Classic Podium: The end of 1,000 years of history

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From a speech by Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the Labour Party, to his party's annual conference, at which he revealed his opposition to Britain joining the EEC

(3 October 1962)

I UNDERSTAND and deeply sympathise with the people of France and of Germany in their desire to get rid of the conflicts which have so often broken out between them and which are all too fresh in our minds. However, I sometimes wonder whether the great problems of the world today are to be found in the unity or disunity of Western Europe. I would have said that there were two problems outstanding above all others: the problem of peace and the problem of poverty.

I know some will say with great sincerity: "But we recognise that, and we believe that, by Britain going into Europe, a great contribution can be made to these problems." Maybe so, but it is for them to submit the proof. So far it is hard to be convinced. For, although Europe has had a great and glorious civilisation, although Europe can claim Goethe and Leonardo, Voltaire and Picasso, there have been evil features in European history too - Hitler and Mussolini and, today, the attitude of some to the Congo problem.

But here is another question we have to ask: what exactly is involved in the concept of political union? We hear a lot about it; we are told that the Economic Community is not just a customs union, that all who framed it saw it as a stepping stone towards political integration. We ought to be told what is meant by that, for, if this be true, our entry into the Common Market carries with it some very serious political obligations. But when you ask, it is not easy to get a clear answer.

I can see only three possibilities outside the obligations that we accept specifically in the Treaty of Rome. It may mean that there is no obligation upon the government of Britain to do more than talk, consult more frequently with the President of France and the Chancellor of Germany. I see no harm in these talks, but I am not optimistic.

But what else? If it is not just talking, what is it? The second possibility is majority decisions on political issues, just as we are to have majority decisions on economic issues. Do we want that? Well, I suppose you might say we would be able somehow or other to outvote those we disagree with. I would like to be very sure of that before I committed myself.

Then, of course, there is the idea and the ideal of federal Europe. Now, I know that it will be said by some: "Why bring up federation? It is not immediate, it is not imposed upon us, it may not happen." But we would be foolish to deny, not to recognise and indeed sympathise with the desire of those who created the Economic Community for political federation. That is what they mean, that is what they are after when they admit freely that, under the present constitution of the EEC, the assembly has no powers except the very far-reaching, overriding one, which they are most unlikely to use, of dismissing the Commission by a two-thirds majority. When it is pointed out that the Commission is a body which has powers but is not responsible or under anybody's control, what is the answer? The answer they give us: "That is why we should set up a federal assembly with powers over them." This is what they are arguing.

What does federation mean? It means that powers are taken from national governments and to federal parliaments. It means - I repeat it - that, if we go into this, we are no more than a state (as it were) in the United States of Europe, such as Texas and California. They are remarkably friendly examples; you do not find every state as rich or having such good weather as those two! But I could take others; it would be the same as in Australia, where you have Western Australia, for example, and New South Wales. We should be like them. This is what it means; it does mean the end of Britain as an independent nation state. It may be a good thing or a bad thing, but we must recognise that this is so...

We must be clear about this; it does mean, if this is the idea, the end of Britain as an independent European state. I make no apology for repeating it. It means the end of a thousand years of history. You may say: "Let it end." But, my goodness, it is a decision that needs a little care and thought.

And it does mean the end of the Commonwealth. How can one really seriously suppose that, if the centre of the Commonwealth is a province of Europe, it could continue to exist as the mother country of a series of independent nations? It is sheer nonsense.