Britain's attitude to the EU is truly bizarre. Its rather like someone who for years tries to join an exclusive club, but continually gets black balled. Eventually, having been admitted to membership, their first action is to threaten to leave! Either you give us a reduction on our membership fees they say, or we are off. Having surprisingly been granted that concession, they then similarly demand to be treated differently to everyone else, by not having to comply with the rules observed by other members, on the hours to keep and so on. Once again they get concessions, and then not satisfied with any of this, they threaten that unless the club agrees to be run according to their particular needs and interests, they will be off to sulk in a corner. In any normal club, they would have been shown the door long ago.
Britain first applied to join the Common Market as it was then, back in 1963. The move was part of a concentration and centralisation of capital occurring as part of the post-war global, long wave boom. At that time, Britain's application was rejected by France. The reason for the rejection is easy to understand. Britain has always been an obstacle to a unified Europe, even going back to the time of the Holy Roman Empire. When Napoleon sought to unify Europe, it was Britain that stood in the way, unifying with whatever reactionary forces it could muster to achieve its ends. A largely bourgeois Britain, ganged up with feudal Russia to prevent a bourgeois revolution spreading across the Continent. The reason was quite clear that Britain put its own self-interest above everything else.
The same was true in the later European Wars, where Britain's role was almost entirely designed to prevent European integration, and to promote the primacy of Great Britain. In the 20th century, it was assisted in that task by the USA, which had its own reasons for wanting to see a weak Europe. Britain's involvement in WWI and WWII had nothing to do with fighting fascism, or authoritarianism, nor even with the old colonialist concern for dividing up the world markets. By the time, even WWI took place, colonialism was effectively dead, as industrial capitalism had replaced merchant and money-capital as the dominant force. What Britain really wanted was to prevent the Kaiser from uniting the Continent, and thereby weakening the global economic power of Britain.
That was even clearer in WWII. Hitler, via Lord Halifax had offered to make a deal with Britain that if they gave him a free hand in Europe, he would leave Britain free to exploit the Empire – this is exactly the opposite of what Trotsky expected would be the case, because Trotsky was still operating under the misconceptions that Lenin had outlined in “Imperialism”. Of course, Britain rejected that offer, because Britain knew that a united Europe would soon eclipse Britain as an industrial power, and its colonies would then have been useless to it. In fact, such a united Europe would probably also even have soon eclipsed the USA.
DeGaulle understood this quite clearly in rejecting Britain's application for membership. He understood that Britain had always obstructed European integration for its own interests. Only when Britain clearly saw its interests as identical to those of a united Europe would that cease, and that became increasingly difficult, as the US, acted to promote its own interests via the intermediary of Britain.
When Britain applied for membership of the EEC in 1967, DeGaulle again opposed membership declaring that Britain had a “deep seated hostility” towards European construction. It was only after DeGaulle was replaced by Pompidou that Britain's application was eventually accepted. Britain joined the EEC on 1st January 1973. But, just over a year later, moves were made to leave, as the incoming Wilson government was led to hold a referendum on continued membership.
The Eurosceptics claim that when British people voted in this referendum, they only voted to remain a part of the EEC, as a Common Market, and not the political structure that is the EU. As with most of what the Eurosceptics say this is a lie. Besides the fact that it is dishonest to claim that you can belong to a “single market” without also agreeing to belong to the political structures required to enforce the conditions and regulations required for a level playing field within that market, the more substantive fact is that the decision to establish the political structure that is the EU had already been taken prior to that referendum.
On 21st October 1972, nearly three years prior to the EU referendum on 6th. June 1975, Britain had committed itself, along with other members, to establishing the EU, by 1980. The 1975 referendum took place on the clear understanding that the EEC was on a trajectory to the establishment of a single Europe, not just a single market. The tragedy really is that in the 1970's the left social democrats, in Britain, organised around the Communist Party, and the Tribune Group, were little different than the social democrats in Germany. Many aspects of the Alternative Economic Strategy, on introducing Works Councils, Worker Directors, Industrial Planning and so on were already in place in Germany, and assisting in its more rapid industrial development. These were not in any sense socialist policies, but they were the kind of social democratic strategies that were more in the interests of a developed industrial economy, and social democratic state, than were the conservative policies that were followed by Thatcher and her heirs in the 30 years that followed.
What stood in the way of the left social democrats in Britain, and of the AES was that at its heart sat not the kind of commitment to building the EU, which was central to German social democracy, but the old Little Englander, nationalism that has characterised British policy for centuries. It set the interests of British capital against the interests of European workers and capital. In so doing, it created a split within the ranks of British social democracy. Big industrial capital, allied itself with Wilson, and the social-democratic elements of the Tory Party, whilst the reactionary elements of small capital, allied itself with the conservative forces of Enoch Powell, and the National Front, and the supporters of the AES thereby largely found themselves in that same reactionary camp.
We should attempt to avoid those errors, as Britain approaches a new EU referendum. There is no reason for socialists, or social-democrats to pretend that the EU is perfect or not in need of reform. It isn't. But, nor is it rational to start from a position whereby reform is made identical with renegotiation, and renegotiation is made identical with a demand for narrow national interest. It is quite logical to belong to a club, and to put forward proposals for it to work better on behalf of all, rather than seeing it as only possible to put forward proposals for reform that only benefit the proposer. On that basis, there is no rational grounds for putting proposals for reform in the shape of an ultimatum of agree, or else we're leaving!
The EU does need reform, for social-democrats and for socialists, those reforms involve not concessions to national interests that threaten to break apart the present arrangements, but a demand for greater centralisation of the state, combined with a thoroughgoing democratisation of all the political institutions. All of the irrationalities of the present arrangements that the nationalists pick on can be dealt with by creating a single state, with common laws and regulations across its remit, with common taxes, benefits and so on.
To avoid the mistakes of the past, we need a Socialist Campaign for Europe, so that we can raise the kinds of demands that workers require to create a European state that at least creates the conditions under which we can pursue our own interests. We should begin to develop such a campaign that can be pursued vigorously by ourselves, distinct from any pro-European campaign pursued by our class enemies.