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The UK Labour Party and Continental Socialists debate the Treaties of Rome: A Historical Glimpse in an Age of Brexit

The UK Labour Party and Continental Socialists debate the Treaties of Rome: A Historical Glimpse in an Age of Brexit

Abstract: Revisiting socialist debates on the Treaties of Rome opens a window onto early conceptions of the potential of a European common market – and Labour's capitulation to the sovereigntist dogmas of late-imperial Britain.

The following are draft sections from an article I published earlier this month in a special issue on ‘Left Internationalisms—Past and Present’ for a UK political journal, Renewal: A Journal of Social Democracy.

Please visit the full published article at: https://www.academia.edu/38692742/Socialism_neo_liberalism_and_the_Treaties_of_Rome_April_2019_

Journal website: www.renewal.org.uk

The Hague Congress, the first major international conference for post-war European unity held in summer 1948, was an illustrious gathering of European federal organisations and star politicians, including conservatives like Konrad Adenauer and Winston Churchill, as well as prominent socialists including Paul Ramadier and Paul Henri Spaak. A few months before it was held, the Labour Party announced it would not attend the congress and urged its continental socialist and social democratic allies to stay out in the name of international socialist solidarity. The request sparked confusion among socialist parties in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and even occupied western Germany, where social democrats tended to look favourably on initiatives for post-war European co-operation. In the aftermath of the congress, tensions that had been building since WWII between the Labour Party and its continental allies, in particular with the French Socialist Party (SFIO), began to boil over.

Reflecting back on the SFIO’s decision to permit only a paltry delegation to attend The Hague Congress, prominent French Socialist André Philip said privately in a SFIO executive meeting in September 1948 that,

…our reservation concerning our participation in The Hague was a poor tactic. We have been played by the Labourites. [Labour Foreign Minister Ernest] Bevin is orientating himself against European Union.[i]

SFIO secretary general Guy Mollet, a self-identified anglophile, followed up by saying that, ‘By every means the English are trying to cause failure to anything that may lead in the sense of European unification’. Mollet’s comments are important for understanding the international socialist context of early European integration because he led the French government that negotiated the Treaties of Rome in 1956-57. He was also the first president of the Socialist Group of the assembly that became the European parliament. Less than two years after this 1948 exchange, he participated in a long polemic with Philip concerning how far the SFIO should go in conceding its own vision of European integration in order to build a common front with Labour on matters of European co-operation. The issue then was the Schuman Plan, out of which came the first treaty for European co-operation that included a supranational executive. As it did later with the Treaties of Rome, the Labour Party bluntly rejected any possibility in 1950 that the UK might join a supranational European community, in this case, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). Though a partisan of British participation, Mollet would think twice before sticking his neck out within his party for the Labour Party again.

The path to the Rome Treaties began in earnest in June 1955, when the foreign ministers of the six ECSC member states agreed to launch intergovernmental negotiations for a European common market and an atomic energy community. Meeting a few weeks later, members of the transnational Socialist Group of the ECSC Common Assembly, where Mollet was president, met to discuss the Messina agreement. These continental socialists were supportive of further economic integration but were critical that the supranational features embodied in the ECSC appeared to be have been watered down in the initial common market proposals.[ii] Important for our story is that they were aware that this stance contradicted their otherwise emphatic support for British membership in the European communities.

When the UK moved to join the preliminary negotiations for a European common market in fall 1955, the Socialist Group sought consultations with Labour colleagues. They were divided, though, about whether it was preferable to have the UK immediately join the negotiations or whether they should be prudent and, as Dutch Labour deputy Paul Kapteyn said, not ‘associate too many states in this work…if we are to achieve results’.[iii] A key focus of the article I published in Renewal is a meeting between the Socialist Group and John Edwards, a Labour representative, in November 1955. The disagreement at this meeting is particularly revelatory to understand the totally contrasting conceptions that the parties had about the liberal and socialist nature and potential of the Treaties of Rome. It is well worth having a look and reading the back-and-forth comments at the meeting in the article. Whereas Edwards presented a sovereigntist case and asserted that continental socialists were too comfortable with liberal phraseology and arguments, Dutch PvdA deputies countered that trade liberalization without European integration, as proposed by the UK government, ‘would return us to the most absolute liberalism of the nineteenth century’.[iv]

