Why was the accession of the UK to the EEC in 1972 so politically controversial?

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Britain in Europe

Why was the accession of the UK to the EEC in 1972 so politically controversial?

The issue of Britain’s involvement in Europe has been the subject of much debate since its inauguration in the early ‘70’s.  The topic divides member states, political parties and defines many International Relations.  This essay will present the main areas of contention and acrimony that EU membership brings, but to understand how these have come about, we must first look to what bought Britain into Europe in the first place.

In 1945, once the Second World War had come to an end, the task of re-building Europe politically and economically was at hand.  In 1952 France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg formed the European Coal and Steel Community (ESEC).  The UK was invited to be part of this European Market, but rejected the opportunity.  The key contributing factor to this was Britain’s delusion of grandeur.  The feeling amongst the British public and politicians was that they were one of the “big three” superpowers alongside the Soviet Union and the USA, having won the war between them.  The British of the mid 20th Century did not think of themselves as Europeans culturally, even if they did geographically (Heywood, 2008, p307).  

        On 1st January 1958 the ECSC agreement was replaced by the European Economic Community (EEC) after the signing of the treaty of Rome in 1957.  This treaty would see a greater degree of co-operation and integration between member states (Bentley, 2006, p225).   In Britain, this was seen as a move to create a supranational organisation and the concern was that membership would see Britain lose its sovereignty over economic and defence policies amongst others (ibid, p226).

        Britain had an economic boom in the late 50’s and early 60’s but the EEC members were experiencing far greater growth of their own.  Britain had also suffered a humiliating defeat during the Suez crisis, which highlighted Britain’s fall from grace as a single world power (Watts, 2005, p23).  Furthermore, US president Kennedy had allegedly informed British Prime Minister Harold McMillan in private that should the USA be forced to choose between trading with the British led European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the EEC, they would side with the latter (ibid, p24)

Join now!

Britain applied to join the EEC in 1961 and in 1967, but both attempts were vetoed by French President Charles De Gaulle.  Britain applied for a third time in 1971 (once De Gaulle had stepped down) and was made a formal member on 1st January 1973 (Bentley, 2006, p225).

In 1973 the opposition Labour Party contained many eurosceptic MP’s.  After Britain was rejected by the EEC in 1967 the Labour Party (who were in power at the time) adopted a policy of opposition to Europe and pledged to introduce ‘fundamental renegotiation of terms of entry’ during the election campaign of February ...

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