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History and Brexit

What does the Eden Plan tell about Brexit?

Andreja Pegan (DCU Brexit Institute, Dublin)

While negotiations between the UK and the European Union (EU) on the withdrawal, transition and future relations are nearing a close, it is time to think about how the UK will behave towards the EU after Brexit. Given the EU’s market, and the UK’s own sizable economy and prominence on the international stage, policy discussions on economic arrangements and European integration will remain of great importance to the UK. Moreover, it is not unthinkable to consider that the UK might rejoin the European Union in the future. Therefore, the UK is likely to have a great interest in keeping involved with EU policy makers even after Brexit. How would the UK try to do this? In particular, are there lessons for the future to be found in the past of EU-UK relations, looking back to the time before the UK joined the European project?

The story
The recently published DCU Brexit Institute working paper “The Long Arm of Whitehall Post-Brexit: Evidence from the Common Assembly (1952-1956)” deals with Brexit, blending political science and history. The paper is an analysis of the early period of European integration (1952-1956), when the UK was not yet a member of the institution that eventually grew into the European Union (the European Coal and Steel Community at that time). As such, the paper provides an insight on how the UK might behave as a non-EU member post-Brexit.

The paper tells the story of how organising the administration of the Common Assembly (the precursor of the European Parliament) became a contentious issue reflecting the most basic question in European integration: What kind of cooperation shall we pursue in the European Union? In the early history of post-second-war European integration, the choice was between intergovernmental or supranational cooperation (or an approximation toward either of the two models).

Intergovernmentalism and Supranationalism
In the intergovernmental model, states are in the driving seat in European integration. They keep their sovereignty and do not share the power with other actors. In the supranational model, states delegate responsibilities and functions to non-state authorities or supranational institutions, such as the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice.

In the 1950s, the UK was an enthusiastic promoter of and participant in intergovernmental cooperation in Europe. In 1949, it was among the founding states of the Council of Europe, which was, and still is, an intergovernmental organisation. Churchill, for example, said that the Council of Europe was the “instrument of European governments”. On the European continent, on the other hand, a number of statesmen (e.g. Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet) experimented with the idea of a supranational Europe, where states would relinquish their national power. In the early 1950s, the UK excluded itself from supranational cooperation and to a certain extent even tried to sabotage it.

The Eden Plan and administrative organisation

An example of such sabotage is the Eden Plan – the first of the many named after Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary of the time (1951-55), later Prime Minister (1955-57), and also known as one of worst post-war PMs in the UK. The Eden Plan (1952) was an official proposal of the UK’s government that suggested all future European communities such as the European Coal and Steel Community should draw upon the administrative facilities in the Council of Europe. Even though the Eden Plan dealt only with administrative facilities, it was in Europe interpreted as an attempt to water down the European Coal and Steel Community and to dissolve it within the Council of Europe. Jean Monnet, for example, wrote that the suggestions that the Council of Europe would provide administrative facilities “was merely a pretext for the Council of Europe to take over [the ECSC] parliamentary and ministerial institutions.”

In 1952, the Council of Europe was one of the few organisations which had facilities to host politicians speaking different languages. Based in Strasbourg, its headquarters was a convenient location for the Common Assembly to hold its first sessions. However, accepting the technical facilities of the Council of Europe meant the European Coal and Steel Community was giving away some of its autonomous character. Therefore, Jean Monnet and the secretary generals from the national parliaments of France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Italy gathered resources and a plan was devised to prevent the realization of the Eden Plan. At the end, the ECSC and the Common Assembly obtained their own administrative facilities, which were a victory towards supranational model of integration.

The UK’s government did not persist with the Eden Plan. However, the paper shows that even on issues that might look trivial, such as administrative organisation, the UK tried to steer Europe towards its preferred outcome. This was the case even if the UK was a non-member and had no intention to take part in the European Coal and Steel Community. Such behaviour will not necessarily be an exclusive way of conducting business between the EU and UK post-Brexit, but it is one worth keeping in mind.

As to why the UK did not persist with the Eden Plan, the easiest answer is perhaps, that administrative facilities were at the end of the day less important than other issues (for example the plan for the European Defence Community). However, this needs to be contextualised and when we do, several parallels with today’s situation arise: In the early 1950s, politicians in the ruling (Conservative) party did not agree on the role the UK should play in European integration. Those in the government in charge of European affairs saw Europe as a secondary issue in foreign affairs. They pursued ideas of “global” Britain and believed the Commonwealth should be at the center of British foreign policy. While the Eden Plan tried to steer European integration towards intergovernmentalism, the UK was not motivated enough to deal with the European Coal and Steel Community. This was a pity, as the evidence gathered in the paper show that within the supranational model, there was scope for negotiations.

Even though the UK tried to steer European integration towards intergovernmentalism in the early 1950s, at the end the UK decided to stay out of the ECSC. For some historians this resulted in Britain missing the opportunity to lead in Europe and to prevent “path-dependency” towards supranationalism. In the institutional theory of political science, the choices made in the beginning of an organisation can have significant consequences on an organisation’s developments. Sometimes they determine the development of an organisation even when alternative models are available – this is what is known as path-dependency.

The takeaway
Through the empirical case of the Eden plan, the paper shows that even issues that can be characterised as less important, such as administrative organisation, are useful to non-Member States for exercising influence on broader political issues of European integration. As in the early 1950s, with Brexit, the UK is losing (again) the opportunity to shape the future of Europe, which means that, in all probability, the future of the UK will be shaped by Europe.


Andreja Pegan (PhD in Political Science) is a research fellow at DCU Brexit Institute (April-August 2018).  In September 2018, she will take up a post at Northumbria University (Newcastle, UK), where she will research the involvement of citizens in public governance and the responsiveness of the public sector. She has held previous positions at Trinity College Dublin and the University of Luxembourg. You can follow her on Tweeter @AndrejaPegan and on her website.