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Impact of EU on British Politics

Is the UK still an awkward partner in relation to the EU? Is Euroscepticism becoming more prominent in UK politics?

  • The findings of the Eurobarometer survey published in September 2000 appear to give heart to those politicians from all the major UK political parties who advance a Eurosceptic position
  • In comparison with those of most of the other member states the UK population seems to perceive fewer benefits from membership and seems markedly more reluctant to extend EU competence further into areas thus far reserved for nation-states
  • Only 25% of UK respondents felt that EU membership was ‘a good thing’ and that the country has benefited from membership, in both cases the least positive of all the 15 member states at that time
  • Whilst this points to scepticism a fuller interrogation of the findings suggests a more complex position
  • The UK public is more split on the EU than most of its partners and a much larger proportion claims to view membership as neither good nor bad.
  • Of all the 15 states only UK had an ‘undecided’ majority
  • The UK had the smallest proportion in favour of the single currency and a clear majority of 61% against it
  • The average for all 15 countries was 33% against almost half that of Britain
  • Britain’s role in the EU is a major issue in contemporary politics, but one that political parties have found difficult to manage
  • The two main parties have changed their policies on Europe, suffered internal divisions and faced problems exploiting the issue for electoral advantage
  • The Conservatives and Labour parties seem to have swapped positions on Europe in the last 3 decades
    • Labour used to be hostile to European integration but is now broadly supportive
    • The Conservatives were generally pro-European but are now predominantly Eurosceptic
  • We can summarize the “awkward theory” historical arguments in 5 points:
    • UK insular position and geographical detachment;
    • its mainly naval power rather than a power focused on land, making it see itself as a global and mobile force that went beyond the regional land interconnectivity that Europe offered;
    • the fact that it has never been invaded or occupied;
    • the idea that it is institutionally different from Europe (unbroken democratic tradition; different system of law - British common law vs. European Union (EU) codified legal law -; the absence of a written constitution tradition and its “conception of democracy that favours strong, majority government without mediation”4 colliding with EU conceptions);
    • Both Labour and the Conservatives usually reached a certain consensus and strongly embodied national concerns while remaining divided over European issues.
  • Ever since the EEC (now EU) was founded in 1957 it has been a controversial issue in UK politics.
  • Back in 1957, Britain refused to join the club because it feared losing sovereignty and its world influence with the Commonwealth and the USA.
  • But by the early 1960s many in the UK had come to realise that EU membership was inevitable if the UK was to preserve a role for itself. After two failed attempts to join in 1961 and 1967, the Conservative government of Edward Heath took the UK into the EU in 1973.
  • This move was opposed by the Labour Party, who, when they returned to office in 1974, proposed a referendum on UK membership.
  • To avoid splitting the party, the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, took the unusual step of suspending collective responsibility. The British people supported staying in the EU by 67.2% to 32.8%.
  • As a free marketeer, when Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979 she was opposed to the further development of political union.
  • She feared the imposition of the types of policies she had fought to remove from British life: characterised as, "socialism via the back door".
  • In contrast she actively promoted the Single European Act, which she saw as crucial to complete the European free market that she supported.
  • However, she strongly opposed any attempts to get the UK to join the single currency and it was this issue that proved to be her downfall.
  • The issue of European integration was also divisive during John Major's Government (1990-1997).
  • Hampered by a small majority, he tried to ensure a balance between the pro-European wing of the Conservative Party and the increasingly vocal Eurosceptic wing.
  • By 1997, the Labour Party had shifted from its 1983 election manifesto promise to leave the EU to stating that the UK would display a more positive approach to the EU.
  • The UK has attempted to shake off its "awkward partner" tag by signing up to the Social Chapter and also by proposing developments in line with the present government's economic thinking.
  • But the Labour Government has been reluctant to publicly support Euro membership, preferring to stick to its "wait and see" policy based upon Gordon Brown's Five Economic Tests.
  • In the 2001 election, William Hague attempted to make opposition to the Euro a central plank of the Conservative Party's campaign.
  • According to the majority of commentators, the fact this campaign did not succeed shows that whilst Europe is an important issue it is not central to most voters.
  • This is also borne out by the relative lack of success of the anti-EU Referendum Party in the 1997 election.
  • However it is clear that, although often disguised, divisions exist in all the UK's main political parties between those pro-Europeans who want the UK to become more actively engaged with the EU and those Eurosceptics who want the UK to disengage, some even to the point of withdrawing from the EU completely.
  • These divisions are then compounded by differing ideological views of how the European project should develop. Should it be just an economic club or should the EU involve itself more fully in issues such as social and employment legislation?

