4th January 2021
There is a view held by many in the United Kingdom that the European Union – and its predecessors – was not always a ‘supranational’ organisation.
That it was not always an entity which routinely transcended national boundaries.
The view is that it was once a mere innocent trading association and an international organisation – and that it was only after the United Kingdom joined in 1973 that it corrupted into a supranational organisation, which took rule-making and decision-making out of the hands of member states.
Some will know this is not true and will point, say, to the Treaty of Rome of 1957, which established the European Economic Community, with its express determination that the treaty would lay the “foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”.
Others will point to the 1960s caselaw of the European Court of Justice, such as the Costa v ENEL judgment of 1964 that made it as plain as a pikestaff (the lawyers’ equivalent of ‘absolutely clear’) that the domestic law of a member state was subordinate to the provisions of both the Treaty of Rome and the legal instruments made thereunder.
The United Kingdom thereby knew exactly what it was joining in 1973, and only a fool or knave could (and did) pretend otherwise.
Yet the supranational essence of what the United Kingdom joined in 1973 was older than the Costa case of 1964, and was even older than the Treaty of Rome of 1957.
Here it is important that the United Kingdom did not just join the European Economic Community in 1973 but also another community, the deceptively unglamorous-sounding, and older, European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) of 1952.
For some, the historical fact that the United Kingdom joined more than one community in 1973 is nothing more than an answer to a quiz question, or the reason why the European Communities Act 1973 employs the plural form of community.
But it was a lot more significant than that.
To understand why, we have to go back to the years after the second world war and the problem of what should be done about Germany – in particular, the industrial areas of Rhineland and Saarland.
But by the late 1940s neither of these strident approaches seemed sustainable, especially in view of the need to not de-stabilise (what was then) West Germany, and so another approach was needed.
In 1950, a suggestion was made that there be a ‘high authority’ be put in place, overseeing French and German coal and steel production.
And by 1951 – with the Treaty of Paris – this idea had developed into an array of supervisory institutions – not only a high authority, but also an assembly, a council of ministers and – significantly – a dedicated court, with these further institutions balancing the executive power of the high authority.
The high authority furthermore had the power to issue decisions and recommendations binding the signatories – France, West Germany, Italy and the three Benelux countries (who were already heading towards economic unity).
So we have in 1952 the establishment of the ECSC – with a supranational group of institutions in place and with the power to make law and adjudicate disputes, ensuring adherence to shared treaty obligations.
And the key element of this arrangement was not that it was aspirational – notwithstanding the heady language of integration that accompanied it – but that it was a solidly, deeply practical solution to a problem – of what should be done in respect of the post-war industrial relationship of France and Germany.
Just as, say the Good Friday Agreement used an imaginative cross-border approach to a thorny cross-border problem, so did the Treaty of Paris.
What the Spaak Report of 1956 and the Treaty of Rome of 1957 then did was to employ this supranational approach (with shared institutions and shared law-making) on wider economic questions, as it was seen as an approach that would work.
So when the United Kingdom joined the communities in 1973, the fact that it was joining a practical supranational enterprise had been – well – as plain as a pikestaff for over twenty years.
What makes this ‘pre-history’ significant is that it is often the view of critics of the European Union that its supranational nature is somehow airy-fairy – that it is impractical and unrealistic.
And this is seen as a contrast to rugged Anglo-Saxon empiricism and practical common sense.
The reality is that the European Union, as with its predecessor organisations the European Economic Community and ECSC, regards its supranational nature as eminently practical, as was as embodying certain ideals of European unity.
That it works.
Supranationalism is thereby an approach which has worked since 1952 – and not just somehow inflicted by surprise on the united Kingdom after 1973.
It is not as if the debate is between an unrealistic pro-European Union camp and a realistic band of critics.
The problem that the United Kingdom had for a long time when a member of the European Union is that it rarely wanted to work within a supranational organisation.
Supranationalism was, it seemed, for other people.
The United Kingdom regarded supranationalism as a bug of the European Union, and not as a feature.
So the United Kingdom sought – and obtained – opt-out after opt-out, until 2015-16 when it sought a ‘re-negotiation’ only to find the European Union could and would shift no further.
The supranationalism of the European Union is seventy years old.
The United Kingdom in its modern form as a collection of four nation states has only existed since 1922 – and so is a mere thirty years older than the first of the European communities.
As this blog has previously averred, political unions come and go – and no political union can be seen as eternal.
And given that the supranationalism of the European Union is regarded as practical as well as an ideal, there is no inherent reason why the European Union will not last longer than the United Kingdom as a union of nation states.
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