The long and winding road, as the Beatles song says, began a long-long time ago
By Alper Ali Riza
URSULA Von Der Leyen, the European Commission President, found the right quote to mark the end of Britain’s relationship with the European Union. It was, she said, the end of ‘the long and winding road’ from the Beatles 1970 song of that title sang by Paul McCartney shortly before the group split – a bitter-sweet song about loss and hope of redemption.
Apparently, the title was inspired by a long winding road near Mull of Kintyre in Scotland, about which McCartney also composed, and sang ‘Mull of Kintyre’ accompanied by pipes and drums: great music to listen to on Hogmanay with a glass or two of Scotland’s finest!
Boris Johnson forgot to mark Brexit with ‘Here Comes the Sun,’ another Beatles hit composed and sung by George Harrison, which was his first choice on Desert Island Discs in 2005.
Instead Johnson waffled on and on in crocodilian lament mode about how Britain identified with Europe culturally, emotionally historically, strategically and geologically, which was patronising and not very persuasive.
The long and winding road began as the song says a long-long time ago even before Britain joined the European Economic Community (EC) when French President Charles De Gaulle vetoed Britain’s application to join twice in the 1960s. Even though the idea of a United States of Europe was first propounded by British prime minister Winston Churchill in 1946, Britain was not one of the original six to sign the Treaty of Rome that created the EC in 1957.
De Gaulle doubted the British would ever fit into any continental system, be it economic, social, political or legal – especially legal. Contrary to Johnson’s crocodile lament the British do not identify with continental Europe. De Gaulle thought they were fundamentally Atlanticist, spoke bad French and did not treat him with respect during his sojourn in London in World War II.
His successor, Georges Pompidou, did not have his predecessor’s personal hang ups about the British and agreed to let Britain join the Community in 1971 on an assurance by British prime minister Edward Heath that Britain was ready to make an “historic change in her attitude” and make “a fundamental choice” in favour of the EC.
Strange as it may seem nowadays it was a Conservative government that surrendered Britain’s sovereignty to the EC, a foreign entity that some believe is nothing more than a legal construct churning out laws without accountability. The Conservatives under Heath were determined to join the EC and signed up to the Treaty of Rome notwithstanding a commitment to a close union among European peoples said in its preamble to be its founding principle.
By the European Communities Act 1972 that came into force on January 1, 1973 to give effect to Britain’s accession, rights and obligations by or under European community law became enforceable in the UK without further enactment. This was an astonishing surrender of legislative sovereignty if you consider that the common market was intended as the precursor to political union.
The ink was barely dry when opposition to membership began in earnest, primarily from the left of the Labour Party. By 1975 Labour was back in power and prime minister Harold Wilson agreed to hold a referendum on the back of some cosmetic renegotiation he had secured.
The Conservatives, including Margaret Thatcher, were fervent pro Europeans and campaigned to remain; Thatcher even appeared in a rather fetching sweater of many colours depicting all the European Community flags.
Under Britain’s unwritten constitution, Parliament is sovereign and cannot bind its successors, which means it always has power to make or repeal any law. But the 1972 Act was a special constitutional statute that could only be repealed expressly, hence the 1975 referendum. Labour had just won the 1974 general election but without an overall majority and was divided over Europe, so Wilson decided to hold a referendum to unite his party and keep Labour in power.
Referendums were unknown in British constitutional history and even frowned upon as inconsistent with the sovereignty of Parliament, but a referendum provided Wilson with a complete answer as it killed two birds with one stone.
The Labour Party held a one-day conference on membership of the EC in April 1975 that voted overwhelmingly to leave. Wilson himself came down in favour of remain but he was not an enthusiast. He deftly suspended collective cabinet responsibility to enable members of his cabinet to argue for and against membership and thereby kept Labour in power and Britain in Europe.
The enthusiasts in the Labour Party were champaign socialists like Roy Jenkins – more socialite than socialist according to Wilson – who fought with the Conservatives to remain, and they won convincingly – 67 per cent on a national turnout of 64 per cent. Jenkins subsequently became president of the European Commission and remained a staunch European all his life.
The British public became gradually more Eurosceptic from the 1980s onwards but only as and when the EC became more federalist. During Margaret Thatcher’s eleven-year premiership beginning in 1979 there were skirmishes here and there but in 1988 Thatcher made her famous speech at Bruges in Belgium in which she rejected further encroachment of Britain’s sovereignty, and although she was removed from office in 1990, the Conservative party remained incurably divided over Europe.
John Major who succeeded Margaret Thatcher in 1990 won the 1992 election during which Europe was not much of an issue. Major obtained special exemptions for Britain in the federalist Treaty on European Union 1992 but he had huge problems ratifying it in Parliament, primarily from the Eurosceptic wing of his party but also from the right-wing press, and although he succeeded in the end, the problem did not go away and was to return with a vengeance.
Tony Blair and New Labour were swept to power in 1997 and happily signed every treaty presented to them by the EU, including on enlargement that enabled most of the East European countries to join. New Labour was happy to allow freedom of movement of persons without taking advantage of the transition period available under EU law to phase in any large influx of migrant workers after enlargement in 2004.
This did not bode well for the future, but the 2010 general election produced a coalition government between the Conservatives under David Cameron and the Liberal Democrat’s under the pro-European Nick Clegg. However, in 2013 Cameron promised an in-out referendum rather like Harold Wilson had done in 1975 – basically to keep the Conservative party united and the United Kingdom Independence Party at bay.
The Conservatives won the 2015 general election with an overall majority and Cameron sought to renegotiate Britain’s terms of membership but with little success. By 2016 freedom of movement of persons and the loss of sovereignty became serious issues about which the UK was deeply divided.
It took a referendum in favour of leave, two general elections and a lot of hard bargaining to clear the way for Britain to leave the EU last January, and more hard bargaining before Britain finally disengaged at the stroke of midnight on Thursday December 31, 2020. As was said when Britain was negotiating to join the European Community in 1971 about Britain’s destiny in Europe, so it must be said of her destiny outside the EU: it is “condemned to succeed.”
Alper Ali Riza is a queen’s counsel in the UK and a part time judge