Making interesting reading is an extract from a Cabinet Office document entitled: "Legal and Constitutional Implications of United Kingdom Membership of the European Community - Memorandum by the Law Officers" (C(67) 62) dated 25th April 1967 – and secret at the time.
The key bit comes at the end, and reads as follows:
The requirements under the Treaties would restrict our independence of action in future international dealings, and would, broadly speaking, have the effect of transferring to Community institutions our power of concluding treaties on tariff and commercial matters …
This, of course, pre-dates the Lisbon Treaty and Article 50, but it is useful to know that the Law Officers believed that, before we even joined the EEC, we could leave if Parliament so decided.
As a matter of international law, we would have no right to withdraw from the Treaties unless there was a fundamental change in circumstance s (e.g. if one of the member States were over-run by a foreign power). We regard this as somewhat academic; if for any reason, the United Kingdom decided to withdraw, and an Act of Parliament were passed for this purpose, we find it difficult to imagine that our Courts would not give effect to it. Withdrawal from the Treaties would certainly be an immensely complex operation.
Yet, what is especially significant is that, even with (then) nearly 50 years of political and economic integration to come, the Law Officers already thought that withdrawal would be "an immensely complex operation". And that currently, is the position we confront, with the possibility of Mr Cameron and the "colleagues" confusing the issue with an offer of associate membership of the European Union.
Despite the superficial attraction, that idea is not at all acceptable. It keeps the UK in a subordinate position where, in a Brussels-centric supranational treaty organisation, the European Commission still has the right of initiative when it comers to making the rules and therefore calls (too many) of the shots.
The thing is, we've been here before. Edward Heath in 1963 had made it clear that the question of associate membership had been considered and rejected.
Then, in January 1967, when Harold Wilson visited Charles de Gaulle in Paris to discuss Britain's entry to the EEC, the General had suggested that the British study "an agreement for association between Britain and the Community to cover their interests and their exchanges".
Wilson was quick to tell the French President that an association "would be unable to mobilise the aspirations of all for closer political involvement". Under such a system, he said, "the British ship would not be moored alongside the Continent, but would come and go. It would be a commuter relationship, an offshore relationship".
At the meeting, the French Prime Minister, M. Couve de Murville, had said that the political element in the process on which the British had embarked "was more important than the economic element". With this, Wilson had agreed. "He did not think any form of limited economic association could ever generate the political unity which lay at the heart of the decision he was seeking".
This, Wilson later elaborated on in a report to Cabinet marked "top secret" and dated 24 April 1967. An associate membership, he then wrote, "would be a kind of second-class citizenship which would impose on us many, perhaps most, of the obligations of membership with few of the rights".
It would, Wilson added, "fail to give us an equal or adequate voice in Community Councils and so prevent us from playing our part in developing what we and the well disposed members of the EEC think Europe's role and position in the world ought to be, whether in specialised fields such as technology, or in world affairs generally".
Still later, in December 1967, the issue had been debated in the Lords when Lord Chalfont declared that an association was not a "starter".
"We would be dealing with a situation", the noble Lord said, "in which we would accept many of the obligations attaching to membership of the Common Market, and some of the most important of them, without the privileges of voting and the rights of full membership". This would mean, he added, "that we should be accepting formally the obligations of the Community without having the influence … on its development".
Perversely, earlier in the year, de Gaulle had suggested that the British try "something new and different", without actually specifying what he had in mind. Yet, while this was widely regarded as a delaying tactic, there was perhaps an opening there, the foundation for which had already been set by Winston Churchill back in 1948.
Much is made in the hagiography of the European Union of the role of Churchill and in particular his 1946 speech in Zurich when he called for a united Europe. On the other hand, far less is made of his speech at The Hague on 7 May 1948, when he chaired the Congress of Europe (pictured) which led to the creation of the Council of Europe.
