Continental Europe, offshore islanders and measurement muddle

Immediately after the referendum, Metric Views provided some initial thoughts on the outcome. Now, as the dust begins to settle, there is time for a more general view. Over the next four weeks, we shall look at the UK’s relationship with continental Europe, summarize how the current measurement muddle came about, examine the EU’s involvement, and finally speculate on the future course of events.

The UK and continental Europe – a semi-detached relationship

For 400 years, from the middle of the sixteenth century onwards, England’s, Great Britain’s and the UK’s policy towards continental Europe was to support the weaker powers against the strongest: Portugal (its oldest ally) against Spain; Holland, Prussia, Austria and then Russia against France; and in 1905, in a sudden reversal, France against Germany. That way, it hoped to exert influence disproportionate to its size and to prevent a single power from dominating the Continent.

This came to an end in June 1940, when Germany began talking to France – it was already talking to Italy – and Britain began looking across the Atlantic for salvation.

Germany, France and Italy continued talking after the end of WW2, and in 1955 the Treaty of Rome, to which the Benelux countries were also signatories, was one of the outcomes. Tellingly, although known on the Continent as the European Economic Community (EEC), the group was known in Britain as the Common Market, and being excluded from it the UK tried to set up one of its own called the European Free Trade Area (EFTA). With the principal trading nations of continental Europe absent, EFTA was doomed and in 1972 the UK applied to become a member of the EEC, joining a year later together with its two principal European trading partners, Denmark and the Republic of Ireland.

For the founding nations of the EEC, the real case for co-operation in Europe was to support and promote its cultural, social and democratic values, and to find peaceful solutions to international problems. For the UK it became a marriage of convenience – take the benefits, principally free trade in goods and services and ready access to a pool of skilled labour, and avoid unwelcome obligations. Thus we negotiated a rebate on our financial contribution, we opted out of both the Schengen passport-free zone and the Eurozone, and we insisted an exit clause be inserted into the Treaty of Lisbon.

This semi-detached approach would have implications for the UK’s metric changeover.

Next week we shall look at how the UK came to its current measurement muddle.

(Editorial comment. The views expressed in these four articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy of UKMA.)

Historical note

Wales was incorporated into the Kingdom of England in 1284. After that date references to England in these articles refer to England and Wales.

The Kingdom of Great Britain was formed in 1707 by the union of England and Scotland.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was formed in 1801.

In 1922, 26 counties of Ireland broke away to become the Irish Free State. In 1927, the UK was renamed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

4 thoughts on “Continental Europe, offshore islanders and measurement muddle”

  1. One of the drivers of the UK’s relationship with the EEC, not mentioned in this article, was General de Gaulle’s famous ‘Non!’ – twice, once in 1963 and again in 1967, when the UK applied to become a member. This I am sure was a major factor in the UK’s ambivalence towards the Common Market – and probably towards its conversion to SI in the process.

    It is actually quite amazing that the UK has converted as much as it has. The key to completing this process now, especially post-Brexit, is to continually drive home the fact that going metric is a world phenomenon, not tied to the EU at all.


  2. @John Frewan-Lord

    I think deGaulle knew that the UK would be a thorn in the side and never wanted to participate fully. Refusing to fully metricate and demanding derogation after derogation proved de Gaulle correct.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: