Britain and the EU: The History of a Not So Special Relationship

Laura Mackenzie

7 mins

27 Jul 2018

Living in Britain, it’s impossible to open a newspaper, turn on the TV or log in to Facebook these days without seeing some mention of that now dreaded word: Brexit. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, you are likely to be sick of hearing about it.

More than two years after the referendum on whether the UK should leave the European Union, the country is seemingly no closer to securing an exit deal. And you would be hard pushed to find a single person or politician who is happy with the way things are going.

But as the government and country seems to be tearing itself apart from the inside out over the issue, it can be easy to forget that our relationship with the European project has never been a smooth one. Here is a brief(ish) history of Britain and the EU.

A rocky start

Perhaps it’s geography – the fact that the UK is a group of islands and separated from the European mainland. Or perhaps it’s the innate sense of superiority that Britain continues to feel over its European neighbours – a hangover from its time as the biggest empire the world has ever seen.

Whatever it is, Britain has always seemed like a outlier of the European project, a reluctant participant with one foot always out the door.

The former president of France, Charles de Gaulle, seemed to recognise this from the off. In 1967, he cited the UK’s “deep-seated hostility” to European construction as one of his reasons for rejecting its second application to join the European Economic Community, one of the precursor bodies to the EU.

Many have accused De Gaulle of having a personal grudge against Britain. But it’s fair to say that there was some truth in what he was saying. When the British Conservative Prime Minister Harold MacMillan announced in the House of Commons that the UK was making its first formal application to join the EEC in 1961, some in the chamber responded with cries of “shame”.

Of course, this wasn’t the whole story; many in Britain were desperate to join the ECC, in particular the Europhile politician Ted Heath, who was the Conservatives’ chief negotiator in discussions to join the Common Market in the early 1960s.

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Two years after De Gaulle’s death, the UK was eventually accepted into the ECC under Heath, who was by then the British prime minister, and officially became a member the following year. But almost immediately its membership appeared to be under threat from naysayers back home.

The first referendum

Just under two years after the UK became a member of the EEC, the opposition Labour Party ran on a general election platform that promised a referendum on this membership. Sound familiar? Well, in some ways, it was.

Like the Conservative Party under David Cameron, the Labour Party under Harold Wilson was thoroughly divided. After Labour won the election in October 1974, the government was officially in favour of staying in the ECC. But a party conference held in April the following year had attendees voting two to one in favour of withdrawal.

Unlike in June 2016, however, the British public in June 1975 – when Labour followed through on its promise to hold a referendum – wasn’t so split. Although turnout was low at just under 65 per cent, 67.2 per cent voted in favour of remaining in the European Communities – the collective term for three European organisations that were governed by the same institutions, among them the ECC.

By contrast, just 51.9 per cent of voters chose to leave the EU in 2016.

The logo for the “Remain” campaign in the 1975 referendum. Credit: MrPenguin20 / Commons

But the UK still wasn’t what you’d call a full paid-up member of the European project. In 1979 it opted out of the European Monetary System, an arrangement designed to stabilise exchange rates across its members that is commonly viewed as a precursor to the eurozone.

And in 1983, an opposition Labour Party ran a general election campaign on the promise of withdrawing from the EC without a referendum at all.

Thatcher’s renegotiation

Though Labour was roundly defeated in 1983, it didn’t mean that British-European relations were in for a smooth sail with Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government at the helm.

Part of the lingering hostility towards Europe was based on the perception that Britain was putting in more than it was getting out. Financial contributions were partly based on the VAT base of each country and not only was the UK’s proportionately higher in comparison to its gross national product than other members, but it seemed to be losing out when it came to agricultural subsidies too.

Around 70 per cent of the European Communities budget went towards the Common Agricultural Policy, something that implemented a system of subsidies for farmers and other programmes. With the UK having a small agricultural sector, it wasn’t benefiting from CAP.

Thatcher (second right) is pictured at a European Council meeting in the Dutch city of Maastricht in 1981.

As a result, in June 1984, Thatcher negotiated a rebate for the UK that amounted to roughly 66 per cent of its net contribution. This rebate did not come easily, however, and has remained a source of much tension between Britain and Europe ever since. In addition, the fact that the UK is the only member state to have what is effectively a permanent rebate has only added to its outside status in Europe.