In that speech, he took great care to remind the Congress that:
Nothing that we do or plan here conflicts with the paramount authority of a world organisation of the United Nations. On the contrary I have always believed, as I dared in the war, that a Council of Europe was a subordinate but necessary part of the world organisation. I thought at that time, when I had great responsibility, that there should be several regional councils, august but subordinate, that these should form the massive pillars upon which the world organisation would be founded in majesty and calm. This was the direction in which my hopes and thought lay three or four years ago.
What is doubly fascinating is that on 17 June, a month after the Congress, Churchill led a 19-strong delegation, which included Monnet's former colleague, Arthur Salter, to meet the then Prime Minister Clement Attlee. Its purpose was to present for the favourable consideration of His Majesty's Government the Resolutions passed at The Hague.
Picking up on his speech, Churchill told the Prime Minister that the delegation "had no desire to trespass on the functions of executive Governments" and that
unity and lasting peace "was the foremost object of European union". It was, he added, "fully consistent with the objectives of the United Nations; for any European Union would be a subordinate and regional element in the United Nations organisation". (Capitalisation as in the original.)
Referring to the assembly which was to become the Council of Europe, he "stressed the fact that those whom the Deputation represented had no desire to usurp the functions of His Majesty's Government".
The delegation favoured the establishment of a European Assembly as "a forum for the ventilation of ideas and a means of mobilising public opinion throughout Europe in support of the conception of European Union". Churchill, however:
… did not contemplate any elaborate machinery: he envisaged an Assembly which would meet once or twice a year to review the progress made and to enlist public support for the policy of the national Governments. He did not suggest that resolutions passed at this Assembly should in any way be binding upon national Governments. The Assembly could not encroach on the executive responsibility of Governments.
As regards sovereignty, he agreed that it was undesirable to ask for the surrender of sovereign rights. He would prefer to speak in terms of countries acquiring an enlarged or enriched sovereignty through membership of a European Union.
Despite claims now made to the contrary, nothing in what Mr Churchill said then could in any way be taken as advocating or supporting the type of organisation that the European Union has now become. To that extent, any suggestion that the British war leader was a spiritual founder of the EU is a wicked lie.
What is important, though, is Mr Churchill's advocacy of a European Union that would be "a subordinate and regional element in the United Nations organisation".
The previous year, in 1947, precisely that type of "European Union" had been created, with the name of the United Nations Economic Commission Europe (UNECE), based in Geneva where it still resides in the former League of Nations building.
Crucially, its first Executive Secretary, Gunnar Myrdal, formerly the Minister of Trade of Sweden, enunciated the working principles of this new organisation, which were the very antithesis of Monnet's of removing the veto and imposing majority voting on sovereign nations.
Generally, Myrdal sought to avoid bring votes to the working organs of the Commission. "This practice", he said:
… is founded upon recognition of the fact that no economic problem, indeed no important problem whatsoever, concerning sovereign governments can be solved by a majority decision in an intergovernmental organisation, but only by agreements between as many governments as are willing to consent.
That founding principle has not prevented UNECE slowly and persistently building up a body of standards which is now so extensive that, working through the 1994 WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade, it is setting the regulatory agenda in an increasing number of areas for the whole of Europe, including the EU, and – in certain respects – for much of the rest of the world.
The true heir to the Churchill heritage, therefore, is not the EU but UNECE, with its "determination not encroach on the executive responsibility of Governments" and its low-profile but successful intergovernmental approach.
Rather than pursue the wholly unsatisfactory idea of an associate membership of the EU, therefore, we should be looking to expanding the scope of UNECE – of which we are already a member – recovering our voting rights in that organisation which are currently held by the EU.
This would the most appropriate body to administer a genuine, Europe-wide single market, leaving the rump of the EU to concentrate on building the governance for its single currency, for as long as its members want to be part of a eurozone.
For the rest of us, the European Union is cul de sac from which we must emerge if the countries of Europe are truly to prosper. And if getting there is "an immensely complex operation", it is certainly worth the effort.