later Greece, Spain and Portugal also joined.
The Single Market was established in 1986 for the complete free flow of trade (without customs duties) in accordance with the four freedoms of movement of goods, services, people and money. It also provided for a common foreign and security policy. Austria, Finland and Sweden joined later and the collapse of communism in 1989 followed by the reunification of Germany opened the way to eastern European countries also becoming members.
In 1992, the Maastricht Treaty created the EU. The Schengen Agreement, lifting border controls, followed in 1995 while economic monetary union was developed resulting in the creation of the single currency, the euro, in 1999. Britain declined to join either of these, but the EU had thus become an economic and political partnership – eventually comprising 28 countries - with the ultimate aim of ever closer union leading to a federal super-state.
At the time of Britain’s accession there were concerns about loss of sovereignty and a claimed lack of clarity about Europe’s laws and institutions superseding the Westminster Parliament so that the full independence of the nation-state would be curbed. But, when the country’s new membership was put to the test in a referendum in 1975, economic considerations prevailed and a substantial majority voted to stay in the Common Market.
More recently, it is still not widely appreciated that, whereas it is the case that a degree of national sovereignty is ceded through obligations arising from membership of international organisations, the EU has created a new legal order within the jurisdiction of its signatories that is given primacy over a country’s domestic statutes. Thus, EU directives have become part of UK law.
After Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, she feared deeper European integration would mean further loss of sovereignty and, in a landmark address in the Belgian city of Bruges in 1998, she spoke out against European federalism and a super-state exercising a new level of dominance from Brussels.
The Conservative party in Britain has traditionally been divided in its attitude to Europe. During John Major’s premiership, after his government was humiliated by being forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, Eurosceptics within his party carried the day and, weakened politically, he was voted out of office in 1997.
The next Tory Prime Minister, David Cameron, was faced with the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) which advocated leaving the EU and he was ultimately forced to agree to the 2016 EU referendum.
The project of EU integration only began in earnest after the Second World War with the aim of making war between western and central European countries impossible and resolving the problem of German dominance. Full political union will be required to implement fiscal and monetary union needed for the common currency to survive. But the austerity measures forced on indebted countries like Greece that have provoked such opposition and division have been influenced – some say orchestrated - by a powerful Germany; and, ironically, that is the very outcome the European project was originally designed to prevent.
It is in Britain’s interest that the EU should not fail. But it has become clear a single European federal state including Britain is not compatible with her sovereignty and a small majority of the British people are not prepared to sacrifice that through membership of a full federal Europe even if it means paying an economic price.
Other countries appear to be willing to make such a sacrifice or have already done so by surrendering national control over their currencies. But Britain, with one of the largest economies in the world and with unmatched international links, contacts and relationships including the 53-strong Commonwealth, is strong enough to survive and prosper on her own.
The details of Britain’s involvement in Europe and of the sovereignty issue may not have been uppermost in people’s minds in advance of the referendum. But many Leavers will have had a “gut” feeling about the loss of sovereignty while Remainers will have tended to give more weight to the potential economic dangers of quitting the EU and its Single Market of some 500 million people.
At the UK General Election in 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May’s Tory party stood on a manifesto commitment to respect the outcome of the referendum and implement Brexit. Although she failed to secure an overall majority, the Tories emerged as the biggest party. The opposition Labour party also supported Brexit and called for an independent trade policy.
Next week, I shall examine Mrs May’s government’s continuing efforts to secure a deal with the EU particularly about a new trading relationship following Britain’s departure from the bloc next March.
- Peter Young is a retired British diplomat living in Nassau. From 1996 to 1999 he was British High Commissioner to The Bahamas.