Why has post-war Britain so often proved an ‘awkward partner’ in the European Community? Essay

Within a year of joining the European Communities in 1973 Britain was already establishing a reputation as an awkward partner and has continued to hold on to that reputation to the present day. This essay will attempt to establish both what actions, or inactions, it is that Britain takes that make it the ‘awkward partner’ and why it behaves in this way. Before examining how Britain has interacted within the European Community it is important to remember that Britain joined 22 years after the original creation of the European Community and the causes and effects of Britain’s stance in the years immediately after the end of the Second World War must be considered.

Due to having been the first country to industrialise, from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the outbreak of World War One, Britain was the dominant world power and when considering its foreign policy it placed a lot of emphasis of maintaining world order and through its imperial role it felt the need to take a global perspective on its decisions. However, the fact that America’s entry had a defining impact on the outcome of the World War One was a clear signal that Britain’s days of greatness had ceased. In spite of this during the inter-war years Britain continued in its role of dominance largely due to America despite being ahead of Britain economically taking an isolationist stance to its foreign policy and therefore leaving Britain in a night watchman role over the rest of the world.

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After the end of World War Two, Britain therefore had a deeply ingrained view, which was not undermined by invasion or defeat as in the case of most European nations, of itself as a nation of special significance in world affairs. Britain did not want to become too involved with West European unity because this seemed to be limiting its global reach. Britain believed itself to have a special trans-Atlantic relationship with America and considered it vital that America was not allowed to retreat back into isolation as was the case after the First World War. Britain’s relationship with the Commonwealth also created barriers to participation with the European Community. Britain assumed its leadership of the Commonwealth would give it a louder voice in international affairs than other European states.

The maintenance of its preferential trade relationship with the Commonwealth was considered to be of importance to the British economy with 40% of its exports and re-exports going to Commonwealth countries. Certain commercial groups had very large interest in preventing any damage being done to these trade links by closer alignment to Europe and so exerted considerable pressure on the government to oppose membership of the European Community.

The powerful unifying concept of Victorian Britain’s empire was inherited by the Commonwealth and with many Britain’s having relatives throughout the Commonwealth in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa portrayed the Commonwealth as an important sphere of influence for Britain and therefore created a substantial psychological barrier to any entry into the ‘narrow’ European grouping. Britain declined membership of the European Community just as it was being formed and as it was being moulded to suite the needs of its members.

By the beginning of the 1960s Britain had begun to take a more favourable view of the European Community. However in 1961 when the then Conservative Prime Minister Macmillan applied for membership it was largely because it felt it necessary in the achievement of its political objectives rather than to benefit the economy. Britain saw the European Community drifting from its proper role for example by trying to develop its own defence strategy outside of NATO.

Britain was alarmed by the possibility of this damaging its own policy of keeping the United States fully involved in the defence of the continent and therefore attempted to join the European Community in order to guide it in the directions it desired. The European Community however detected that Britain was not wholeheartedly embracing the ideas behind the Community and rejected Britain’s application. Britain was then rejected again in 1967 under Wilson’s Labour government via a veto by the French. It was Edward Heath the Conservative Prime Minister who finally managed to achieve Britain’s membership.

Despite being very much in favour of European integration Heath’s Britain still appeared to handle itself with a clumsy insensitive manner. There were several reasons for this. Britain pursued a strong line on what was necessary in order for the European Community to become an effective actor in economic affairs. Britain pushed for as many of the Community’s institutions to be centralised in Brussels and this upset those members who would lose the institutions situated in their countries and it appeared impertinent to lecture the original members on the structure and functioning of their institutions. The European budgetary arrangements appear to have been set up in a way that would be detrimental to Britain. The system which derived revenues from imported food and the common external tariff on industrial goods plus a proportion of national VAT disadvantaged Britain because it imported far more food from outside the Community than the other member states.

The common agricultural policy which guaranteed prices for farmers and bought up surplus output from them was also costly for Britain since Britain has a much smaller agricultural sector than the other European countries. Britain was therefore making larger payments into the budget without getting much in return. Britain pursued its national interest in terms of renegotiating these issues of national interest vigorously and this did not sit well with existing members. Traditionally with the European Community package deal were developed where all countries could leave after agreements taking something away with them but Britain would negotiate in this way. It pushed for changes in issues it had problems with but would do not concede on other areas in return.

When Wilson got back into power in 1974 he started formal renegotiations of the terms of Britain’s membership and domestically he held a referendum on where the British public wanted Britain to remain in the European Community. On the whole these renegotiations where not as damaging as they might have been to Britain’s reputation but some awkwardness was still portrayed because the tone was sometimes very confrontational and British representatives often appeared unwilling to compromise. We have already seen that Britain was different from the rest of Europe in its global outlook to foreign policy generated by its dominance before the war but there are also many other differences between Britain and Europe which have helped create Britain’s awkwardness.

