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Britain and Europe still writhing after all these years


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Britain and Europe still writhing after all these years

When Britain applied to join the original six founding members of the European Economic Community (EEC) — join the Common Market, that is — French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed it, alone, twice. He said Britain was incompatible with Europe.

It was 1973 when Prime Minister Edward Heath finally dragged Britons, some kicking and screaming, into the continental community. A protester threw a pot of ink at him. He said: “We’ll find a great cross-fertilisation of knowledge and information, not only in business but in every other sphere.”

Come 1979, that was taken with a pinch of salt.

It seemed integration wasn’t Britain’s cup of tea and it wouldn’t join the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, aimed at monetary stability.

John Major, Prime Minister in 1990, swung Britain on board the ERM in an unfavourable position. The market defeated Conservative government attempts to keep the pound above its agreed lower limit.

In the aftermath, some Britons called it the “Eternal Recession Mechanism”.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont in September 1992 announced: “The government has concluded that Britain’s best interests are served by suspending our membership of the exchange rate mechanism.”

Wind back to around ten years earlier, for a look at the second-biggest bone to pick, the Common Agricultural Policy, when Maggie Thatcher was in power.

Haggling over Britain’s EEC budget contribution, she was paraphrased as saying “I want my money back”.

It chafed with other countries, and French President François Mitterand compared her to Caligula, but the Iron Lady clinched a special UK rebate in 1984.

We still hear echoes of her 1988 Bruges speech: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”

Well, the disdain delighted some, but not all her fellow Tories shared it.

Major took over and the Maastricht Treaty on further integration was delivered.

After him came Labour under Prime Minister Tony Blair — much friendlier to Europe but Britain still kept the pound when the euro was introduced.

The 2008 global financial crisis ensured Britain wouldn’t join it the single currency.

But even today, several governments later, Blair — yesterday’s Europhile — has said there is “a disjunction between the governing vision of Europe and its operating reality”, and calling for reform, like Tory Premier David Cameron.

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