Britain Joins the European Community

Margaret Thatcher campaigning to stay in Europe during the 1975 referendum
Margaret Thatcher campaigning to stay in Europe during the 1975 referendum

by Ray Setterfield

February 17, 1972 — The British Parliament voted on this day to join the European Communities, as it was then known.

After battling European nations had twice dragged the world into horrific global conflict, strong voices called out in the mid-twentieth century for unity.

But military stability was only one side of the coin. European economies were threatened both by the giant trade market of the United States and by the vast economic resources of the Soviet Union.

On top of that, by 1950 it was obvious that centuries of world supremacy by Western Europe was at an end. The answer to these problems, according to a number of economists and politicians, was European economic integration.

Among them was Winston Churchill who in 1946 called for a “United States of Europe or whatever name or form it may take.” 

The first major step was taken in 1951 when France and West Germany formed the European Coal and Steel Community, merging their coal and steel industries. Then, in a giant leap forward, leaders from France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg met in Rome in 1957 to sign a treaty that established the European Economic Community, widely known as the Common Market.

The Treaty of Rome came into effect in January 1958, and was a major milestone in the drive towards economic and political union of European states. One of them, though, showed no interest in joining the club – the United Kingdom.

Not, that is, until it had second thoughts when it saw the economies in Europe booming – particularly in West Germany – while that in Britain was ailing. So in 1963 the UK applied to join.

But there was a major stumbling block in the shape of the formidable President of France, Charles de Gaulle. The 6ft 6in (196cm) French leader insisted that Britain was “fundamentally not ready” to join because of her relationship with the USA and British Commonwealth countries and because the UK economy was weak.

He vetoed the application and did so again in 1967 when Britain tried once more. De Gaulle died in 1970, his death paving the way for the UK’s application for membership eventually being accepted.

The principle of membership was debated in the Westminster Parliament on October 28 1971, leading to a vote of 356 to 244 in favour of joining.

A new law would have to be passed in the UK to make that possible, and the government minister Geoffrey Rippon was assigned to pushing it through Parliament.

He told the House: “The building of a united Europe has been an objective of British foreign policy for generations, and it stems . . . from a recognition that even at the height of our power and influence in the 19th Century we could not afford to follow a self-isolating policy.”

Rippon quoted Lord Salisbury who was Prime Minister when he said as far back as 1888: “We belong to a great community of nations and we have no right to shrink from the duties which the interests of the community impose upon us. We are part of the community of Europe and we must do our duty as such.”

Fearing defeat as the time for a vote on the new law approached on February 17, 1972, the exasperated Prime Minister, Edward Heath, told Parliament: “My colleagues and I are of one mind that the Government cannot abdicate their responsibilities in this matter. Therefore, if this House . . . refuses to give legislative effect to its own decision of principle, taken by a vast majority less than four months ago, my colleagues and I are unanimous that in these circumstances this Parliament cannot sensibly continue.”

He was right to be worried. When the vote was taken 309 Members of Parliament voted in favour of joining Europe, while 301 voted against. But the tiny majority of eight was enough and meant that the UK would officially become a member from January 1, 1973.

But it was a thorny issue from the start and in 1975 a referendum was held to see if the people wanted European membership to continue. Those campaigning in favour of remaining included the new Conservative Party leader, Margaret Thatcher. Sixty-seven per cent of the voters agreed with her.

As the years went by, however, dissent over Europe continued to simmer particularly among Conservatives, until 2016 when their leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, bowed to pressure from within his party and called a new referendum.

He vowed to campaign with his “heart and soul” to keep Britain in Europe, but several close colleagues, notably Boris Johnson, fought to leave, and the word ‘Brexit’ – a combination of ‘Britain’ and ‘Exit’ – was born.

The 'Leave' campaign focused on issues relating to sovereignty and migration. It said leaving offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders.

Among the many quotes by Boris Johnson was this:

“The more the EU does, the less room there is for national decision-making. Sometimes these EU rules sound simply ludicrous, like the rule that you can’t recycle a teabag, or that children under eight cannot blow up balloons, or the limits on the power of vacuum cleaners.

“Sometimes they can be truly infuriating – like the time I discovered, in 2013, that there was nothing we could do to bring in better-designed cab windows for trucks, to stop cyclists being crushed. It had to be done at a European level, and the French were opposed.”

On the other side of the argument, US President Barack Obama sat alongside David Cameron at a press conference and said:

“I’m not here to fix any votes. I’m not casting a vote myself. I’m offering my opinion. If, right now, I’ve got access to a massive market where I sell 44 per cent of my exports, and now I’m thinking about leaving the organisation that gives me access to that market and that is responsible for millions of jobs in my country and responsible for an enormous amount of commerce and upon which a lot of businesses depend, that's probably not something I’d do.”

The result of the referendum was that 48 per cent of the British people voted to remain with Europe while 52 per cent voted to leave. Cameron resigned the following day.

He was succeeded as Prime Minister by Theresa May who also fell victim to the European problem. In January 2019 her proposed withdrawal agreement was rejected in parliament by 432 votes to 202 – the biggest government parliamentary defeat in history. Amid a backlash from her own MPs against her Brexit plan – and after it was rejected in parliament three times – Mrs May resigned, having served three years as prime minister.

She was replaced by Boris Johnson who pushed Brexit through, and the UK officially left Europe on January 31, 2020.

Published: February 2, 2021

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