The discussion as to whether the U.K. should vote to leave the European Union has taken on a new dimension in the past few weeks, with increasing public discussion on the left. Two notable commentators, Greece’s ex-finance minister Yanis Varoufakis and journalist Paul Mason, have each published articles critiquing the E.U. as an institution but ultimately urging leftists to vote to remain within it. It is worth placing today’s discussions in a historical context. The European Union only came into existence in 1993, while its antecedents began in the continent’s post-war recovery and reorganization.
When the Marshall Plan came into operation in 1948, Europe’s post-war recovery was stalled, with no countries’ economies returned to their pre-war levels. In planning the Emergency Recovery Plan the U.S. came to recognize the need for a buoyant German export economy. The Marshall Plan ended in 1951, the same year the Treaty of Paris established the European Coal and Steel Community, aimed at creating trade links which would make member states less likely to go to war with each other and to promote economic recovery. The U.K. was not a signatory.
In 1958 the European Economic Community was created by the Treaty of Rome, again with the aim of promoting integration and economic advancement. Again, the U.K. stayed out. It took the country more than three decades, and decolonization, to look at Europe as something it could join rather than a group of countries it beat or saved in World War II. For Europe the treaties were designed, at least in part, to redress some economic anomalies — the EEC could be explained as a straightforward trade in which German industry, rapidly expanding since the war, gained access to the French market in exchange for France’s agricultural economic base being supported formally through the new treaty.