Born in the postwar era as a means of reconstruction and reconciliation, European union has developed into one of the most important political issues of the present day. Since its conception, the UK has been reluctant to participate, and this reluctance which has characterized British relationships with Europe. The present day European Union, formalized with the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty (1992), started life as three different bodies: the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) established in 1951, the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC or Euratom), and the European Economic Community (EEC), both established in 1957. These organizations were formed primarily under the auspices of France and Germany, in association with Italy and the Benelux nations. They merged in 1967, creating the European Community (EC) with headquarters in Brussels. Britain initially declined involvement and instead formed the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) in 1960 at the Stockholm Convention. The agenda of the European Community was of a more political nature than that of the members of the EFTA. It was not until 1 January 1973, following two years of negotiations, that Britain joined the European Community. The decision was not without controversy. Harold Wilson’s opposition government promised to renegotiate British EC membership and, following Labour’s election in 1974, did so. The changes negotiated were minimal, but the process itself however added further to uncertainty as to whether Britain wished to continue its membership of the European Community. In June 1975, a national referendum was called upon the matter. Despite opposition from certain quarters, the British populace endorsed EC membership.
   One element of EC membership which has caused dissension between Britain and the EC is the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). For years the CAP was the central element of the EC budget, commanding 63 percent of expenditure as recently as 1981. If the CAP was unfair, the redistributional effects of the whole EC budget would also be unfair. Britain argued that, because of the CAP, the value of its contributions far outweighed the value of benefits received. The EC established two ‘refunds’ for Britain, first in 1980 and again at the Fontainbleau summit in 1984. Thus Britain continued its troubled relationship with the EC into the 1980s.
   As time passed, the scope of the EC grew. By the time of the Fontainbleau summit Greece, Denmark and Ireland had joined, while Spain and Portugal joined in 1986. As the scope of the EC has increased, so too has its depth. Legislation of recent times has moved towards closer integration. For example, the passing of the Single European Act (1986) set out the guidelines for the completion of an internal market, and set the mood for future integration. Europe was to be much more than a customs union with a farm support policy, and a single internal market was to be established by 31 December 1992. To facilitate this, a legislative programme of some 300 acts to remove non-tariff barriers to trade was laid out. Monetary union became an EC goal, to be progressively realized. Issues of economic disparity between members of the union were to be addressed through the ‘cohesion’ policy. This was followed by the Maastricht Treaty (1992) which changed the European Community to the European Union. Other key elements of the treaty included further arrangements for economic and monetary union, including adoption of a single currency (the ecu), provisions for an independent European bank, and the development of a common defence and foreign policy. Both the Single European Act and The Maastricht treaty have meant closer economic and political ties.
   Some sections of the media have argued that the level of economic and political integration discussed at present will change government and life in Britain. EC legislation on the content of British sausages is a good example. The process of deregulation which began with the creation of a customs union will have consequences for national sovereignty if taken to its fullest conclusion. Subsequent integration (such as adoption of a single currency) will mean the sacrifice of certain national economic tools (including control of the interest rate) and a degree of vulnerability to economic conditions in other countries. Those who take a negative view of European union will point out the Chancellor should be able to control the British economy from Westminster and that legislation which governs the British populace (for example, the legislation concerning the maximum length of the working week) should only originate from Parliament. The union will also benefit Britain, because the liberalization and deregulation of trade allows countries to exploit union markets more efficiently. An increased degree of economic stability should also be beneficial to industry. As Britain moves closer to making a decision about possible inclusion within a single currency (at present the opt-out clause means Parliament’s approval must be sought before such action can be taken), so opposition to European integration grows. Certain members of the Conservative Party (the so called Eurosceptics) have tried to split the party, and the 1997 election also featured members of Sir James Goldsmith’s anti-Europe Referendum Party, the sole purpose of which was to call for a referendum on Europe. Britain’s economic success appears to be tied to Europe, yet a reluctance to participate fully, which has always dogged the British relationship with Europe, is as strong as ever.
   See also: Conservative governments
   Further reading
    Owen, R. and Dynes, M. (eds) (1993) The Times Guide To The Single European Market, London: Times Books.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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