The UK in the EU

As the debate on the UK’s membership of the EU intensifies, more and more people are stepping forward and making the case in favour of EU membership. See what they say


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The Wider Benefits of UK Membership of the EU


The Senior European Experts paper ‘The Economic Benefits to the UK of EU Membership’ focused on how the United Kingdom gains from being part of the world’s largest single market – an economic zone larger than that of the USA and Japan combined with a total GDP of around £11 trillion.    

It is impossible to separate completely the economic and political benefits of UK membership but this paper considers the wider political and strategic benefits of EU membership, benefits which cannot be as easily quantified but although they may be less tangible are of equal, or perhaps even greater, importance.


It is a myth that British politicians played down the political aspects of British membership when we joined, and suggested that we were simply joining a “common market”.  On the day it was announced that the UK was going to apply for membership in 1961, Harold Macmillan (the then Prime Minister) told Parliament that membership of the Communities,   

            “is a political as well as an economic issue”.

In his pamphlet "Britain, the Commonwealth and Europe", Macmillan was even clearer:

“We in Britain are Europeans…We have to consider the state of the world as it is today and will be tomorrow and not in outdated terms of a vanished past.  There remain only two national units which can claim to be world powers in their own right, namely the United States and Soviet Russia…    It is true of course that political unity is the central aim of those European countries and we would naturally accept that ultimate goal”.[1]

The point was reinforced during the 1971/72 negotiations by the then Foreign Secretary, Sir Alec Douglas-Home in a speech to the House of Commons:

“On two counts I am in full agreement with the most vocal opponent of our entry into Europe. The first is that our application is a step of the utmost political significance, and the second is that there is a danger of its political importance being overlooked in the public debate on the economic issues”.

He continued:

“It seems to me that the only way to preserve our independence for the future is to join a larger grouping.  It may seem paradoxical but I believe it to be true”.[2]

The emphasis on the political aspects of membership stemmed partly from a concern about declining British influence but also from the recognition by the British government that many of the problems faced by nation states cross international borders – pollution, crime, people smuggling and terrorism are all examples – so countries cannot simply stand behind their own borders to protect their national interests.  International co-operation is essential to the defence of national interest.  The EEC was becoming then – as the EU is now - the pre-eminent body in Europe for the advancement of such co-operation as well as being the organisation to which all the UK’s largest European trading (and defence) partners belong.

Global Influence

The UK’s ability to act globally on its own has waned since 1945 but our interests have not ceased to be global.  Of course the UK’s relationship with the rest of the world has radically changed since then; the Empire has gone, and with it many of the trappings of imperial power, such as very large armed forces.  But the UK’s economic dependence on the rest of the world has increased.  For example, we are the world’s second largest manager of investment funds after the United States (and the biggest in Europe).[3]  We have the second largest share of world exports in services, again, second only to the United States.  More than a quarter of our GDP derives from the export of goods – a greater share than that of the US but about the same as that of France.[4]  One-third of our energy needs are currently met through imports and that share will rise as our production of oil and gas continues to decline.[5]  So what happens in the rest of the world matters greatly to the UK and our capacity to influence external events, particularly those issues handled at supranational level, is a key indicator of our national power. 

While the UK is economically dependent on the wider world, its power to influence it is constrained.  It needs to be able to influence international discussions about trade, the global economy, energy, security and the environment.  Being a permanent member of the UN Security Council gives the UK a voice at the top table (and a veto on resolutions before the Council) but that is not enough by itself.  As a Member State in the EU the UK exercises far greater influence internationally that it could on its own.  When the EU takes a common position – as it does in world trade talks for example where the EU negotiates on behalf of its members – its size and importance gives it greater impact than any of its 27 members would have on their own.  Being a member of the EU enables the UK to leverage its influence in many different ways.

The institutions of the EU enable its Member States to work together – when they choose to do so - in a whole range of international fora.  At the United Nations, in global climate talks and in the G20 group of larger economies the EU can exercise greater influence collectively. 

