Great confusion and differences in opinions exist today in Britain when considering the issue of Europe. The British Government seems to hold a wait and see policy on most issues raised within the European Parliament, whilst the citizens remain uncertain of the consequences and gains of deeper European Integration, with no definite leads from either of the main parties. When considering Britain’s past involvement with Europe, it is continuing to show reluctance by remaining two steps behind everyone else.
This reluctance in accepting all European policies and ideologies is why Britain is often dubbed the ‘difficult’ or ‘awkward’ partner. In this essay I intend to analyse these allegations to see to what extent Britain has been awkward.
‘In 1902 Britain first entered into a long-term security alliance in peacetime’ (Young 1993:02), but it was not only concerned with Europe. This alliance was signed after the Boer war, as it revealed the military weaknesses and problems of Europe uniting against Britain.
Britain eventually committed itself to a war against the Central powers, Germany and Austria- Hungary in 1914, this required some large changes (such as restrictions on personnel freedom) and higher taxes. However Britain could not cope with these changes in policy and therefore tried to detach itself again from Europe. It declined a formal alliance with France, and ‘refused to give real authority to the new peace-keeping body, the League of Nations’ (Young 1993). This seems to be the beginning of this idea about Britain being ‘difficult’.
So why did we reject the French Alliance, and try to distance our self from Europe?
I believe we rejected the alliance and distanced ourselves due to the fact that being an island we felt that we could avoid the war due to being so isolated, and that it wasn’t the fact that we were being awkward but more so the fact that Britain likes to look out for herself- and always considers her best interests. Therefore being involved in a war is very undesirable and they are costly, and it is more preferable to be a balance of power in Europe acting from the sidelines. This then preserved Britain’s ‘liberal institutions, its world trade and its military security’ (Young 1993).
In 1927 the Franco-German commercial treaty was signed, and France hoped to ensure her security and work with Germany, but within a ‘European Framework’. ‘At the same time a European ‘federation’ would break down barriers to trade in Europe and help the continent stand up to American economic competition’ (Young 1993). In Britain though, ministers weren’t keen, for both economic and political reasons. Economically, Britain preferred liberal trade policy; and wanted to keep its commercial links to the commonwealth; and didn’t want to start a disagreement with the Americans(who didn’t like the idea of a European trading bloc as it would restrict Us imports).
This British dislike for regional trading blocs did not greatly effect Europe, as not many European countries liked the idea, also the exact details as to the formation of the ‘federation’ were very vague and the plan contradictory.
Ernest Bevin is an important figure in the European debate, he was very interested in ‘European unity in the 1930’s, whilst realising the problems with national differences. In 1940 he advocated a rather different idea, an Anglo-French imperial customs union’ (Young 1993). During 1938-9 there were many British figures, who believed that, ‘given the failure of the League of Nations to preserve the peace, states should surrender some of their sovereignty to a federal world government’ (Young 1993).
These ideas seem to have been fairly revolutionary at the time, and I think that it shows that Britain has previously considered ‘Unions’, longs they have many positive outcomes and that Britain would have had a ‘big influence’ unlike the current union.
In 1940, ‘Britain offered her ally an ‘indissoluble union’, including common citizenship, Imperial unity and a single cabinet’ (Young 1993:5). It was however rejected by the French Cabinet, who viewed it as a British attempt to seize the French Empire.
‘Consideration of European co-operation only revived after 1941, when Britain gained two new, powerful allies, the USSR and United States’ (Young 1993:5). However, these allies posed a danger to Britain’s world standing.
Throughout this period of time Britain did attempt to unify Europe, however, only if it was at a time that Britain would benefit, for example the ‘indissoluble union’, which would’ve had many positive effects for her. Also I find it important to note the amount of times Britain withdrew herself from the continent, already seeming to pick and choose which policies and treaties best serve her.
The Marshall Plan was launched by the Americans in order to unite Western Unity. Bevin was a key player in getting the Marshall aid, ‘however the Foreign Office had always wanted Western European co-operation as a way to improve Britain’s international standing, a way to match the power of America and Russia- not as a step towards the loss of independence’ (Young 1993). Bevin still seemed very keen on European unity in 1948, and signed the Brussels Pact on 17th March alongside France and the Benelux countries. ‘This was a multilateral military alliance, and it included promises of financial, cultural and social co-operation and established regular meetings in a ‘Consultative Council’ ‘(Young 1993). Then in 1948 the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC) was created. ‘The main aim of the European Cooperation was to strengthen Britain’s role in the world’ (Idea Young 1993).
