3.Refusing the logic of political integration and of the Maastricht Treaty.
The British Conservative government proved increasingly divided over the issue . Indeed, Margaret Thatcher lost power as the result of a crisis between herself and a number of heavyweights in her Cabinet, and in the Conservative party. This should not be overestimated. There were also other reasons why the Conservative party wanted to replace the Prime Minister. Margaret Thatcher had become extremely unpopular, as the result of a reform of local taxation, which had been widely considered as unfair. The so called “poll tax” would have deprived people who did not pay their local tax of the right to vote, and since the proposed amount was uniform, irrespective of the person’s financial circumstances, and very heavy, a lot of citizens would have been “disenfranchised”. Europe was therefore something of a pretext for the Conservative leadership, which could use a noble pretext to change an unpopular Prime Minister … and remain in power. The strategy of the Conservatives functioned perfectly, since, in 1990, Margaret Thatcher was succeeded by John Major, another Conservative, who remained in power for another 7 years, until the victory of Tony Blair on May 1st 1997. John Major’s policy towards Europe differed from Margaret Thatcher’s in terms of style more than substance.
From 1988 onwards, Margaret Thatcher proved increasingly Eurosceptic, and resisted all attempts at reducing Britain’s sovereignty. The idea that European integration enables a pooling of sovereignties, does not reduce the amount of control European nations have over their future, but on the contrary increases their influence in the world, was fiercely resisted by the UK government. At the time, the tide of federalism was high, on the European continent. Jacques Delors was in charge of the European Commission, and the prospects of integration seemed to be bright. The federal impulse which was to be found in the Maastricht Treaty, including the creation of a specific European social model, was very strong. However, history took a different course: the fall of the Berlin wall and the ending of the division between Western and Eastern Europe in 1989 and 1990 modified the geopolitical stakes. Ideological factors, such as the success of the USA in steamrolling their pure liberal model across the world, and national issues, such as the national aspiration of Germany to recover its unity, the rise of nationalisms in former Yugoslavia, the desire of Eastern Europeans to obtain protection from Russia at all cost all changed the political climate. With hindsight, British reservations about European integration seemed less outrageous in the early XXIst century than they did in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. By the late 1990’s, the impetus for integration had again receded, and most European countries devoted more time in Brussels to upholding their own policies and interests than to building a new political entity. In other words, the stance adopted by De Gaulle in the 1960’s and by Thatcher in the 1980’s, closer to traditional nationalism than to European federalism, seemed to prevail once again.
Thatcher ‘s stance was particularly clear on a number of issues.
The link with the USA. This was central from a military, industrial and political point of view. The connection between the UK and the US proved increasingly strong throughout the 1990’s, as is evident in the approach of the second Irak war, and in Tony Blair’s relationship with the US. However, the relationship with the US also acquired an ideological character. In the eyes of Britain, the US, which had been the headquarters of the “free world” during the cold war, retained this central character after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in spite of it ! Clearly, the US were the core of world capitalism, and NATO the basis for defence policies.
European policies should not in any way hinder the relations with the US, and weaken the link. European foreign policy , in the eyes of the UK, was a dangerous idea, if it was conducive to a weakening of the “special relationship”. Britain and France are obviously at poles apart on this issue.
The idea of a European currency was resisted on political grounds, even though the pretexts for refusing to join were always technical. Technical difficulties do exist, but the real reason was political from the start. A separate currency protects national sovereignty.
Europe was influenced by social democrats, a good reason for refusing to submit to foreign pressure.
In November 1988, Thatcher delivered the famous “Bruges Speech”, at the College of Europe, a location which added insult to injury.
“ It is ironic that just when those countries such as the Soviet Union which have tried to run everything from the centre are learning that success depends on dispersing power and decisions away form the centre, some in the Community seem to want to move in the opposite direction. We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the State in Britain only to seem them re-imposed by some kind of European super State in Brussels.”
Equating the stance of European federalists with the Soviet version of communism was considered by most commentators as a slight exaggeration.
This gave rise to a violent anti European campaign in the Conservative press, including both “ popular papers” such as the Sun, and “quality ones” such as the Daily and the Sunday Telegraph.
As the conservatives were moving away from Europe, the British Left turned more pro- European. This was the case of the Labour party, and of the Trade Unions. The debate focussed on the European Social Charter, a document which, as far as continental Europe was concerned, was not terribly advanced, but which offered better guarantees in terms of working hours and overtime, than what British employees were enjoying.