The EU continues to play a leading role in global action to tackle climate change – a key policy concern of the UK but where our national influence is limited outside the EU. 

The EU and its Member States are the world’s biggest aid donors; EU membership enables the UK to leverage its aid policy to greater effect through sharing in a joint programme.  The scale of the EU’s development aid means that it has influence in many parts of the developing world.

With the rise of new economic and political powers, the EU provides a forum for the UK to develop a common approach for key issues of mutual concern with the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China.  While membership of the EU increases its members’ political influence in relation to these areas, it does not inhibit their ability to promote their exports to them – as countries such as Germany and France have done more successfully than we have so far done.

In all these discussions the UK is part of the decision-making process as a full member of the EU.  The countries that have stayed out of the EU but have a trading relationship with it, such as Norway and Switzerland, are bound by many EU decisions but are not party to them.  A recent official inquiry in Norway into its membership of the European Economic Area (EEA)  noted:

“The most problematic aspect of Norway’s form of association with the EU is the fact that Norway is in practice bound to adopt EU policies and rules on a broad range of issues without being a member and without voting rights.  This raises democratic problems.  Norway is not represented in decision-making processes that have direct consequences for Norway, and neither do we have any significant influence on them”.[6]

Switzerland is not in the EEA, but it has agreed to adopt many EU rules on the single market without having a say in decision-making.

Common Foreign & Security Policy

This has long been an important part of EU activity.  The EU is an essential partner in many aspects of international affairs, and has its own arrangements for common foreign & security policy (CFSP) which are not a substitute for Member States’ own foreign ministries but a vital adjunct to them.  When Member States are considering a problem in relations with a third country, they will automatically consider whether this is something that they can best address with their EU partners.  Foreign ministry officials are in constant touch with their opposite numbers.  Member States will routinely bring problems they have to the EU’s monthly foreign affairs council for discussion and possible action.  The decision in 1997 to create a High Representative for CFSP, and the creation in 2011 of the European External Action Service, have demonstrated the importance that the EU Member States place on developing effective policy in this field. 

All these activities proceed by way of collaboration and consensus.  Under the Lisbon Treaty, implementing action can be agreed by majority vote but only if the policy itself has been unanimously agreed.  This can sometimes mean that a single Member State can thwart the wishes of all the others (for example, Cyprus in relations with Turkey, or Greece in relations with Macedonia) but it is fundamental to the way this important part of EU activity is conducted.

There are many examples of ways in which political co-operation has been a success.  For example, it was the EU that first promoted the concept of a two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine dispute; to-day it is part of the Quartet that is seeking to bring peace to the Middle East.  In diplomatic discussions to resolve the problem of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the EU is once again centrally involved through the ‘five plus one’ partnership.  The EU provides the UK with a crucial forum for seeking a common approach to key issues of mutual concern with countries of growing importance like China, India, Brazil and Russia.  On many UN issues, the EU has been able to display a united front.

From the outset, when the European Coal & Steel Community was established in 1951, European cooperation was recognised as a means of making war between France and Germany impossible.  It is sometimes claimed that NATO has prevented war in Europe since 1945 but NATO’s main focus was on deterring Soviet aggression.  The economic, political and cultural ties created by the European Community were of crucial importance in avoiding conflict because the EC not only developed economic integration but it provided a forum for the peaceful resolution of disputes between its members and enabled new political relationships to be developed.

The new relationship that developed between France and Germany has been mirrored elsewhere in Europe as the process of EU enlargement has brought former dictatorships and Communist states back into the European family of nations, consolidating democracy and the rule of law as common European values.  Although this process is not yet complete, for example in the Balkans, the extension of peace and stability by means of enlargement is one of the EU’s finest achievements and the resulting transformation has been, and continues to be, very much in Britain’s political and economic interests.  The positive role the EU can play in dispute resolution was seen during the negotiations that led to the Northern Ireland Good Friday agreement when the availability of EU development funds and the fact that the UK and Ireland were already working together in the EU helped to secure consensus.