Britain is an island and so many regulations which were designed for the continent are not suitable for Britain for example our rivers flow faster and so can take larger quantities of pollutants and so laws being created about this issue where disputed by Britain. Britain is the only oil producing member of the European Community had different interests when it came to the world’s energy situation and thus demanded a separate seat a the Conference for International Economic Co-operation.

Britain eventually gave up this demand with a promise that the European Community delegation would argue for a minimum floor price for oil, against the wishes of several member countries, but had used up more of its goodwill in Europe and had appeared stubborn. In particular the foreign secretary gained himself for being difficult to deal with so when he became Prime Minister in 1976 he was already at a disadvantage. Once in power though Callaghan become less hostile and tried to co-operate as much as possible with the other countries of the European Community however Britain still continued to appear awkward due to the domestic political considerations and its need to respond to wider international developments.

Domestically British governments had to deal with different pressure groups with different demands about how Britain was to work with the European Community. The trade unions were initially very sceptical of the Community and they organised a boycott of various European institutions. On the other hand the Confederation for British industry was far more in favour of integration but clearly it had different interests than those of the trade unions. This created a lot of Britain awkwardness when it came to the instalment of Europe’s social charter. The CBI pushed Britain to oppose it while the trade unions were encouraged by it. British governments had a public that while not being anti-Europe was not very enthusiastic about it and so tempted politicians to use patriotic and nationalistic political rhetoric when discussing the European Community and to be aggressive when defending national interests. The memberships of the political parties also caused a lot of the awkwardness by forcing their leaders to take particular stances. For the 1960s, and 1970s Labour activists were very anti-EC and so this made it harder for the Labour party to interact successfully with the European Community. The Conservative Party seemed far more pro-European yet this support did not run very deep and so while the party remained committed to membership it did not fully embrace the European Community.

When the European Monetary System, which would tie together the values of the currencies of the EC, was proposed to Britain it did not treat it with any enthusiasm. The idea thought up by the Germans got in the way of Callaghan’s own plan to end the international recession, which put more emphasis on using existing international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. Entering the EMS would also have conflicted with the Atlantic orientation of British policy and so Britain stayed out. It did however state that it would try to keep the value of sterling with the narrow bands set by the EMS anyway but this simply increased Britain’s reputation as an awkward partner always doing things its won way and never fitting in.

Margaret Thatcher became the Conservative Prime Minister in 1979 she attempted to build up a reputation as being uncompromising on principles and unwilling to reverse any of her own policies. She was successful in creating this impression and it helped her remain in power and push through her own radical changes in Britain however by fighting so hard in battles over the size of Britain’s contributions to the European Community while blocking progress else where in the Community she further alienated Britain in Europe.

The harsh nationalistic tone she adopted in regards to Europe while being popular domestically soured relationships during her first term of office. After the dispute over budgetary contributions was settled Britain began to play a more constructive role in the Community and began to behave a lot less like an awkward partner. However, despite this Britain still retained its reputation due to the interventions of Thatcher who had confrontations with other Heads of Government and made statements that got a lot of publicity through the European Community. In the end the British Government realised the damage Thatcher was doing to Britain’s interests by marginalizing it with the European Community and she was forced to resign.

John Major then took over the Conservatives holding the view that he would put Britain into the heart of Europe however due to his small majority and the need to accommodate the anti-European elements within his party he was forced in to taking a Euro-sceptical foreign policy. Britain was seen as being out of line with the rest of Europe because it was the only member whose domestic population did not want to see more integration via supernationalisation. Its inherent differences still kept held it back. In 1992 when the rest of Europe removed border controls Britain retained them because as an island it was still able to effectively control exit and entry to it. Britain was forced to leave the Exchange Rate Mechanism because of economic problems and Britain then opted out of the Monetary Union of the Maastricht treaty and so creating more difficulties in getting its voice heard over future plans for a single currency.

The present Labour Government under Tong Blair has attempted to become less of an awkward partner and has had a degree of success in this objective. The government is careful to use language that sits well with the rest of the European Community and has installed many of the European regulations, which previous governments had blocked. There are however still major differences between Britain and Europe, which are preventing full integration. Britain’s economy does not presently appear to fit in the rest of the single currency area and so Britain remains outside of the most important thing to come out of the European Community namely the Euro. Whether Britain will continue to become more integrated with Europe or has reached the limit of its potential for deftness is question which remains unclear.