Neil Kinnock, who was the Labour Party’s leader in the mid 1980’s, and later became a European Commissioner, said in 1988: “ If the single market was to mean nothing more than a big financial free for all, it would be a social, industrial and environmental catastrophe”. The popularity of Jacques Delors among British Trade Unionists was great. He was invited to the Trades Unions Congress in September 1988 – just at the time Thatcher was delivering her Bruges Speech, and was greeted by the song “Frère Jacques”, a gesture which symbolized the social and political kinship between British Trade Unionists and continental socialists. Delors said: “ It is impossible to build Europe only on deregulation. The internal market should be designed to benefit each and every citizen of the Community. It is therefore necessary to improve workers’ living and working conditions, and to provide better protection for their health and safety at work.”
Margaret Thatcher was not amused, and said of the “European social space”: “It is a new piece of jargon. I am never quite sure what it is. But if it means having a regulation on European company law, then I would oppose that particular thing.” Clearly, federalism and “social Europe” seemed, at the time, to go hand in hand, and this was refused by Margaret Thatcher.
4. The Maastricht Treaty
However, The main negotiations leading to the Maastricht Treaty, signed in 1992, took place under John Major (Prime Minister 1990-1997). Maastricht was clearly seen as the political counterpart of the 1986 Single European Act, and the rift within the Conservative party deepened. Major obtained a number of exemption clauses, but this did not satisfy the more Euro-sceptic wing of the party, which was very influential among the Conservative membership, and became increasingly vocal and bitter. The Conservative party started sliding into old fashioned anti European nationalism, a stance which it maintained well into the XXIst Century, in spite of its traditions.
The EEC changed its name, and was henceforth called the European Union, a more political and positive term. Besides, Maastricht was giving a clear impetus to integration, since the European countries were said to be moving towards “ever closer union”.
The Treaty had three dimensions, strangely called “pillars” in Euro-speak.
First Pillar: Economic and Monetary Union (also called EMU)
This would lead to the common currency, and imply a pooling of sovereignties. Decisions would be reached NOT through intergovernmental conferences, but by common European institutions, such as the European Central Bank, which would be managed by independent experts, not by agents of national governments.
The member countries agreed on a number of conditions, which would have to be met before a country was allowed to join the common currency (originally called the ECU, which did not sound nice in German, hence the change to “Euro”). Those conditions, called the “Maastricht criteria” were inspired by the monetarist philosophy which influenced most experts at the time. They were accepted by all governments, but very much criticized because of their political and social implications. They included:
A public deficit below 3% of GDP.
A total public debt below 60% of GDP.
A low inflation rate.
Two countries, Britain and Denmark, were exempted from joining the common currency.
The European Central Bank was also a cause of concern. Britain insisted it should be located in London, on the grounds that Britain had the greatest expertise. The ECB headquarters were set in Frankfurt.
Besides, the question of the political control of the ECB was raised. Germany insisted that it become totally independent from governments, whereas the UK wanted it to remain under the tutelage of an intergovernmental machinery. The German stance was largely due to the bitter memories of the 1920’s in Germany, when the government had manipulated the inflation rate for political purposes, and had brought about an economic catastrophe and a general impoverishment of the nation. The German position won the day, and the ECB became independent.
The first pillar also redefined the fields of competence of the Community and of public institutions.
It increased the amounts devoted to the European Social Fund, and to the European Regional Development Fund.
It adopted the principle of “subsidiarity”. This had been so far a confidential concept, borrowed from the social doctrine of the catholic church, according to which decisions should always be taken as close as possible to the people concerned. This provided a justification for “decentralization”, and reassured the opponents of federalism. In practice, this raised other problems in the nations which faced local nationalist or separatist trends. “Regional policy”, which made sense in countries like Germany or Scandinavia seemed to pave the way towards the break up of nation-states, such as Spain, or France. Local nationalist movements were thus tempted to play the European card, against their own governments. This was certainly the case in the UK, where Scottish nationalists were suddenly enthusiastic about Europe. The European charter for minority languages, which has not been accepted by France, encourages the use and teaching of regional languages, even when they are no longer in use. What with the war in Yugoslavia, and the persistence of terrorism in some parts of France and Spain, this development became naturally very controversial, since it sometimes re-ignites nationalist ambitions and kindles ideologies valuing “difference” rather than universalism.
The second pillar: Foreign policy and defence.
This was the first time since the failure of the EDC that such issues were recognized as legitimate subjects for the Union to tackle. Britain, however, insisted that unanimity be required, thus depriving the Union of any autonomy. Britain could veto any policy. As far as defence is concerned, Britain insisted that NATO, dominated by the US, remain the key organisation for common defence. This was somewhat opposed by France an Germany, who tried to reinforce the Western European Union, but met with little success. Bilateral cooperation schemes were set up, including Britain and France. This clearly shows that the UK saw itself as bridge between the US and Europe, and attempted to nurture, or even create close links with France, and other awkward partners.