Disagreements between Labour and continental socialists over supranationalism continued after the ratifications of the Rome treaties and the opening of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1958. They came to a head again following the failure of Free Trade Zone proposals to build an umbrella structure between the EEC and what became the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) of the ‘outer seven’, of which the UK was by far the most important member. In 1961, despite its recent commitment to EFTA, Harold Macmillan’s conservative government applied to the join the EEC. Representing the Labour Party at this closed-door meeting, Michael Stewart told his continental socialist colleagues that, ‘he did not want to give the impression of an absolute opposition’ of the Labour Party to EEC accession but he laid out nine points on which his party disagreed with the present makeup of the EEC, including that ‘a future British Labour government may be prevented by a supranational European institution from pursuing a true socialist policy’. Kapteyn dismissed this statement out of hand, telling Stewart that, ‘Neither small nor large states in Europe can guarantee full employment and economic expansion on their own’. The only means to pursue socialism was to strengthen the supranational bodies of the European communities. Labour’s position, he regretted, ‘furnishes conservative and even partially non-democratic parties [an allusion to the Gaullists] with arguments to weaken the European [Commission] and the European [Parliament]’.[v]

A year later, Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell came out against the Common Market despite sizable pro-EEC dissent in the party. Gaitskell’s position was taken up after his death in 1963 by Harold Wilson, in the wake of French President Charles de Gaulle’s veto of the British application in January. Within a few years, however, Wilson was preparing the UK’s second application for EEC membership.[vi] While the issue of European integration had rocked Labour in the fifteen years from 1948-63, the next fifteen would be a rollercoaster as the party switched positions time and again under the weight of internal divisions and shifts in public opinion. The Labour Party even refused to take its seats in the European Parliament for several years following British accession in 1973. It backed remain in a 1975 referendum following Wilson’s mild ‘renegotiation’ of UK membership and Labour deputies finally took their seats. This did not, though, put an end to the internal Labour debate.[vii]

This brief history of the Labour Party’s see-saw on issues of early European integration is particularly relevant today, as Jeremy Corbyn’s party tries to maintain a precarious (and shifting) balance on Brexit and the UK’s future relationship with the EU. The question of where to invest powers that govern our economic lives—in national governments, in regional bodies, in international institutions—remains really quite existential today for the left. Many on the left in France, Germany and elsewhere blame the European Union for the national surrender of economic policymaking powers and neo-liberal attacks on the post-war welfare state. Surely some Labour voters supported Leave in the recent referendum with such ideas in mind. The EU may deserve its share of blame for contemporary economic inequities but, in this author’s view, its fallacies are more symptom than cause of a global shift of power away from workers and ordinary people to multinational corporations and the world’s wealthiest. Leaving the EU is unlikely to redress this power balance and, if anything, is more likely to exacerbate it.

Full article available at: https://www.academia.edu/38692742/Socialism_neo_liberalism_and_the_Treaties_of_Rome_April_2019_

[i] Comité directeur-SFIO, 22 September 1948, Office universitaire de recherche socialiste.

[ii] Compte rendu analytique de la réunion du sous-comité des affaires économiques et sociales, 20 June 1955, Groupe Socialiste au Parlement Européen (GSPE)-10, Historical Archives of the European Union.

[iii] Compte rendu analytique de la réunion du sous-comité des affaires économiques et sociales, 2 September 1955, GSPE-10.

[iv] Compte rendu analytique de la réunion du sous-comité des affaires économiques et sociales', 11 November 1955, GSPE-11. See also B. Shaev, 'Liberalising Regional Trade: Socialists and European Economic Integration', Contemporary European History 27, 2 (2018), pp. 58-279.

[v] Compte rendu analytique de la réunion du groupe socialiste, 5-6 September 1961, GSPE-30.

[vi] Anne Deighton, ‘The Second British Application for Membership of the EEC,’ in Wilfried Loth, ed., Crises and Compromises: the European Project 1963-1969, (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2001).

[vii] Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon, Continental Drift: Britain and Europe from the End of Empire to the Rise of Euroscepticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), pp. 387-388.