Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

CLARION COMMENT:

In Editorial on May 3, 2016 at 4:21 pm

EDITORIAL: “When the Common Market comes to Stanton Drew”

A lot of water has flowed under many bridges since the Wurzels recorded their hit song “When the Common Market comes to Stanton Drew.” But over the years Britain has continued to have what might be called a problematic relationship with the rest of Europe.

For starters, initially we didn’t seem to know whether we wanted to be in or out. Early negotiations to join the EEC (as it was then known) were vetoed by French President, Charles De Gaulle. When we were finally given the go-ahead to apply for membership there were decidedly mixed feelings over whether we should join up or opt out – resulting in a referendum in the UK. At that point we did have alternatives. There was the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), a rather looser collection of European countries, which at the time included Britain. Another option favoured by some politicians was to attempt to bolster trade with Commonwealth countries, which had at one time been significant but was by then shrinking significantly.

Harold Wilson allowed Labour colleagues a free rein on whether to back membership or to turn our backs on the EEC. The result of the referendum was clear cut. A majority of those taking part voted for UK membership of the European Economic Community (which later morphed into the European Union).

One important factor that made such membership different from other alliances or treaties that had bound us before was the fact that the EEC/EU wasn’t merely a trading bloc. It had aspirations towards nationhood, with its own parliament and civil service, which was responsible for a far wider remit than just trade. Important, too, was the European Court of Justice, and the European Central Bank. A common currency followed – the Euro. It even has its own flag. It seems bizarre that any nation state should choose to affiliate to a body such as the EU and at the same time follow a “pick and mix” attitude towards its rules and conditions.

But meanwhile a further development that was to have a profound impact on the European Union was the collapse of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe. Countries behind the “iron curtain” were bound together by their own trading partnership, the Warsaw Pact. Now this had collapsed, resulting in a flood of new applications for membership of the EU from the east, many with very different aspirations and expectations. These had to be accommodated though not always without a degree of friction.

The latest test for the European Union has been the refugee crisis. With hundreds of thousands seeking entry to Europe annually, the notion of a Europe without borders (contained in the Schengen Agreement) has effectively broken down. European partners are breaking ranks and reverting to acts based on their perceived “national interests”. Razor wire fences and border posts are replacing the concept of free passage.

Maybe it’s inevitable that Cameron should exploit these troubled times to seek a “re-negotiation” of the terms of our membership of the European Union. After all, he’s always been a politician with an eye to the main change. His claim to have won a “better deal for Britain” has been hotly disputed. The question we would ask is “whose Britain?” That of UK business interests maybe, but it has done nothing to ease the lot of ordinary people in Britain. Cameron’s deal further threatens human rights whilst doing its best to aid big business interests. Meanwhile publicity over his shabby deal has succeeded in shoving the likes of UKIP back into the spotlight.

REFERENDUM:

Which brings us to June’s referendum. Once again we’ll be voting either to stay in or to get out. And a new word has been coined for it – “brexit”. Already the debate on it has divided the Tories, with leading figures such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Ian Duncan Smith lining up with the “out” campaign.

There are of course also divisions on the left, though these have been less high profile and certainly less vocal. And as far as the Labour Party leadership is concerned, its views have been so low profile as to be practically inaudible. Maybe it’s time for Labour to speak out on Europe.

There remains a powerful argument for remaining part of the EU and taking part collectively in its debates and decision-making. That’s the way to influence its agenda. The EU certainly has its problems and imperfections, but the Cameron approach will do nothing to overcome these.

No doubt we’ll be able to return to the debate in our next issue – either in our print edition or on line.

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