Third Pillar: justice and security.
The Maastricht Treaty was largely symbolical on such issues, and can be considered as a transitional document. A number of countries, including Britain, insisted on the preservation of the principle of unanimity, which implied very slow progress.
The issues at stake included:
Cross border action in pursuit of criminals (should the police forces of member states be allowed to cross borders or sail into other countries’ national waters in pursuit of criminals without prior authorization ?)
The repression of drug trafficking.
Britain did not sign the agreement drafted by the police forces of a number of continental countries, including France, and later approved by governments, known as the Schengen Agreement, which allows greater coordination of police forces. However, in practice, the British police takes part in the exchange of intelligence with other European forces. This is very significant, since the pooling and the rationalizing of intelligence files at European level is one of the most important aspects of Schengen . This still raises serious legal and political issues in terms of protection of citizens’ privacy.
Asylum policy is naturally very controversial, since the problems and needs of Europeans vary widely. Britain wants to maximize its advantage as an island in order to exert maximum control. However, it is a very attractive country for potential immigrants, legal or illegal, for a number of reasons, which include:
The absence of a compulsory identity card
The fact immigrants are allowed to work legally before their application for asylum seeker status has been processed and a decision has been made
The fact most nationalities are already represented in the UK, and that communities will provide help to new entrants.
Pressure on the UK is considerable, as was evident at the opening of the Channel Tunnel.
The Maastricht Treaty also included a social chapter, which Britain did not accept, and did not ratify.
Other European nations decided that they could reach decisions on social issues through qualified majority voting, a system in which countries’ influence in decision making is related, by a complex mechanism, to the size of national populations. This concerned issues such as health and safety, working conditions, participation, equal opportunities between men and women, employment policies.
Britain was, once again, taking part of the integration process … and keeping aloof from it. The House of Commons ratified the Treaty in May 1992.
5.From the ratification of Maastricht to the victory of New Labour.
John Major was challenged by a number of eurosceptic conservative leaders, such as John Redwood, within his own party. Major resigned in June 1995 … only to be re-elected in July. This was a classical political manoeuvre, intended to force his opponents to stand up and be counted.
European politics were then dominated by the issue of enlargement. Following the fall of the Berlin wall, East European countries started campaigning to obtain admission to the EU. This move was supported by Germany, for a number of geopolitical reasons. Germany had always considered Eastern Europe as an area with which it could establish a close partnership. The situation varied, but some countries had, historically, been close allies of Germany over the centuries, or during the Second World War. This was the case of Hungary, or Slovenia, to some extent of Slovakia . (In some cases, significant sections of the population had considered collaboration with the Third Reich as an attractive option, which had earned them retribution under the now defunct Soviet rule) . Besides, Germany shared with East Europeans a concern for the potential military clout of Russia, and considered the securing of allies to the East of the Oder-Neise line (betweeen Germany and Poland) as a priority. Integrating East Europeans made sense for Germany, for many reasons. France and Britain were at poles apart on the issue.
France did not oppose the wish of East Europeans to join the EU, but had reservations. In the eyes of French governments, the “deepening” of the union was a priority, not its enlargement. Popular criticisms of the EU pointed out the “democratic deficit” of the existing institutions. The French governments felt that the Union should be made both more efficient, and more responsive to citizens ‘ wishes. This required a lot of effort, a reform of the existing institutions. The enlargement of the Union would mechanically make the improvement of mechanisms more difficult, and even less responsive to popular aspirations.
Britain supported enlargement for exactly the same reason. Enlargement would make federalism, and integration, more difficult, thus safeguarding British sovereignty. This British strategy was entirely successful, as appeared clearly during the Anglo-american intervention in Iraq in 2003, when East European countries supported the United States and their British allies. The meaning of European integration had changed. Eastern European countries did not share the views of the proponents of the European social model: Europe, in their eyes, was not socially or politically distinct from the US . Compared to the differences between soviet communism and market economies, those between the US and the EU were minimal. They did not believe either that the strategic geopolitical interests of European countries were quite distinct from those of the USA. Their chief concern was Russia. They remained faithful to NATO, the chief instrument for American military domination over the European continent. For both reasons, their approach was therefore very similar to that of Britain, which also shared with them a radical and systematic hostility towards communism, or anything connected with it.
From the start, Britain supported enlargement, not as means of reinforcing the EU, but in order to weaken the drive towards integration. The formal decision to enlarge the EU was taken in 1996, during an Intergovernmental Conference.
Other European developments in the 1990’s were less welcome in the UK. This included the gradual extension of qualified majority voting within EU institutions, thus putting an end to the British right to veto European legislation.
