Andrew Duff -  On Governing Europe

As no member state has ever left the European Union, there is no useful precedent for the process of British withdrawal under Article 50 TEU. There are, however, several association treaties between the EU and third countries which may offer guidance as the UK seeks to define a new settlement with the EU once its withdrawal is complete. One in particular is of startling relevance.

The post-War Labour government had refused to join the new European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). The Conservatives, who returned to office in 1951, did not reverse that decision but the new government contained ministers, including Churchill, who were more sympathetic towards the efforts of the Six to federate and who recognised at once that it was in the British national interest to have a close relationship with the new Community, short of full membership. As soon as Jean Monnet had established the High Authority of the ECSC (the forerunner of the European Commission) in Luxembourg in August 1952, the British government attached to it a high-ranking delegation to liaise and monitor.

Anthony Eden, foreign secretary, told Monnet that he wanted “to lay the foundations for an intimate and enduring association between the Community and the United Kingdom”. On 21 December 1954, after some hard-headed negotiation, Monnet and Duncan Sandys, Churchill’s son-in-law, signed an association agreement between the UK and the European Coal and Steel Community. It functioned until the UK eventually joined up as a full member state in January 1973.

The treaty established a Council of Association made up of four representatives of the High Authority and four members of the British government to meet alternately in Luxembourg and London. There was also provision for the ECSC’s Council of Ministers to participate in the association arrangements, and to hold special meetings with UK ministers, but the High Authority was firmly in the driving seat. The purpose of the Council of Association was to facilitate mutual information and consultation and, “where appropriate … coordination of action”. Matters of common concern were wide-ranging, including conditions of trade and supplies of coal and steel, pricing arrangements including subsidies, industrial development and investment policy, technology, research, and welfare of workers. The Association Council would discuss quantitative measures to restrict trade or exchange control; it would consult on tariffs, dumping, and export subsidies. The intention was to reduce or eliminate restrictive practices, and to coordinate any market intervention.

In effect, the association agreement covered all the policy areas where competences were conferred on the ECSC by its six member states, although the UK was not subject to the common commercial policy of the ECSC, did not contribute to the ECSC budget, and was not subject to the executive decisions of the High Authority or the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice. Nor did British MPs take part in the ECSC’s parliamentary assembly. The agreement provided a useful consultative framework for the management of mutual market access. It was supported as a forum by the coal and steel sector. And it was a timely political gesture that avoided the deterioration in the British European relationship that Churchill and Monnet had both feared.

Nowadays any comparable association agreement between the UK and the EU “involving reciprocal rights and obligations, common action and special procedure” would be negotiated primarily under Article 217 TFEU. A new UK-EU association agreement would have to be much wider in scope than its predecessor, including internal and external security cooperation as well as a trade and investment partnership, but the institutional arrangements could be much the same as they were in 1954.

There is certain to be little intimacy post-Brexit, but a pragmatic association reflecting the enduring interdependence of the UK and the EU will have to do.

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