For a few years after the rebate’s negotiation, though, it did seem as though things were beginning to look up for British-European relations.

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In 1975, the UK ratified the Single European Act with the full support of Thatcher’s government. Not only was the act the first major revision of the 1957 Treaty of Rome – which established the ECC – but it set the Economic Community the momentous target of achieving a single market by 1992, as well as deepening political cooperation.

But, of course, the (sort of) good times weren’t to last.

The Eurosceptic ‘bastards’

Despite Thatcher’s deep reservations, in October 1990 the UK joined the Exchange Rate Mechanism, yet another precursor to the euro zone which this time saw the pound pegged to the German deutschmark. A month later, Thatcher resigned as prime minister amid divisions that stemmed at least in part from her party’s increasingly polarised views on Europe.

Major in 1996.

In September 1992, the Eurosceptics seemed to be proved right when the UK came crashing out of the ERM after the government was unable to stop the pound from going below its agreed lower value limit – an episode known as “Black Wednesday” due to the huge losses it brought to bear on taxpayers.

And that wasn’t to be the end of Conservative Prime Minister John Major’s Europe-related headaches. A rebellion had already begun within Major’s party against legislation designed to bring into force the Maastricht Treaty – an agreement that formalised European coordination in the areas of security, justice and foreign and home affairs, and created the EU.

The legislation was eventually, and torturously, passed by the House of Commons on 23 July 1993 and the treaty went into effect on 1 November of that year. But not before several showdowns between the prime minister and the rebels – including a rebel-orchestrated defeat of Major’s government over the legislation just a day before it was eventually passed.

The bill’s passage on a Friday did little to heal the battle wounds. That weekend, Major, who had previously had a reputation for being a “nice guy”, was famously caught on video tape referring to the Eurosceptics in his own cabinet as “bastards”.

The flag of the European Union. Credit: MPD01605 / Commons

Conservative in-fighting, the rise of UKIP and a decline in public support

With the UK now part of a European Union, it was more entangled in Europe that ever before. And, as we now well know, Conservative in-fighting over the issue didn’t go away.

Over the next 25 years, the debate over Britain’s membership of the EU would plague the Conservatives, with the European question coming to define much of the party’s internal politics.

Ironically, given the events of the 1970s and 80s, Labour became mostly united on the issue – though Euroscepticism among its more radical left-wing ranks persisted. The successive governments of Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair aimed for closer integration with the EU.

That all changed once the Conservative David Cameron was prime minister, however. After initially rejecting calls from those on the right of his party to hold an in-out referendum on the EU, the centrist politician soon changed his mind. In 2013 Cameron announced that his government would hold such a poll if re-elected in 2015. And, of course, he followed through on that promise.

Cameron, who campaigned to remain in the EU, announces his resignation after the 2016 referendum returned a “Leave” vote. Credit: Tom Evans / Commons (Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.)

But Conservative right-wingers weren’t the only Eurosceptic powers at play during this time. Running in parallel to events on the mainstream political stage were single-issue parties and candidates campaigning for Britain’s exit from the EU.

The most famous and effective of these was undoubtedly the UK Independence Party, or UKIP, which managed to grow from an inconsequential political player in the 1990s to take first place in the 2014 European Parliament election with a 27.5 per cent share of the vote.

The party’s electoral success can be largely attributed to the former leadership of Nigel Farage who widened UKIP’s policy platform and successfully exploited and encouraged anti-immigrant sentiment, creating an inextricable link between unemployment, immigration and Britain’s membership of the EU in the minds of many.

Indeed, many believe that Cameron may not have promised a referendum had the pressure from UKIP not been so great.

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Alongside all of this, anti-European views were growing amongst the general public. According to the British Social Attitudes surveys, Euroscepticism increased from 38 per cent in 1993 to 65 per cent in 2015 – though it must be noted that Euroscepticism does not necessarily equate to wanting to leave the EU.

This potent cocktail of factors – and many more besides that we don’t have room to mention here – helped not only lead Britain into the referendum in 2016 but also into the chaos that continues to ensue today.