UK–EU relations: Has Brexit always been waiting to happen?
The past few weeks have seen some key developments in the Brexit saga, including a vote to delay Brexit past March and the refusal to accept a no-deal possibility. With the present being so dynamic and volatile, it is perhaps a good time to look back to the past, to look at what happened before the referendum. Was Brexit an inevitable end all along?
The EU – or the European Economic Community, EEC, as it was originally called – was formed in 1957 when France, West Germany, Belgium and three others signed the Treaty of Rome. Originally less political and more economic, the group hoped accessible trade would allow peace to continue in Europe. The UK first tried to join the EEC in 1963, but France vetoed our application, thought to be because of the French wanting to keep their place as the dominant language of the group. We were finally accepted into the EEC in 1973, but had this frosty start already made relations cold?
It appeared so, as only two years later, a referendum was held on whether or not we should remain in the EEC market. The EEC was certainly not the powerhouse back then that it is today, and its policies and effects on our nation were not as obvious. Even so, 67% of the nation voted to stay in the community, a significantly more one-sided vote than the infamous referendum of 2016. Despite the majority vote, the pro/anti-EU debates that we are so familiar with today had already began taking hold, which no doubt effected our relationship with our continental neighbours.
As with most things, Margaret Thatcher had her role to play in 1984, when she successfully managed to reduce UK payments to the EEC after claiming our budget payments were unjustifiably high. Though it can be seen as a victory for the UK, the EEC were undoubtedly agitated by such actions. Things got worse in the 90s, when the newly named European Union imposed a ban on British beef after a bovine flu scare. Despite Tony Blair being heavily pro-EU, restrictions remained well into the new millennium. Were the EU trying to isolate us?
Amidst all of this was the small issue of the ‘Eurozone’. The Maastricht Treaty of 1993 called for the integration of all member-states into a single political and economic group, which included a single currency, the euro. Naturally, the UK was the only member state at the time to refuse conversion to the euro. Whether or not this was ultimately good for the UK, it undeniably further distanced us from Europe.
The 2000s followed a similar pattern, with restrictions on UK trade, alongside Gordon Brown’s poor punctuality, making relations increasingly sour. At the same time, the popularity for groups such as UKIP was on the rise, putting pressure on those in charge. The rest of the story we all know. David Cameron succumbed to the pressure of UKIP’s rise and the anti-EU members of the Conservatives, and the referendum vote of 2016 committed us to Brexit.
Whether you’re pro or anti-Brexit, it is interesting to think about the history of our relations to the European Union. Were we outsiders since day one? Did we isolate ourselves by not joining the Eurozone? Did the EU, for whatever reason, never allow us to fully integrate? Could it all have been avoided? Such questions should be kept in mind as our country moves tentatively forward.
Democracy in the EU – how the EU is now an undemocratic establishment
On March 29th Britain should formally leave the European Union on either WTO terms or with a ratified leaving deal. For Brexiteers this marks an escape from the economic and political shackles that have restricted the United Kingdom for decades and opens up a world of opportunity for which its international trade can flourish and its national sovereignty can be restored. They argue that a once purely economic trading community has developed into what can now be seen as a federalised superstate with a flag, various embassies, a President and a National Anthem in which the UK has grown reliant on but has very little influence over. But how truthful is this belief and how big a threat does the EU really pose over democracy in the UK?
To answer this many look towards the political structure that makes up the EU itself, with Brexiteers arguing that its highly complex and anti-democratic nature pose a direct threat to the national sovereignty of the UK. The EU is made up of three core pillars of authority, the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, and through directly analysing these institutions one can see the real value in the arguments that Brexiteers make.
Firstly lets look at the European Commission. Its purpose is to both create legislation and to mediate over the day-to-day working of the EU. It comprises of 27 ‘internally elected’ Commissioners and a President who are legally chosen based on their level of ‘European Commitment’, going as far as having to pledge oaths promising to produce new laws ‘independently and without national supervision’. Moreover with each individual commissioner being representative of their own country, the UK is confined to only having one twenty-eighth a say in the creation of these laws which include those over taxation as well as a vast array of agricultural restrictions.
