Britain's Changing Relationship with Europe

By Shearman, Peter | New Zealand International Review, September-October 1997 | Go to article overview

Britain's Changing Relationship with Europe


Shearman, Peter, New Zealand International Review


Peter Shearman discusses the impact of the new Labour government on the British approach to the European Union.

With the formation of the new government in London in May 1997 the United Kingdom's relationship with Europe could finally be set to change. From Attlee to Major, Britain has been the reluctant European. British elite attitudes towards European integration have differed markedly to those of others in Europe, especially in France and Germany, with Britain wanting to be `with' but not `of' Europe. Elite discourse on the question of European integration in Britain has been generally negative, critical, reactive, and at times xenophobic. Even the proponents of Britain's participation in European integration have felt the need to articulate their support in the framework of this negative discourse. Thus it has been common to talk about the risks of Britain being `excluded' from the centres of European decision-making, and the dangers this would hold for British national interests. Therefore, advocates of a strong British role in Europe have often felt it necessary to argue that Britain needs to be on the inside in order to limit the scope of decision-making in Brussels and slow down the integration process.

Having refused to participate in the initial institution building of the European Community after the Second World War, Britain was being forced by economic and political factors to re-evaluate its attitude to European integration by the 1960s. France, Italy and Germany were enjoying economic growth rates twice that of the United Kingdom; and the two pillars of British foreign policy, the `special relationship' with the United States and a leading role for Britain in the Commonwealth, were increasingly evaporating or becoming untenable as mechanisms for asserting power and influence in a changing world. Following earlier French vetoes on Britain joining the European Community during the 1960s -- de Gaulle suspected British commitment to Europe would be compromised by its ties with the United States -- the conservative government of Edward Heath took the United Kingdom into the European Community in the early 1970s. However, once Britain signed up to the Rome Treaty, all subsequent governments re-established the negative attitude towards European integration. The Labour Party was deeply divided on the issue by the time Harold Wilson became Prime Minister (for the second time) in 1974, and this led to a `re-negotiation' of the terms of British entry, which was then put to the voters in Britain's first ever referendum in 1975. In the 1983 general election the Labour Party manifesto boldly stated that if elected a Labour government would take Britain out of the European Community, this time without a referendum to gauge the views of the public.

Heated talks

Margaret Thatcher's leadership was marked by a generally anti-European sentiment, manifested in her first period in government in the often heated talks over Britain's contribution to the Community budget, and in the latter period by an almost pathological opposition to any further `deepening' of the European Community -- or what Thatcher saw as the development of a super-state unaccountable to national governments that posed a danger to British parliamentary sovereignty, most forcefully expressed perhaps in her speech at Bruges in the summer of 1988.The government of John Major was deeply divided over Europe and during the general election of 1997 the Conservatives sought to make the European Union an election issue by portraying the (New) Labour Party as teeing `soft' on the question, unable to be trusted to represent British interests.(1) This was captured in the Conservative election poster depicting a diminutive Tony Blair sitting on German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's lap with the caption `Don's send a boy to do a man's job'.

This division over Europe among British political elites, and the generally obstructionist pattern of engagement with the other members of the European Union since Britain joined the integration process, can be linked to a crisis over British identity in the post-Second World War period. …

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