On this day 51 years ago 6 continental countries signed the Treaty establishing the European Economic Community in Rome.
This document has bedevilled UK politics ever since. It was the subject of a referendum in 1975, when a Labour government asked the UK people if they wished to remain within the framework of this Treaty. The government led by Harold Wilson recommended a â€œYesâ€ vote, claiming throughout the debate that it was just about a common market, which would create and guarantee more jobs for the UK. We were told that our sovereignty was not at risk, that our Parliament could continue to make the main decisions for our country.
This very one sided presentation of the case began the long tension between public and politicians on the subject of Europe. The political classes gambled correctly by holding a referendum asking for endorsement of the status quo â€“ the fact we were already in the EEC â€“ and assuming most people would not bother to read the Treaty of Rome. Any cursory reading of that Treaty showed it was not just about a common market as UK politicians liked to state.
You only had to read the Preamble to the long Treaty of Rome to see it was about something much grander than just a common market. It stated:
â€œDetermined to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europeâ€¦.
Anxious to strengthen the unity of their economies and to ensure their harmonious development by reducing the differences existing between the various regionsâ€¦.
Intending to confirm the solidarity which binds Europeâ€¦â€
There were some of the overarching themes that were to be given harder form in subsequent Treaties. They always had in mind a Europe of the regions, with regional policy to try to reduce the differences between them. They always had in mind solidarity to the greater good of the greater Community, and always intended to achieve a high level of policy and legislative control over the EEC economies.
The second article pledged the EEC to â€œan accelerated raising of the standard of living and closer relations between the states belonging to it.â€ The crucial Article 3 committed the members to the elimination of trade barriers, the establishment of a common customs tariff and external trade policy, freedom of movement for persons, services and capital, a common agricultural policy, a common transport policy, a common competition policy, â€œthe approximation of the laws of the member states to the extent required for the proper functioning of the common marketâ€, a social fund, and the association of overseas territories. In addition it promised a system to remedy disequilibria in member statesâ€™ balance of payments.
Article 235 was a catch all which allowed member states to vote to do anything else under the framework of the EEC if they wished by unanimity to do so. So was born the idea of an institution which would grow its own powers as time passed.
In 1975 I read this document prior to deciding how to vote in the referendum. The gap between what the Treaty envisaged and what the government was telling us about the intent was so huge I felt I had to vote â€œNoâ€. The irony of the Treaty was that some of its most detailed provisions were not going to be enforced. I remember writing to the Commission to complain that the UK was running a very large balance of payments deficit with the rest of the EEC, and should surely benefit from the Treaty provisions that allowed or required action to bring the balance of payments into better balance. I was told in a delphic reply that not all the Treaty provisions could be enforced when it came to the UKâ€™s balance of payments deficit!
One of the reasons the UK is still so unhappy with its relationship with the EU is that many who voted â€œYesâ€ in 1975 did so on the advice of politicians without reading the Treaty. They feel they were misled. Many others are too young to have had the chance of a vote, and understand that the EU is now much changed from the EEC that people voted on in 1975.If the government wants to improve our feelings about the EU it should give us a vote now, so all these issues can be properly aired and the public given a choice.