The History of the European Union: Origins of a Trans- and Supranational Polity 1950-72

By Wolfram Kaiser; Brigitte Leucht et al. | Go to book overview

6   Socialist party networks in
northern Europe
Moving towards the EEC
applications of 1967

Kristian Steinnes

A distinct feature of early European integration was the divide between the original core Europe and other Western European countries, in particular Britain and Scandinavia. While core Europe opted for supranational solutions to postwar challenges, the northern European countries preferred intergovernmental solutions as in the free trade area initiative of 1956–58 and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) formed in 1959–60. Differences in national European policies persist, although Britain and the Scandinavian countries (except Norway) are now members of the European Union (EU). Even Norway has in many ways become deeply involved in core dimensions of integration by signing and implementing the Schengen and European Economic Area (EEA) agreements.

Studies of postwar European integration have largely focused on core Europe successively widening their scope in line with the EU’s progressive geographical expansion. However, interaction between the northern European countries and core Europe was far-reaching long before they joined the EU/EEA. This was already the case in the period up to 1967 when the government of Harold Wilson applied for membership of the European Economic Community (EEC). As Melissa Pine and others have recently demonstrated, the Wilson governments paved the way for British membership, although Labour’s defeat at the general election of June 1970 meant that its policy was brought to fruition by the Conservatives under Prime Minister Edward Heath who negotiated the accession conditions.1 Wilson moreover exercised crucial leadership in getting a divided party and government to support the second EEC application after the first failed bid of 1961. In a less hierarchically structured party compared to the Conservatives, party policy largely shaped government decisions.

The predominant interpretation of the Labour Party’s European policies until 1967 tells a story of a reluctant party excluding itself from early core Europe integration in 1950 and subsequently remaining aloof from the process during the 1950s and early 1960s. Profoundly shaken by the prevailing economic and political realities, Labour gradually reassessed its European policies from 1966 onwards. Wilson, too, is believed to have opposed British involvement in the integration process in the mid-1950s.2 In 1962 he supported party leader Hugh Gaitskell in insisting that Britain could only enter the EEC if certain strict conditions were fulfilled,3 only to reluctantly realize from 1966 onwards that Britain had to enter core Europe.4

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