Is debate on UK policy on Europe a dangerous bluff?

Opinion: Some argue the ‘ever closer union’ was merely a vague aspiration

“There was little that was vague about the objectives set at the Paris summit of October 1972 by the six founding members and the three who had just negotiated membership – the UK, Ireland and Denmark.” Photograph: Getty Images

“There was little that was vague about the objectives set at the Paris summit of October 1972 by the six founding members and the three who had just negotiated membership – the UK, Ireland and Denmark.” Photograph: Getty Images

Mon, Aug 25, 2014, 07:51

The rumbling debate over the UK’s policy towards Europe grows increasingly detached from reality, as David Cameron’s proposed referendum on EU membership looms.

Cameron continues to insist that in 1973 the UK joined a common market and nothing else. Little could be further from the truth. The determination of the member states to “lay the foundations of an ever- closer union among the peoples of Europe” is the opening of the EEC’s founding treaty, signed in 1957.

It is a goal embraced by the UK , not just since 1973, but effectively since Macmillan’s Conservative government first applied for membership in 1961. This decision to apply was an indication the British- led European Free Trade Association, founded in 1959 as a looser alternative to the European Economic Community, was too loose for the UK and that “ever closer union” was more in Britain’s interest.

Vague aspiration

Some argue the “ever closer union” was merely a vague aspiration, committing the member states to nothing more than increased co-operation. But there was little vague about the objectives set at the Paris summit of October 1972 by the six founding members and the three new members – the UK, Ireland and Denmark.

All nine endorsed a transition from a common market to full economic and monetary union by the end of 1980, including, possibly, a single currency. The heads of government also committed to transforming, before the end of 1980, “the whole complex of the relations of member states into a European Union”.

Global economic crises and differences among the member states meant the 1980 deadline was missed, but it was replaced in the mid-1980s by the 1992 deadline for the completion of the single (or internal) market, based on a detailed schedule of European legislation to guarantee free movement of goods, services, capital and people within the EU – a project warmly endorsed by then prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

The expansion of the EU in size and areas of competence, and changes in the roles of the institutions have been accomplished since the UK joined through a series of treaties in the negotiation of which the UK has participated fully and has formally endorsed. The only exceptions have been the opt-outs on the single currency and the Schengen agreement on passport-free travel.

So what does Cameron mean when he says he wants to reform the EU, not leave it? Does he want to renege on agreements endorsed by successive UK governments? If so that could constitute an unprecedented reversal of its European policy pursued with cross-party support for the last half-century.

Cameron has made it clear he opposes further integration at EU level. “I know the British people want no part of it, want to avoid deeper integration, and want our country properly protected from the impacts on the single market of any further integration” (Daily Telegraph, June 30th.)

That implies a demand for the removal of the “ever-closer union” commitment from the founding treaty. This demand could be seen as an indication the UK wants to opt out of the whole European project and could invite a humiliating rebuff, making a referendum unavoidable and a UK exit possible if not probable.

What is wrong with “the ever-closer union” aspiration? It was, and had to be, an undefined goal, an attempt to bind diverse sovereign states into a new entity that would combine customs union, economic and monetary union and political alliance, to prevent conflict, maximise economic growth and regional and social equality, while exercising an influence on world affairs commensurate with the combined strengths of its members – an end as desirable today as in 1957.

This is not simple federalism; there is no precedent for the peaceful creation of a federated state out of independent sovereign states. The states of the EU are culturally and linguistically diverse, with powerful senses of national; the drive for an ever- closer union is a unique experiment requiring a unique answer.

Or is the UK debate on a lower level, a domestic squabble fuelled by fear of Ukip and the reluctance of the major parties to challenge Euroscepticism? Is it a dangerous bluff to frighten EU partners into concessions? If so, it could be a serious miscalculation.

Dennis Kennedy is a former deputy editor of The Irish Times and was European Commission representative in Northern Ireland 1985-1991

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