UK/EU at 40 – From negative to positive: 40 years of UK membership of the EU
In the first of a series of exclusive articles for Endeavour Public Affairs to mark the 40th anniversary of the UK becoming a member of the European Union, David Martin MEP writes about a transformation in attitudes to the idea of UK membership of the EU from those on the Left of UK politics. He now believes that UK membership of the EU is seen as a positive development by the majority of those on the Left in the UK – a complete turnaround from the negative to the positive
David Martin is a Labour Party MEP representing Scotland. He was first elected to the European Parliament in 1984 and is the longest serving UK Labour MEP.
This year we will ‘celebrate’ the fortieth anniversary of the UK membership of what used to be known as the Common Market, then the European Economic Community (EEC) and now the European Union. As a Labour politician this change in nomenclature mirrors the change in Labour’s attitude to this unique political entity.
Although the EEC was formed in1951, by the time the UK actually got round to joining, in 1973, the rules and much of the agenda was already set and many in the Labour Party and elsewhere on the Left where opposed to the terms, for this ‘rich man’s club’. The EEC was seen to be about promoting business, trade and wealth, and the hated and wasteful Common Agricultural Policy – there was little in it for the common man and woman who would end up paying for it.
Many in the Labour Party were opposed to membership in principle and the Party as a whole was officially opposed to the so-called ‘Tory terms’. In 1974 a year after the British accession the Labour party won the February and October elections with a commitment to ‘renegotiate’ the terms, and the following year the referendum of June 1975 was held, endorsing British membership of the European Community by a majority of two to one.
Attitude towards the European Community started to change in the Labour party after 1979 when Margaret Thatcher came to power in the UK – the same year that the French Socialist politician Jacques Delors was elected to the European Parliament. In 1985 Delors became President of the European Commission – the bête noir of Mrs Thatcher and a hero in the Labour movement. Delors introduced what became known the ‘Social Agenda’ and Ron Todd leader of the T&G (Transport and General Workers Union) spoke for many on the Left when he said: ‘Brussels is the only card game in town’.
Mrs Thatcher did a great deal toward popularising the EEC on the Left in the UK by calling it ’….Socialism by the back door’. Labour and the Trades Unions realised that they could further their agenda on health and safety, on guaranteeing paid holidays for British workers, on the shorter working week and the ‘social wage’ generally by positively engaging in Brussels and Strasbourg.
As a democratic politician I believe that the biggest issue over the last 40 years between the UK and the EU is what I call the ‘democratic deficit’ the fact that the EEC was not, at first, what we in the UK would understand as a representative democracy. I am proud to have played some role in addressing that democratic deficit as author of the European Parliament’s four ‘Martin Reports’ on the ‘Maastricht Treaty on European Union’ which advocated an extension of democracy, and the hugely influential Fabian pamphlet Bringing Common Sense to the Common Market – a Left Agenda for Europe’ (which had an introduction by Neil Kinnock, the then Leader of the Labour Party, who was bringing Labour closer to Europe). The Herald newspaper, in a Leader article, claimed these publications did much to winning Labour over to the cause of Europe and the benefits of a positive Social Agenda.
With the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1999 and the UK’s participation in the Social Chapter the UK’s relationship to the European Union truly had changed – the EU was now seen as a positive force in the UK.
In wider terms, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the inclusion of former Communist states, the inclusion of Eastern Europe and an increasing role in world politics, with special reference to peace and development through trade and aid, I now believe that UK membership of the EU is seen as a positive development by the majority of those on the Left in the UK – a complete turnaround from the negative to the positive!