“How does the current EU setup differ from what was put before the electorate in the 1970s referendum? I have heard that it was touted as simply a trade agreement.”
In 1975 the UK held a referendum on continued membership of the European Community.
This wasn’t presented just as a trade agreement. Other issues discussed at the time related to security, European funding for UK industries and regions, and aid to developing countries.
That’s not to say that anyone in 1975 knew what the EU would be like in 2016, or how much it would change in the following years.
The European Community was presented as more than a trade agreement
During the 1975 campaign, membership of the European Community was presented by both the government and the Conservative opposition as relevant to peace, security, and both regional and international development, as well as to trade and economic cooperation.
In 1975 the government set out the aims of the European Community as bringing “together the peoples of Europe”, raising living standards and improving working conditions, promoting growth and boosting world trade. They also set out that the EC would “help the poorest regions of Europe and the rest of the world” and “help maintain peace and freedom”.
In their October 1974 manifesto, the Conservative party outlined the two key ideas behind the EEC as being to maintain security within Europe and to allow European influence in the world, and control over its own affairs, to grow in a world of polarised superpowers.
The “Yes” and “No” campaigns talked about other issues too
The “Yes” campaign of 1975 also presented the debate as being about a range of issues, from jobs security to world peace and the Commonwealth.
One “Yes” campaign claim which with the benefit of hindsight we can say was not true, was that English common law would not be affected by staying in the European Community. We now know that EU law has a significant effect on UK law.
Meanwhile the official “No” campaign warned of the risk to sovereignty, jobs and food prices. They also raised the issue of lesser trade with the Commonwealth if the UK voted to stay in the European Community and told voters that it would be best for peace, stability and independence if they voted to leave.
The EU today is larger than the European Community in 1975
The EU has grown from 9 European Community member countries in 1975 to 28 today.
Of the five main institutions which run the EU today, four were in place by 1975: the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union, the European Commission and the Court of Justice. Other bodies have been added since, including the European Council which defines the political direction and agenda of the EU.
The EU covers more policy areas than the European Community in 1975
In 1975 the aims of the European Community largely concerned trade. The Treaty of Rome set these out and they relate to policies such as free movement, removing tariffs and the creation of the Common Agricultural Policy.
This shift in priorities is emphasised when EU spending is examined. The proportion of the EU budget going towards the Common Agricultural Policy has decreased since the 1975 referendum, from 72% in 1975 to 39% in 2014.
Since 1975, the UK has signed up to five more “main treaties” which have extended the powers of what became the European Community and then the EU. Every EU country, including the UK, agreed to these.
The EU now has “competences” or powers in a wider range of policies including consumer protection, energy and climate change, security and crime. In some areas the EU’s powers are exclusive, while in others they are shared with, or support, member states’ decisions.
British ministers have fewer opportunities to veto European legislation
In 1975 the Government argued that the British representatives on the Council of Ministers could veto any European legislation considered to be against the UK’s interests. The voting rules have been changed since then, removing the veto in certain cases. So this is less likely to be the case now.
The UK’s share of the vote in the Council of Ministers (now known as the Council of the European Union) has also declined since 1975 from 17% to 8%, and will be back up to 13% under a new system. However, even when decisions do not require unanimous approval it is unlikely that a decision the UK is very opposed to would get as far as a vote.