Great Britain and European Integration – The Reluctant Nation

Term Paper, 2006

12 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Great Britain and Europe until 1945

3. Britain’s way into the European Union
a. 1945 – 1961
b. 1961 – 1975
c. 1975 – 1990
d. 1990 – now

4. British vs. European

5. Conclusion

Appendix I: List of abbreviations

Appendix II: Bibliography

1. Introduction

“The Federated Republic of Europe – the United States of Europe – that is what must be. National autonomy no longer suffices. Economic evolution demands the abolition of national frontiers. If Europe is to remain split into national groups, then Imperialism will recommence its work. Only a Federated Republic of Europe can give peace to the world.” –Leon Trotsky, 1917[1]

This slightly exaggerated statement by the Bolshevik revolutionary, though referring to a soviet-republican idea of Europe, marks the borderlines of British ambivalence towards European integration after 1945: the fear of a supranational federation and the need for a peaceful, stable and free-trading Europe.

“I am British. I amnotEuropean” – These are the words of a shopkeeper who among a small group of other “metric martyrs” in 2001 refused to attach to the metric system that had been imported to Great Britain.[2]This man was not a philosopher, a historian and certainly not a politician, and his fundamental belief did not refer to the Union, the Empire or the Continent, but to himself as an individual.

Is Great Britain’s reluctance to join the European Union – or rather: to consider oneself European – based entirely on metaphysical convictions, on emotions and ancient sentiments such as “the Empire”? Or are there reasonable arguments for British refusal of European alliance – economical reasons, considerations of power or even force?

Do the British consider themselves part of an “Anglo-American” axis or merely a bridge between Old Europe and the New World?

The following text gives an overview of the process of European integration from a British perspective. It will further discuss the difficulties in defining the difference between “British” and “European” as an attempt to answer the question whether the United Kingdom can be European while remaining British at all.

2. Great Britain and Europe until 1945

The Image of an Empire where “the sun never set” is commonly known to be the self- understanding of the British in the 19th and early 20th century. Indeed, after more than 300 years of expansion, beginning with Britain’s rise as a major naval power since the defeat of the Spanish armada in 1588 [3],colonial affairs in the New World or India, or the declaration of Commonwealth in 1649, the United Kingdom of Great Britain was the lagerst empire mankind has seen so far[4], stretching from the west-American pacific coast in Canada to New Zealand, from the Polar Circle to the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa. With the Sterling as a most respected currency and a huge fleet, Britain's magnitude in trade and naval power equalled its vastness in territory. English scientists where on the forefront of technical development and made Britain world’s model-state[5]for industrial development in the 19th century.

In the first decades of the 20th century, being already in “relative decline” with the United States outranking Britain as world’s biggest economy, the Empire could manifest its standing as an exceptional European power. It was not defeated in World War I and, unlike France, successfully resisted German invasion. Between the two World Wars Britain saw the beginning of its “absolute decline” with two both political and economical “points of no return” marking the shrinking of the Empires power: First the separation of Ireland in 1921 (followed by Egyptian independence in 1922); second, the breakdown of the gold standard – the direct line between gold and the Pound Sterling – in 1931.[6]

In some respect the Second World War can be seen as a turning point. Generally, the balance of European powers differed from what it had been before the war. But also concerning the relationship between Great Britain an the United States, in an economical and military perspective, things were shifted in favour of the US: ”By 1948 Britain’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was half America’s, whereas it had been 90 per cent a decade before; and the US navy outnumbered the Royal Navy in all classes of vessel by 1945, whereas it only outnumbered them in submarines six years earlier [...]”[7].

With Germany being invaded and most European countries seeking a long-term solution to prevent another great war on their soil, and with the USSR emerging as a superpower in the upcoming Cold War, Europe faced a completely different political situation. Britain had to define its role within the contexts of anti-communism, European cooperation and Anglo- American alliance.

3. Britain’s way into the European Union

a. 1945 – 1961

First British plans about the redrawing of the European map after the war saw no cooperation among equal powers. Ernest Bevin, Foreign Secretary in the Labour Government from 1945- 51, pursued a “third power”-policy, which meant a Britain “independent of, and equal to, America”[8]within a wider system of a western anti-communist alliance. This third power was also to act as a bridge between the Continent and America.

In 1950, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman initiated the economic cooperation on coal and steel, the ECSC (“Schuman-plan”), originally between France and Germany, but with Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg joining them. Despite the fact that Britain already had a vital coal and steel industry, further cooperation was not considered a tactical advantage because of multiple reasons:[9]

- Britain did not have the same straight interest in controlling Germany. France, in opposition, had an “obsessive fear”[10]of its eastern neighbour country and the will to control it, which was impossible by military force only;
- Britain still did half of its trade with the Empire-Commonwealth;
- a lasting cooperation between France and Germany, seemed unlikely. Britain considered itself the only possible “honest broker”[11]between the two countries, which was seen as a guarantee for political importance;
- the idea of loosing some national sovereignty (by tying the industry together) in order to achieve national aims seemed – and to many Britains still seems – paradox;[12]
- the formerly mentioned Idea of a “third bloc”.

Nevertheless, the US welcomed the idea of “the Six” countries cooperation, because they were interested in a stable Europe as a reliable partner against the communist threat. Further plans to build a united European army among the Six, the European Defence Community (EDC) failed, but the economic cooperation proved successful. At the same time, Great Britain faced serious political problems: Unable to solve the Suez crisis in 1956, the country lost its reputation as a reliable “manager” in international affairs.[13]The fear of loosing the status as a special partner to the US grew, and the EEC seemed to emerge as the new reference point in Europe.[14]

Britain, with more and more colonies becoming independent and its economic performance increasing very slow, realized that not joining the EEC might be a loss on the long-term. Indeed, the British way of questioning the European issue has mostly not been whether one wished to take part in Europe, but whether one could afford not to.[15]Thus, the United Kingdom under Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan applied for membership of the EEC in 1961.


[1] Leon Trotsky (1879–1940) in a conversation on October 30, 1917, at Smolny, Petrograd; taken from The Columbia Universitiy Press at (September 30, 2006, 8:45 pm) 2GAMBLE, Andrew: Between Europe and America. The Future of British Politics. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2003, p. 108

[3] the first war “which shaped a sense of national community and identity”; Gamble, p. 109

[4] Gamble, p. 17

[5] Gamble, p. 17

[6] Gamble, p. 5+26

[7] YOUNG , John W.: Britain and the world in the twentieth century. London: Arnold 1997, p. 141

[8] YOUNG, John W.: Britain and European Unity, 1945-1992. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 1993, p. 15

[9] Young 1997, p. 186f

[10] Young 1997, p. 186f

[11] Young 1993, p. 29

[12] In 1952, conservative Prime Minister Anthony Eden gave a reason for his scepticism about British participation in a federal Europe: “[...]this is something which we know in our bones we cannot do” (Young 1993, p. 37). Indeed Britain still fears the idea of a Europen “superstate”

[13] Great Britain failed to keep up its influence in Egypt; the loss of control over the Suez Channel, the major connection between Europe, the Middle East and Southasia, meant a general setback for western interest in the Middle East

[14] Young 1993, p. 71

[15] Young 1997, p. 218

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Great Britain and European Integration – The Reluctant Nation
University of Sheffield
Britishness, Englishness, Otherness
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ISBN (Book)
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Great, Britain, European, Integration, Reluctant, Nation, Britishness, Englishness, Otherness
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Ludwig Andert (Author), 2006, Great Britain and European Integration – The Reluctant Nation, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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