The Conservatives and Europe

By Joshua Rowlands

The Conservative Party throughout its long standing history has built an electoral strategy and party image of empire and nation. With the disintegration of the empire in the twentieth century, the party needed a successor. Something to replace the void left by the crumbling empire and Europe was a contender for this.

Churchill spoke of the “tragedy of Europe” that had engulfed itself in years of warfare and proposed a “United States of Europe”; an integrated body of nations. However, when Churchill retained office in 1951 he took no steps to position Britain within the European Coal and Steel Community nor did he back plans to turn the Council of Europe, which had been established in 1948, into a proper supranational body.

But it was not until the reign of Thatcher that Euro scepticism took firm grip of the party. Anti European sentiment initially came in the form of attacking the budget of the European Community, as Britain was contributing more than other nations with a higher GDP per head. Similarly, Thatcher wanted to reduce the overall public expenditure of the community and create a Single Market by which participating countries could trade freely. A White Paper was released by Lord Cockfield depicting the free movement of labour, of goods and services, and of capital in something he described as “deep free trade”. But in 1988, the French and Germans pressed for a more federalist Europe, both socially and economically. Jacques Delors, the President of the Commission, argued for a “social Europe” as well as a convergence of the economies of member states through Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). This greatly alarmed Thatcher who took to the offensive in an infamous speech at Bruges in October 1988. She proclaimed with conviction the importance of sovereignty and of nationhood. European relations should boil down to economic cooperation, not removing the independence of sovereign parliaments and reducing the powers of individual nations.

A fundamental step in producing a more integrated Europe, the Delors Report stated, was a single currency. A three- stage process to EMU was mapped out; member states had to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism, a European Central Bank was to be created and then a single currency to follow. The Conservative Party faltered over this. Lawson, the Chancellor, and Howe, the Foreign Secretary and indeed John Major put forward the idea that joining the first of these stages (the Exchange Rate Mechanism) would be regarded as a “goodwill diplomatic concession” giving Britain more negotiating power in halting the move to a single currency. Similarly it would stabilise exchange rates and bring lower inflation to Britain. Thatcher, on the other hand, stood firm in opposition, prioritising her relations with the United States.

Upon Major’s ascension to power in 1990, he dropped Britain’s confrontational stance towards Europe and had convinced Thatcher to join ERM; whilst strongly opposing the social and political integration of Europe.  He then turned to influencing negotiations at Maastricht. The treaty brought into being the European Union and formalisation of the single currency. Major rejected much of the European Union structure arguing for less supra-national bodies that were capable of overriding sovereign governments and pushed for intergovernmental agencies. To this end he was successful. He managed to secure an “opt-out” for the single currency and the removal of the social chapter from the treaty. However, he was obligated to honour his ERM membership. The 2009 Treaty of Lisbon replaced the Maastricht Treaty and is argued to have further increased the powers of the European Parliament over national governments.

Britain’s membership of the ERM similarly backfired in a cloud of economic smoke. Major could not keep Britain’s exchange rate within the set boundaries leading to massive speculation against the pound and a drastic cut in interest rates. Black Wednesday, as it has been named, branded the mark of evil on the EU for many Conservatives. No longer should Britain sign up to federalist treaties simply to appease Europe and bring the British some negotiating weight.

Conservative relations with the European Union have been a series of give and takes. They are firmly against a federalist Europe with powers over parliament, and yet cannot afford to be outside of it for economic reasons or diplomatic reasons. The British cannot influence the development of Europe if it is completely detached. Therefore, we have signed up to treaties and policies that we fundamentally disagree with in the name of influence in Europe. But has it gone too far? Should we now withdraw in exhaustion and leave Europe to itself?



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