The “Mad Cow Disease”, usually referred to in the UK as the BSE, which is its technical name, was very damaging, financially and politically. It appeared that the UK did not provide European institutions with the information it was expected to offer, and went on exporting contaminated products. France was led to banning all imports of beef and lamb from the UK, and the UK threatened at some point to paralyse all European activities by using its right of veto systematically.
6. European Policy under New Labour.
Tony Blair and his party won the General Elections on May 1st 1997.
His policy proved extremely ambiguous. On the one hand, support for European integration is a key element of New Labour’s political identity. This was seen as a counterpoint to Conservatism, which became increasingly anti European as years went by, but also to traditional British socialism, which had strong reservations about the loss of sovereignty. Blair’s relationship with the forward looking sectors of the British economy, and with financial institutions was good, and his pro European enthusiasm played a part in his popularity within British business circles. Blair himself delivered passionate speeches in favour of the Euro. The official line was that Britain would join “when the time was ripe”. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, alternatively presented by the media as a close ally and a rival for Blair, set a number of conditions which would have to be fulfilled before he recommended joining the Euro. Once those conditions were met, Blair promised he would organize a referendum.
Those conditions included:
Convergence. The UK could only join when it appeared that its economic cycles converged significantly with those of the EU. This is not the case.
If the British economy has become flexible enough, and if it appears that the Euro would contribute to greater flexibility.
If the Euro can be believed to attract investment to the UK.
If financial services are expected to benefit from the change.
If the Euro contributes to employment and growth.
New Labour made a number of symbolical gestures, such as the signing of the Social Charter. This puts a constraint on the maximum amount of overtime workers can do, and imposes the creation of works councils, including representatives from the Unions, in large firms present in at least two European countries. Many British firms are indeed concerned by this.
Britain also ratified the Amsterdam Treaty, in October 1997, which completed the Maastricht Treaty in a number of areas. Procedures for the drafting of common policies on the crossing of borders, immigration and asylum seeking were simplified. European countries were trying to improve security, and increase mobility at the same time, a difficult task. The powers of the European Court of Justice, which studies a large number of cases originating from the UK, were also increased.
However, in spite of the pro European feelings of New Labour leaders, Britain seemed to move closer to the USA than it had never been. This was the case in terms of social model and of world politics.
The key notion of the European social model is the idea that the laws of the market are made more compatible with human needs by the intervention of public services and social policy. The principle which came to dominate the UK under Margaret Thatcher, and which increased its hold over the country under Tony Blair, is that the market should be unimpeded by government policy. The twin principles of flexibility and employability became the central notion of the early 21st Century. It became hard to distinguish Britain from the US in this respect .
As far as world politics are concerned, the post 9/11 attitude towards Iraq can only be found very surprising. Britain used to be extremely cautious in its attitude towards the Muslim world. It did not pay any particular attention to the nature of the regimes it dealt with, and treated as allies feudal regimes of the most anti democratic kind (Saudi Arabia, Jordan). Indeed, Britain had provided Arab regimes with military support during their first war against Israel. Besides, during the cold war, Britain and the US had refrained from direct interventions in the Third World, and exerted their influence either through the medium of client dynasties (Saudi Arabia, Gulf Emirates), or coups engineered by intelligence services (Iran). A brutal direct intervention such as the one in Iraq was therefore exceptional. Britain’s approach to the Iraqi crisis, and the American offensive in the Middle East, could only be understood by bearing in mind the success of the strategic positioning of the UK during the cold war. Alignment on the US during the cold war had enabled the UK to obtain protection from the US, and the preservation of British influence in the post colonial war. Being at the forefront of the offensive against the “axis of Evil”, as President Bush called the enemies of the US , might enable Britain to once again safeguard its special status not just as an ally of the US, but as the most faithful one. Other arguments have been presented, focused on Blair’s personal commitment, irrational feelings or deep convictions concerning the alleged and elusive “weapons of mass destruction”, and on the manipulation of evidence by communication specialists.
In any case, apart from the Iraqi population, Europe was one of the main casualties of the Anglo American offensive. The ideal of a “European foreign policy”, let alone “European defence” proved largely unrealistic, as the usual power play between nation-states became once again the norm.
By the early 21st century, the impetus for a united Europe was not entirely lost, as could be seen by the intensity of the debate of the proposed European constitution. However, with 25 prospective members, Europe had become much closer to the British ideal than to the federalist one. France was forced to accept the principle of a reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, thus giving in to an old British demand, and the Franco-German informal alliance , formed by De Gaulle and Adenauer 30 years ago, was still essential to the process of European integration. Britain was both at the heart of Europe, and the symbolical core of the English speaking world, dominated by the Unites States of America.