Then there is the Council of Ministers which preside over foreign affairs and other laws that need cooperation between countries. It is here that Europhiles claim that national sovereignty is fully present, with Ministers being selected and encouraged to have their ‘own national interests’ at heart. But even here the UK has experienced a decline in its democratic power as a direct result of the Lisbon Treaty in 2017. This states that laws can only be pass when 55% of EU countries representing 65% of the total EU population are in favour. To block laws a total of 4 or more countries representing 35% of the EU population must be against it. It is this that has led to Eurozone countries have an inbuilt majority voting block with 68% of the countries representing 66.7% of the population and which has been recognised by both Brexiteers and Remainers as having the potential threat of Eurozone caucusing towards laws that are more favourable towards Europe. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborn was even quoted in saying back in 2014 that ‘if we cannot protect the collective interests of non-Eurozone member states then we [UK] will have to choose between joining the euro, which the UK will not do, or leaving the EU’.
In making up the three pillars of authority is the European Parliament, the only democratically elected body of the EU. This has little influence in policy making and is only able to enact legislation already approved and submitted by the unelected commissioners making up the European Commission. It is within this Parliament that the UK has experienced further decline in its democratic power, falling from 19.8% in 1973 to a mere 9.7% as of now and with costing £136 million a year in transport costs between Brussels and Strasbourg, the European Parliament is seen by Brexiteers as both anti-democratic and too costly an institution to justify staying a part of.
Whichever side of the argument you find yourself on it is clear that the EU has undergone a vast shift from the once economic trading bloc envisioned by then Prime Minister Ted Heath in the 1973 into the more politicised Union as of today. It
has undoubtedly progressed into a more anti-democratic institution which has seen increasing influence in the creation of UK laws and regulations and with it a decline in national sovereignty; Ted Heaths White Paper on joining in 1973 stated that we would only do so on the assumption that there would be ‘no erosion of essential national sovereignty’. It is clear that this vision has been shattered and with it peoples trust in the European Union as a viable democratic institution.
The Failure of the Brexiteers
Despite working towards Brexit for the vast majority of their political careers, most of those who were the original backers of the project had made absolutely no plans of how to carry out their ultimate goal. They had decades to come up with answers to the questions which now are the main focus of British politics, mainly should Brexit involve withdrawing from the single market and the customs union, and if so how will the Irish border problem be solved? Instead all they offered, and all they still offer, is empty words and promises whilst expecting other people to provide substantive answers, then when the time comes they can either take the credit if things go right or pass on the blame if things go wrong.
Most Euroscepticism on the Right can be traced back to the late 1980s, when Boris Johnson became a Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. There he would write articles which would often consist of over exaggerations or outright lies about what the then EEC was doing, which in turn fuelled dislike towards Europe in the Conservative party. Soon the Tory anti-EU camp had many MPs within its ranks, they said frequently what they didn’t like about the organisation, but were never questioned in any detail about what position Britain would be in outside of it. Leaving the EU at this point was not considered to be a realistic prospect and this allowed a sense that Europe was holding Britain back to enter the public consciousness unchallenged.
Cut to the present day and these same MPs, with some new additions, still have the same mindset that they had over twenty years ago, despite what the past three should have taught them. They still believe that the EU will cave at the last minute and give Britain the perfect deal, or that Britain doesn’t need a deal and will be prosperous without one despite all evidence to the contrary. Their delusions are allowed to be expressed in newspaper columns and on TV without being properly scrutinised, and despite them formerly holding most of the Cabinet positions that are most influential over Brexit, they still chose to resign and then attack the government for a negotiating strategy that they were responsible for.
It is fortunate that the most prominent Brexiteers are so obsessed with the purity of their project, in their insistence on something that was never possible they have created the conditions for a delay to Brexit, which may lead to a softer Brexit or no Brexit at all. They had a chance to vote for a Brexit deal that would have seen Britain leave both the single market and the customs union and they chose not to take it, now it has been revealed that as another vote on the same deal won’t be allowed, they may have missed an opportunity that they will not get again. No matter what happens though, a poor deal, no deal or no Brexit, it is certain that it won’t be their fault.