Britain’s contentious relationship with the European Union stretches back to the organisation’s earliest days as a coal and steel trade agreement.
In the wake of the second world war, with European economies in tatters, the idea of a common market gained traction as a way of both rebuilding and easing political tensions.
Despite humble beginnings as a French-German coal and steel trade alliance, the appeal of cooperating to create the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) soon gained support from Italy, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands.
The ECSC was recognised as the start of a new era, though its supporters could hardly have known it would be far more influential as the precursor to the EU than in spurring coal or steel trade.
The South China Morning Post documented its significance on March 19, 1951, with the headline “Six Nations Sign Historic Treaty”. Notably missing from the cooperative effort was Britain, which, the Post noted, had “refused to join”.
By 1952, plans to create a “Parliament for a United States of Europe” had been drawn up. The Post’s September 11, 1952 coverage of ECSC president Paul Spaak emphasised the concord’s proposals to integrate with the Council of Europe, a move that “would tie Britain” to the union “but not force her to surrender any national power”.
Of course, when it became clear that the common market for coal and steel could be a success, Britain began to have second thoughts. Leading British politicians issued a statement “urging closer association between Britain and Europe” and more defined links with the ECSC, reported the Post on August 6, 1951. Unfortunately, the delay would cost them. Despite applying for membership in 1961, Britain was not accepted for 12 years. The promise that “any European state could join the treaty at any time” receded as the organisation developed into the European Economic Community, in 1957, and then into the EU, in 1993.