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Europe:
The reluctant partner?


Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: made a virtue of tough talking on Europe
Britain has been a member of the European Union for three decades.

But the issues of European unity and national sovereignty still have the power to split political parties.


On January 1 2002, a symbolic revolution took place in continental Europe. Voluntarily, twelve of the European Union's fifteen member states gave up their own national currencies. In the space of a few months, Francs, Deutschemarks, Pesetas, Drachmas and many more will all be consigned to a footnote in history.

Quote Mark Britain's hesitation over Europe was one of my country's greatest miscalculations of the postwar years... Quote Mark

Tony Blair, 2000
The introduction of the Euro is the most visible symbol so far of Europe's drive towards an ever closer union.

But - as with so many other European developments over the years - Britain has chosen not to be in at the start.

Origins

Charles de Gaulle
de Gaulle says Non! The French President twice vetoed Britain's application
Today's European Union has its roots in the devastation caused by the Second World War. Its original six members - France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Holland and Belgium - began by co-operating over coal and steel production.

By the mid 1950s they'd extended their economic objectives, and in 1958, with the Treaty of Rome, the European Economic Community was born.

But Britain, still a substantial colonial power in the mid-fifties, stood aloof from economic co-operation with Europe.

Only in the 1960s, as Britain began to dismantle substantial parts of empire, did it turn towards its European neighbours.

Edward Heath
Prime Minister Edward Heath took Britain into Europe in January 1973
Twice in the 1960s, Britain applied for membership of the EEC. And twice, it was blocked by the then French President, Charles de Gaulle.

Britain's application to join the new European club was finally accepted in 1971, a few months after de Gaulle's death. Britain formally became a member of the Common Market as it was then called on January 1, 1973.

Video Clip VIDEO
Panorama, BBC TV:
Edward Heath signs Britain up for the Common Market, Michael Charlton reporting
But the incoming Labour government was deeply divided. Many politicians, then and since, saw the EU as a threat to British independence.

As a sop to a vociferous anti-European minority within his own ranks, Harold Wilson announced a referendum. Ultimately, Britain voted "yes", but its commitment towards Europe has often been seen as less than wholehearted.

Conservative doubts

During the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher was, at best, a critical member of the European club.

 
MAASTRICHT TREATY 1992:
A blue-print for closer European integration, including a single European currency, greater EU involvement in policy-making and a social legislation across Europe.
Having pursued rigorous economic policies at home in the early 1980s, she was unwilling to see Europe reintroducing the regulations she had so painfully dismantled.

In 1989, Britain alone, of all the 12 member states, opposed the idea of a Social Chapter to accompany the new moves towards European integration, which finally resulted in the Maastricht Treaty of 1992.

Britain eventually secured opt-outs from the Maastricht treaty on two of the most contentious areas - the Social Chapter and moves towards a single currency.

Quote Mark Compromise, sweep it under the carpet, leave it for another day, in the hope that the people of Britain will not notice what is happening to them, how the powers have been gradually slipping away. Quote Mark

Margaret Thatcher on John Major's Europe policy
But even so, John Major's government was nearly toppled in 1992 by a rebellion of his own back-benchers who refused to ratify the Maastricht treaty.

By the 2001 General Election, the Conservatives were openly hostile to any further strengthening of European ties: their election campaign that year was reduced to the shorthand phrase "save the pound" - in other words, no single currency.

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