Today the EU is developing a new role in security policy, complementary to that of NATO and one which reflects the unique ability of the EU to combine the “hard” power of the military forces of its members (often through the medium of NATO structures) with the “soft” power of its experience in nation-building activities such as the nurturing of civic institutions and economic development.  In a period of austerity this is valuable to Member States to enable them to act more cost-effectively.

The EU’s role in Europe’s neighbourhood reflects the fact that its Member States have security interests in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean that are not necessarily shared by the North American members of NATO.  The EU’s neighbourhood is an area of tension – an ‘arc of instability’ from Archangel to Agadir - but it is also an area of opportunity.

Relations with the USA

Membership of the EU strengthens the UK’s bilateral relationships with third countries.  For example, the UK has been the United States’ most important ally since 1941 but our importance to the US today derives in a large part from our EU membership, especially in a period when the focus of American interest is moving to areas such as Asia and the Pacific.  The UK tends to think it has a “special relationship” with the US but with 55 million Americans of German descent, it is hardly surprising that many Germans think of their country having a similarly close relationship with the USA. 

If the UK left the EU this would not only endanger the UK economy (Britain is the largest destination for US investment in the EU for example) but it would undermine our political relationship with the United States.  The UK’s membership of the EU makes it valuable to the US as an ally today.  

Crime & Justice

The EU’s role in justice and home affairs has grown over the last 20 years.  This reflects the increasing truth that crime is international; cross-border crime is now a serious threat to law and order in all EU Member States.  Illegal drugs, cyber crime, human trafficking, terrorism and organised crime of all kinds cannot effectively be tackled by one country alone.  The EU provides the most important forum for this work in Europe and co-operation in justice matters means that criminals can no longer hide from justice by moving to another EU state.  The Europol, Frontex and Eurojust EU agencies are valued by UK agencies working in this field.  The Serious Organised Crime Agency has said that it is making more use of co-operation through the EU in the light of UK budget cuts.


When the UK joined the EU in 1973 it pooled some of its sovereignty with the other Member States for mutual benefit.  This sharing of sovereignty has continued as the EU has changed to reflect the needs and concerns of different times

The EU was from the beginning an organisation with political objectives – as has been openly acknowledged throughout the fifty years since the British Government made the historic decision to apply for membership.  Arguments to the contrary are polemical and not historical. 

The agreement to share sovereignty is seen most obviously in the single market where the UK agrees by qualified majority vote the rules for the operation of that market.  But political co-operation, which proceeds by consensus, has contributed to an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity in Europe, where wars between Member States are unthinkable and economic, cultural and political ties have transformed the quality of life of millions of Europeans.

The EU that has developed since the UK joined in 1973 shows more flexibility.  Britain and Ireland do not belong to the Schengen Area; and Britain and Denmark have permanent opt-outs from the euro.  No Member State can be required to participate in defence policy if it does not wish to do so. 

The events of the last fifty years have confirmed the trend towards international co-operation.  This is because even more of the challenges faced by nation states today go beyond the borders of any one of them.  Energy, climate change, the environment, terrorism, security and our relationship with the developing world are all issues which are too big for the United Kingdom to address effectively on its own and require common effort with our European partners. 

February 2012


[1]  Britain and the Commonwealth, Harold Macmillan MP, September 1962.

[2]  Speech reprinted as Our European Destiny, Conservative Group for Europe, 1971

[4]  This figure, and the preceding one, from UK trade performance: Patterns in UK and global trade growth, Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, November 2010.

[5]  Figures from UK Energy Supply: Security or Independence, House of Commons Energy & Climate Change Committee, HC 1065, October 2011, p.13.

[6]  Outside and Inside: Norway’s Agreements with the European Union, 17 January 2012.

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