Ideas on Europe

50 years ago, the UK joined the EEC

50 years ago, the UK joined the EEC

For our weekly “Ideas on Europe” editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we welcome Piers Ludlow, from the London School of Economics. 

50 years ago, together with Denmark and Ireland, the UK joined the European Economic Community, as it was called then. But unlike the two others, Britain has no anniversary to celebrate.

That’s right: its membership came to an end on the 31st of January 31, 2020, 47 years and one month after it had joined. 

Through its decision to leave, Britain confirmed a profound discomfort with the integration process that had been there since the very start.  But it is also worth acknowledging that it was profoundly altered by its membership, and that it did much to influence Europe’s own evolution.  Britain was a problematic member from the outset, but it was also an important one – a country that was both transformed and transforming while being a European member state.

Why did the UK only join in 1973 and not earlier?

Post-war Britain had other priorities and was dismissive of the early integration plans.  By the 1960s, however, Britain’s political elite began to regret this choice.  The UK’s economic progress outside of the EEC was much less impressive than that of the six founder members.  And Britain’s global position seemed to be fading fast as its empire disappeared.  It was thus for both economic and geopolitical reasons that the UK changed its mind. In 1973 the Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, took Britain into the EEC.

But public opinion was already divided at that time, wasn’t it?

Yes, the turn to Europe was always contested.  The crucial Parliamentary votes in 1971-2 were only narrowly won.  And in 1975, a new Labour government held a first in/out referendum.  This seemed to produce a clear-cut result with 2/3 of the British population voting to stay within the EEC.  But the wider argument continued, with Labour fighting the 1983 general election on a platform of withdrawing from the Community.  And while Labour would subsequently move towards a pro-European position during the later 1980s and 1990s, this was counterbalanced by the slide of the Conservative Party into ever-stronger Euroscepticism.

In Brussels, successive British governments were meanwhile earning a reputation as awkward partners, often complaining about the club that they had joined.  In the 1970s their anger tended to be focused on the Common Agricultural Policy.  By the early 1980s they instead centred on the amount that the UK paid into the Community budget.  On this the British had a case.  But the aggressive manner in which Mrs Thatcher fought ‘to get her money back’ alienated her partners and established a pattern of battling with the rest of the EU that virtually all of her successors have felt obliged to imitate.  From the 1990s furthermore the British began to opt out of various major common policies – most notably the Single Currency.  Brexit could therefore be presented as just the inevitable divorce at the end of a difficult and stormy marriage.

But there has been more to this marriage than just disagreements and disputes !

I agree. Alongside the undeniable difficulties of British membership there was also a pattern of mutual beneficial influence that would transform both the UK and the EU.  

In Britain change stretched beyond the increase of trade between the UK and the EU, to also transform what we ate, where we spent our holidays, how we greeted one another, even how we played football.  The lives of many Britons were thus ‘Europeanised’ often without them really being aware of it.  

Meanwhile, British policy preferences and priorities had a profound impact on the whole EU system.  Both the establishment of the Single Market and the enlargement of EU membership, to take just two examples, were profoundly affected by UK advocacy and pressure.

This pattern of mutual influence helps explain why Brexit proved so politically divisive within the UK and why the departure of the British has and will continue to have important effects within the EU.  The story of the four and a half decades of British membership is not thus just a tale of arguments and tension.  They were also years that left their mark on British life, society and economics, and on the EU’s own development.  And the evolution of both the UK and the EU in the years ahead is likely to continue to be shaped by this reality

Many thanks, Piers, for sharing your thoughts about this strange anniversary. I recall you are Professor at the London School of Economics.

Interview by Laurence Aubron.