How has membership of the EU affected Britain?

  • Since the Treaty of Accession in 1972, Britain accepted the Treaty of Rome and subsequently the SEA as well as the Maastricht and Amsterdam treaties, and so it can be argued that Britain has accepted a diminution in its legal sovereignty for the following 3 reasons:
    1. Laws enacted by the EU are directly applicable to the UK
    2. The British Parliament can’t pass laws in areas where Community Law already exists
    3. British courts must accept and enforce decisions made by the ECJ
  • Quote from Community law: “On the basis of the powers conferred on them the community institutions can act independently of the member states and are binding on the member states and on all their citizens”
  • David Walker Smith argued that parliamentary sovereignty was incompatible with the Treaty of Accession because it made Community law supreme, over parliamentary statute.
  • This surrender of sovereignty is not however all embracing.
  • The Community works according to the principle of the specific attribution of powers. This means that the scope of community competences are limited and vary according to the task at hand e.g.:
    1. There are some areas where there is no Community law
    2. There are areas where community law give general principles but where national governments have latitude as to how the laws are applied
  • However in a book entitled The ABC of Community Law, the author argues that members have pooled certain parts of their legislative powers and placed them in the hands of community institutions, but in return they have substantial rights of participation.
  • Enoch Powell emphasises that he feels that sovereignty cannot be pooled.
  • Enoch Powell went on to say that sovereignty was “the final and absolute authority within the political community.” Therefore sovereignty according to Powell was incompatible with membership because community law would take precedent over any parliamentary law.
  • The New Statesman argued that sovereignty had already been conceded to international business, and thus “to enter into collective social and economic arrangements is to retrieve sovereignty, not to surrender it”
  • Another argument held by Tony Benn is that EU has not taken sovereignty from Parliament because “in practice political sovereignty has long rested with the executive”
  • The Factortame case in 1990 demonstrates the supremacy of Community law. The ECJ ruled that the UK Merchant Shipping Act of 1988 was invalid, as it clashed with Community law.
  • In the words of The New Statesman in June 1990 “This is a historic judgement…it overturns the English ruling that no injunction can be granted against the Crown…the Europeans are rewriting [the British] constitution.
  • In the Factortame case it became clear that it was the duty of any UK court to overrule any law that was in conflict with European law.
  • The Economist at the time of the Factortame case argued “The Europeans are rewriting our constitution”
  • However Norton argues that the defining moment was the preceding SEA of 1986 where Britain accepted QMV, which meant that Britain law could be changed by directives even if Britain voted against the change i.e. what had traditionally been a national veto was in certain areas removed
  • Joining of the European Union led to a national referendum on membership in June 1975. A referendum would supposedly result in the matter being decided outside of Parliament and so it would “impinge on the power of Parliament (Alan Davis)
  • However the result was not binding, and thus Parliament maintained its sovereignty as the final decision was still theoretically theirs.
  • Some commentators, such as Norman Lamont, have pointed out that “membership of the EU has not been settled for all time; it is provisional, not unconditional.” Hence any changes that have occurred, as a result of membership of the EU can be undone by leaving the EU, and thus sovereignty is ultimately not surrendered.
  • However the body of commentators view this argument as a delusion. Due to the level of involvement and the obvious benefits of membership, it is very unlikely that Britain would remove themselves from the EU
  • The British constitution is uncodified and as such has evolved over the centuries from several sources: statute law; common law; conventions; important historical documents; and works of authority such as those by AV Dicey
  • Many commentators on British politics claim that it is the flexibility of the constitution that makes it strong
  • Britain join the European Community in 1973
  • Margaret Thatcher argued that Britain is a representative democracy and so introducing referendums would undermine the most fundamental of principles in British politics – it would “undermine the role of MPs” (Alan Davis) and by doing so would erode parliamentary sovereignty
  • In recent years the British government had had to amend pensions, social security and equal opportunities “ to bring British law into line with European law” (Alan Davis)
  • A number of commentators including Thatcher agree that powers have been ‘surrendered’ to the EU
  • Enoch Powell argued that sovereignty by its very nature can’t be pooled and therefore “entry into the community was a surrender of sovereignty because for the first time an external body could overrule parliament”
  • Philip Norton believes that there has been “a shift of power within the institutions of the UK” as a result of membership of the EU, which accompanies a shift of power to the institutions of the EU
  • The “EU is pushing the British into reforming their constitution” (Alan Davis)


These notes are aimed at people studying for Edexcel A Level Politics, module 5 and 6, route D, but will be suitable for other people too.

Originally submitted by joker13na on TSR Forums.

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