international analysis and commentary

The UK’s relationship with the European Union: a tale of British exceptionalism


The EU referendum on June 23, 2016 represented the biggest political decision British voters have made in their lifetime. The British public in turn delivered a result that can easily be classified as one of the biggest recent political shocks.

The referendum revealed deep popular disaffection with the European Union, in particular on the part of working-class communities that felt that they had been left behind. Some of the roots of this disaffection may lie elsewhere: in national government austerity policies or in the effects of globalization more generally. The disaffection may also have been stoked by opportunistic politicians such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.

UK skepticism over Europe is not a recent phenomenon. History shows that three spheres of interest originally governed the British official attitude: the UK’s relationship to the United States, the Commonwealth and then Europe. Europe became more important to the UK as it became more successful economically and to a lesser extent politically.

Key dates include:

1957: The EEC (The Treaty of Rome) is set up

1961 and 1967: British applications for EEC membership

1963 and1967: French veto against British membership

1971: Third British application for EEC membership

1973: Britain becomes a member of the EEC under Prime Minister Edward Heath, arguably the most pro-European British leader

1974: Harold Wilson’s Labour party defeated Edward Heath’s Conservatives. Labour promised that it would give the British people the final say on EEC membership, which would be binding on the government – through the ballot box – on whether the UK would accept the terms and stay in or reject the terms and step out.

1975: In the referendum Britain voted in favor of continued membership (66% voter turnout, 2/3 said yes).

Margaret Thatcher wearing her famous Europe jumper, and posters of the Yes and No campaigns for the 1975 referendum.


Britain became the “Reluctant European” under Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990) who was known for her confrontational style, and she negotiated a budget rebate for Britain. She was in favor of enlargement, but resisted closer European integration as well as the exchange rate mechanism (ERM). Thatcher wanted floating exchange rates instead. Britain became a member of the ERM in 1990, against Margaret Thatcher’s wishes. A month after Britain had joined the ERM, Margaret Thatcher had to resign as Prime Minister. Successor John Major (1990-1997) was more pro-European (in style at least). He represented the British view of widening rather than deepening European integration.

Under Major in December 1991, the Maastricht Treaty was signed. On September 16, 1992, so-called “Black Wednesday” happened which saw the UK exit from the ERM. This event is not only deeply engrained in the memory of older politicians like then-Finance Minister Norman Lamont, but also among the younger ones like former Prime Minister David Cameron who was then a special adviser to Lamont.

Prime Minister Tony Blair (1997-2007), New Labour, had a more pro-European stance. Blair was keen to play a leading, constructive role in Europe. He and New Labour were less skeptical towards the EU. But declining popularity due to the Iraq war weakened his premiership. Finance Minister Gordon Brown, who later succeeded Blair as Prime Minister (2007-2010) was rather lukewarm regarding the EU. David Cameron (2010-2015) was elected in a coalition government with the pro-European Liberal Democrats until the Conservative Party won a majority in May 2015. Under pressure from Euroskeptics inside the Conservative Party and electoral pressure from UKIP, Cameron decided to hold an “in–out” referendum on the UK membership of the EU, though it was labelled as an “advisory referendum”.

When we discuss the UK’s position on Europe, it is also important to take into account the different positions held among the different parts of the UK. Brexit could in fact lead to the potential dissolution of the UK, as the Scottish government pushes to remain inside the EU while the rest of the UK leaves it. Meanwhile, Brexit also threatens a serious re-opening of old wounds in Northern Ireland, as debate grows around the need for a united Ireland inside the EU. This means that Brexit opens up the possibility of having to erect hard borders between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, and between Scotland and England.

The May government is being forced to be more honest with the UK electorate regarding “Brexit means Brexit” slogans that cannot provide the basis for an acceptable deal.

The deal that will be voted on has recognised the limits to the UK’s bargaining power with the EU. Many opponents of the prime minister’s plan, therefore, have nothing better, or at least nothing credible, to offer in its place. Of course, in the short term, all this might not matter. May looks certain to lose the “meaningful vote” on 11 December by a significant margin.

There are many scenarios following the defeat on 11 December. May could call a snap general election, the government could fall, May could resign, Conservative MPs could dump May or the UK Parliament could take control of the Brexit process. The only option under which the EU would consider extending article 50 is a second referendum in which an option of remaining in the EU would be on offer to the British voter.

Every generation has one defining issue that shapes its political outlook, such as the Second World War, the Cold War and now Brexit. Surveys have shown that UK voters are more aligned to their Brexit identity (Remainer or Leaver) than to their party loyalties. UK politics is in turmoil and in a chronic crisis. What route the Brexit saga takes next is uncertain. But the crossroads is approaching – either the UK leaves next March (deal or no deal) or it finds a route to stay in the EU. The phenomenon of British exceptionalism towards the EU is set to take a new dramatic turn, while the UK’s chaotic political divisions will not disappear any time soon.