The EU as a pig in a poke

Before Facebook, a poke was a word for a bag and the expression ‘buying a pig in a poke’ is just another way of saying ‘buyer beware’.  It’s one which has come to mind since my latest excursion into the Twitter-verse, where I’m meeting a lot of the type of people I study, namely eurosceptics.

It’s a common cry that ‘we signed up to a Common Market, not the European Union’, which usually prefaces a demand for either a popular vote on membership or simply withdrawal.  It speaks to the sense of mistrust of both European and British politicians in their dealings over European integration and the feeling that somehow there is some secret intent behind it all.  This latter point is particularly true of the further fringes of euroscepticism, where conspiracies are legion and systemic.

Since I struggle with any talk of conspiracy (as my view of human nature is that such events are almost always the product of thoughtlessness, rather than bad intent), I am forced to address this challenge of mis-selling in a way that speaks to my world-view.  Certainly, I’m not presumptuous enough to think that it has to be the only interpretation, or that I can overturn other people’s basic attitudes, but the case still needs to be made.

The UK did indeed sign up to join the European Economic Community in 1973.  At the time, the EEC was much less of an organisation than the EU of today, since it mainly working on reducing trade barriers between member states.  This wasn’t all it did, since the agricultural policy was in full (and unreformed) operation, there were extensive relations with third parties, a legal order that had set out its fundamental principles of supremacy and direct effect a decade beforehand, and the other two Communities (Coal and Steel, and Euratom) that the UK also joined.  In short, theUKwas joining something that was focused on trade, but also clearly went beyond trade.

Moreover, theUK(in stark contrast to any other member state) almost immediately entered into renegotiations on the terms of membership once it had joined, because of the Labour government’s policy on the matter.  Those renegotiations did not provide any significant changes to the treaties, but the government still recommended voting yes in the 1975 referendum.  With a free vote in Cabinet, all of the mainstream political figures on both left and right supported membership.

It would be wrong to say that the referendum was a fully-informed discussion, primarily because most people didn’t have strong views, but it came at the end of a process whereby both a Conservative and a Labour government had discussed and supported membership, which had then been explicitly reviewed and put to a popular vote.

‘But the EEC isn’t the same as the EU’ is the retort.  True, but let’s look how we came to be in the EU.

The negotiations leading up toMaastrichtwere the subject of more debate in theUKthan in most other member states.  This was the reason that John Major went to the final negotiations in December 1991 with such a strict line: he needed to keep his party together.  The British negotiators were hardly shrinking violets: having had their ideas of a parallel currency squashed, they ensured theUKwouldn’t have to join the final stage of EMU.  Moreover, they watered down the more extreme language in the treaty, opted-out of the Social Charter,  supported the introduction of subsidiarity as a principle of EU law and generally worked to give futureUKgovernments the flexibility to not be dragged into developments that they did not want to.

But beyond the text itself, the British went through a very extensive ratification process.  Those with longer memories will recall the vicious parliamentary battles over the second and third readings of the bill in 1992 and 1993, when a very large amount of parliamentary time was devoted to a full and frank discussion of the merits of membership; a process that was mirrored in the popular press.  To argue that this was to slip unthinkingly into the EU is utterly misleading.

Even sinceMaastricht, there have been analogous situations in and around Parliament, if not the same extent.  Under the Ponsonby Rule, the government puts all international treaties before Parliament and under the 1972 European Communities Act there are additional ratification requirements for EU-related treaties, so again we cannot argue that this wasn’t thought about beforehand.  And where theUKgovernment hasn’t felt the benefits have outweighed the costs – as with the current Fiscal Compact – they haven’t signed up.

Finally, we might ask ourselves if the EU is such a terrible thing in comparison to the EEC of 1973.  We now have a directly-elected Parliament that is co-legislator in most areas, a much improved system of accountability on fraud and malpractice, a CAP that has lost many of its worst excesses, a system of environmental protection that leads the world, an internal market that has removed many more barriers to trade than would have been imagined back then, and a continued strong role for member states.  To see European integration as a new form of enslavement has to confront the simple fact that member states remain the key actors in the EU.