Below is an interview I gave to Claudia Schrag Sternberg for UCL’s Britain & Europe.
In what ways is today’s EU referendum different from the June 1975 precedent?
The difference is that in 1974 the actual renegotiations started fairly quickly after British Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s re-election: he had tabled early on what he wanted to renegotiate. Today, we just know the fairly vague wish-list that David Cameron drew up. How this can materialise into a genuine ‘renegotiation’ process with all other EU member states is still a mystery today.
Only 5 months have passed since the general elections so it is still difficult to compare beyond this. The kick-off has been the same so far: the UK Prime Minister and some members of the government tour European capitals to present their views and look for support. The initial reactions of the UK’s counterparts are also predictably similar: they do not want the UK to leave, but at the same time they do not want to make concessions as they do not know what the UK government’s position is regarding EU membership. Hence the recent multiple calls for clarification of the UK’s demands that came from the EU and various member states’ capitals.
And is the process of the renegotiations itself any different from 1974-1975?
The biggest difference is that now the EU Treaty contains a provision dealing with the case of a member state’s withdrawal (Article 50). In 1975, this kind of clause did not exist in the Treaties of Rome. In addition, although the stakes in 1975 may have been very high, they were certainly not as complex and far-reaching as they are today.
This partly explains why the European Commission felt the need earlier in June to appoint a ‘Task Force for Strategic Issues related to the UK Referendum’ led by Jonathan Faull. The 1974-5 renegotiations did not trigger such a move by the European Commission, although it did consume much of its working time, and more generally tended to paralyse European discussions throughout the renegotiations period.
Have the UK’s policy preferences changed over time?
Not really. Of course the substance has significantly changed: again, the stakes and the policies are different now from the 1970s. But the UK remains stuck in its long-standing inward-looking question about its identity crisis and world role.
The UK government’s preference remains for loose, low-commitment arrangements focusing on free trade rather than economic and political integration in Europe. These preferences were already present in the mid-1970s under different guises: in 1975 the UK wanted to stay out of proposals for Economic and Monetary Union, today the UK wants to stay out of the euro.
The UK is often perceived as a member state blocking advances in European integration. In that sense, wouldn’t the UK’s leaving the EU clear the way for further integration?
I don’t think so. Paradoxically, the UK is not much of an obstacle to further European integration. I say paradoxically because, as you say, the UK is often thought of as a chiefly Eurosceptic member state that intends to ‘brake’ any further integration of Europe. It is certainly true that on occasions UK governments endeavoured to slow down European projects or derail them. We should not forget that this was the UK policy towards the EEC in the first place, I mean since when the Six were negotiating the Treaties of Rome and then set the EEC in motion! Even more often, UK governments enjoy showing off their Schadenfreude towards European difficulties. It suffices to follow how British officials reacted to the Eurozone travails, as if they were singing ‘I hate to say I told you so’.
But in reality, in the past, the UK has not really blocked a project on which EU member states could agree. The UK did not like European monetary integration, but it did not block it either, whether at the time of the EMS creation in 1978, or when the euro was created. Margaret Thatcher did not like the Single European Act, but the SEA went through regardless. David Cameron did not like the 2012 Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance (TSCG) either, but he refused to sign it without blocking it. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne even acknowledged what he called the ‘remorseless logic’ towards further integration of the Eurozone in 2011: for the single currency area to function, the Eurozone will need more political and financial integration. Osborne said the UK would not block this, and indeed the UK proved surprisingly constructive in the construction of the Banking Union for instance, where it could easily have vetoed progress.
Can we have a replay of the 1975 result, namely a large victory of the yes?
As things stand it will be very difficult. Political discourses are very clear-cut and unfortunately have now completely lost touch with the reality of what the European Union is today – that is, an organisation where the UK already opts out of anything it dislikes (Charter on Fundamental Rights; many aspects of the EU’s area of freedom, security and justice; Schengen; TSCG; single currency…).
In addition, the vagueness of the UK government’s negotiating goals automatically makes the debate about their possible achievement awfully vague – at least so far. In any case, the UK could very well end up leaving the EU on an entirely flawed referendum campaign.
If the UK leaves, would it be a historical blow to the European project?
If by ‘European project’ you mean the Europe created by the Treaties of Rome, it certainly would not be a blow: it would be a return to the situation of 1958, when the UK was invited to join, declined to participate, and did everything it could to kill off the EEC’s successful early development. The UK vigorously opposed the European project at the time and has been its most vocal critic since. In that sense, the UK’s presence in the EU would have just been a parenthesis, opened in 1973 – some 20 years after the beginning of the historical process of integration – and closed in 2016 or 2017. A genuine ‘historical blow’ to the ‘European project’ would be the departure of one of the six founding members.
What a UK departure from the EU would be is a severe blow to the idea that European countries can sit around a table as ‘grown ups’ and try to resolve their problems in a single regional organisation. Yet this idea implies a sense of belonging to a group, a family – however we describe it – that Westminster often downplays if not rejects outright. I say ‘Westminster’ as the attitude is entirely different in Scotland, for instance, where First Minister Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly acknowledges that Scotland is part of the European family of nations.
But we should not think of ‘historical blows’ to the European project only in terms of Brexit. Let us imagine a situation in which the UK would remain in the EU thanks to the removal of the ‘ever closer union’ principle from the EU Treaty. This would be a far greater historical blow to the European project developed on such a basis ever since the signature of the Treaties of Rome in 1958. European leaders and EU policymakers will need to be very careful in choosing what they concede for the UK to remain part of the EU.