One of the most frequently repeated lies about Europe is to say that, when we joined the EU, ‘we were told we were only joining a free-trade area’ and ‘no-one told us that it was more than that’.
The eurosceptic strategy here is to try to undermine the national debate that took place in the 1960s and 1970s — a debate which ended with a ‘Yes’ vote for UK membership — by pretending that the whole country was being hoodwinked at the time and people somehow didn’t understand what they were voting for.
This has always seemed suspicious to me. After all, Britain actually left a free-trade area, EFTA, to join the EEC. So free trade can hardly have been the only motivation.
So I decided to check it out. First, I went back and looked at the government white papers and parliamentary debates of the time. Here is an extract from a speech by Prime Minister Harold Wilson, speaking in 1967, presenting the reasons for British membership of the EEC:
Whatever the economic arguments, the House will realise that, as I have repeatedly made clear, the Government’s purpose derives above all from our recognition that Europe is now faced with the opportunity of a great move forward in political unity and that we can — and indeed must — play our full part in it.
And, in the run-up to the British referendum, the government’s own published documents spell this out even more clearly. The White Paper of 1971 spoke of “an ever closer union among European peoples”, an objective “to which this country can wholeheartedly subscribe”. It said that “what is proposed is a sharing and enlargement of individual national sovereignties in the general interest”; “Europe united would have the means […] which Europe divided has lost”.
Most tellingly, the government of the day spelled out clearly that “if the political implications of joining Europe are at present clearest in the economic field, it is because the Community is primarily concerned with economic policy. But it is inevitable that the scope should broaden as member countries’ interests become harmonised […] What is proposed is a sharing and an enlargement of individual national sovereignties in the general interest”.
Of course, eurosceptics might try claiming, as one did in a debate with me recently, that no one reads government publications or follows Commons debates, and there was a ‘conspiracy of silence’ in the media. Really? Let’s look at what the press said at the time of the 1975 referendum.
The Daily Mail (leader, 4 June 1975) referred explicitly to the goal of “political union”, saying that this was no “dark secret”. It asked whether the anti-Europeans hadn’t been listening “to the visionary words of European leaders for the past twenty-five years?”:
Didn’t they hear Churchill say, “If Europe is to be a living force, Britain will have to play her full part as a member of the European family”? He wasn’t just talking about the price of kangaroo meat.
The Mail emphasised that political union would come only gradually, for our children, but “we shall have left them the joiner’s tools and a political roof over their heads”. A ‘yes’ vote was essential, it said, for “the prospect of the power to direct and influence our own future — and the world’s future”.
For good measure, the Mail even added that it “never wavered in its opposition to holding a referendum”:
We do not waver now. The referendum has no place in a Parliamentary democracy like ours.
The Sun (leader, 4 June 1975) warned against pulling out of “the circle of unity”, calling on people to vote not just for increasing trade, but “YES — FOR A FUTURE TOGETHER”. It added “We cannot afford to be half-hearted about Europe”. In another piece, it declared: “We are all Europeans now”!
The Daily Telegraph opined that defence, foreign affairs and economics must all be harnessed to the task of strengthening Europe”. It, too, said that a referendum “was wrong”, but that it at least enabled “the British people to consciously re-dedicate to European integration […] to add their impetus and inspiration to the great work”.
The eurosceptic allegation is not only a complete fabrication, but an insult to the intelligence of our parents and grandparents who were very far from being hoodwinked. Yet, by dint of repeating it again and again, they have managed to turn it almost into received wisdom.