What if… Britain had never joined the European Economic Community, later the EU? We would have joined the EEA instead and our present troubles would have resolved themselves far soonerby George Yarrow / May 30, 2019 / Leave a comment
In January 1963 French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed Harold Macmillan’s (unenthusiastic) application to join the European Economic Community: the UK would be too disruptive. In the same month the Leader of the Labour Party, Hugh Gaitskell, was struck down by a very rare, fatal case of Lupus, aged 56. The effect of the first event was to delay UK accession to the EEC by about eight years: the second event has arguably had an even more profound effect on subsequent history.
In continued good health, Gaitskell could have put UK-EEC relations on a path that would have led Britain to address the trade-offs between national sovereignty and economic integration much earlier and in a much cooler political climate than now, so facilitating their expeditious resolution. To understand where Britain’s relationship with Europe ended up this counterfactual world deserves some exploration.
Gaitskell opposed MacMillan’s EEC application, to the delight of most of his party. He was attracted by the trade liberalisation aspects of the Common Market, but fiercely opposed both to the common agricultural policy and customs union (“one of the most devastating pieces of protectionism ever invented”) and to the supra-nationalism of the Schuman/Monnet project (“the end of a thousand years of history”).
Given his experience and standing, Gaitskell would likely have won the 1964 general election much more comfortably than his successor, Harold Wilson. In prospect then would have been a two-term Labour government running to around 1973-4. There would likely have been no second (instantly blocked and shelved) application to join the EEC in 1967, in distressed economic conditions that were soon over. Consequently, in the “good health” counterfactual, that blocked application would not have been shelf-ready for re-opening later, from 1969 on, once de Gaulle had resigned.
The 1973/4 end date of this period is important. In the 1950s and 1960s France and Germany achieved significantly higher economic growth rates than Britain. The continentals appeared to have discovered something new and powerful in economic policy and the obvious, observable correlate of the later years of the trente glorieuses and the Wirtschaftwunder was the common market. However, the golden age of European growth came to an abrupt end in the aftermath of the 1973 global oil price shock.
Thereafter the cross-channel comparisons changed sharply: the later 1970s and early 1980s were labelled years of “euro-pessimism” and “euro-gloom.” Euro-enthusiastic Edward Heath had struggled to…