Once again Britain was more interested in British gains, and viewed Britain’s global strength very important. Bevin wanted to rival the other great powers, and was not therefore going to surrender any power to any ‘centralised European institutions’ (Young 1993). Britain favoured inter-governmental co-operation, which did not involve the pooling of sovereignty in supranational powers.
As the continent had suffered much harsher setbacks, and required more extensive re-building they had a more common goal. All of their economies were in a bad way, and they figured that integration would achieve this. Also, they all shared a common enthusiasm as did America, in order to prevent a rise of Communism and the Western Europe saw this as an opportunity. France and Germany signed the European Coal and steel Community (ECSC) alongside Italy and the Benelux countries.
Britain did not partake in this as her economy was still strong, and still had trade links with America and the Commonwealth. In hindsight it would’ve been better for Britain to sign up in the beginning, but as she viewed herself as being superior to Europe. This could be considered as Britain being awkward, but I think that she just wanted a free reign and believed that she could succeed alone. The Treaty of Rome (1957) was signed by the 6 original countries, and it can be argued that by failing to sign up at the beginning- Britain lost the ability to have a say in the original organisation.
‘However, the British did try to create their own European trading group with the 1957 Free Trade Area. This was unpopular with both the Americans and the French.
Eventually in 1961 Macmillan applied to the EEC, but was vetoed buy De Gaulle. Britain signed the Treaty in 1973, and since then it has not been a smooth ride.
Britain does seem to always distance herself over major issues, and does still seem to favour the inter-governmental institutions.
Currently I find that Britain is much more uncertain of where she would like to be. Personally I believe that Britain favours partnership with America as it is the most powerful country in the world. Britain’s relationship with the USA is upsetting the continent to a certain extent. Especially the recent issue of the Iraq war. Britain does feel the need to be able to make decisions of her own, which has resulted in the EU calling for a more definite decision as to whether we are in or out.
This has meant that Britain needs to carefully consider her position, because her wait and see policy is no longer satisfactory. To a certain extent I feel that Britain is awkward, and seemed to take pleasure in siding with America- just to show to Europe that Britain is still considered the USA’s ‘special friend’. I think that Britain likes this being in limbo, and feels quite at ease with the present situation. On the one hand, she can side with the most powerful country in the world, or when it suits her she can go along with the rest of the continent. I find this quite unacceptable, as we the citizens are always unsure as to where we stand.
Also the Euro debate could be considered another reason to call Britain ‘difficult’. Public opinion does seem to be very varied, and I think it does have a lot to do with the sense of Nationalism, and loosing our sovereignty, in the sense that we have always been different to the Continent of Europe. However the press and different political parties’ views do always seem to have an effect on the less knowledgeable citizens.
I don’t think the politicians know what the planned extension of Europe will do for Britain, and as she always considers herself first- it will all depend on these future developments to see where Europe is going!
In conclusion, Britain has always been a powerful and wealthy country, and with 1/5 of the world as its Empire (then, the largest empire the world had ever known). So therefore Britains trade links with America and the Commonwealth have meant that historically the British economy has always been very strong in comparison to other European countries.
Britain is an island, so has always had a stronger sense of national identity and in some respects the English Channel has acted as a barrier, making Britain a very insular country. This geographical separation from Europe, means that Britain has had a slightly different history to the rest of mainland Europe. This difference in history is what has lead to the developments and opinions of today.
I strongly believe that Britain would be much more supportive of Europe and its laws if it had been the leader as opposed to France, because we can clearly see many attempts over the centuries to unify Europe. As a result of Britain’s late joining, it has never been given as much power or say as I think she would’ve liked. Maybe this is why she still likes to have strong links with America, as a sort of backup.
I think that it will depend on the future and I don’t feel that Britain has been as ‘difficult or ‘awkward’ as it has been made out. Sweden and Denmark also didn’t join the Monetary Union but I never hear them being called awkward!
‘The result that Britain is left committed to a European future but with little relish for the task, as summed up in the term ‘there is no alternative’. A Prime Minister may wish for Britain to be at the heart of Europe, but the country lies on the periphery of the Continent in more than as geographical sense’ (Young 1993).
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