A lookback at the UK’s history with the EU

Oct 21, 2020

It has been four years since the UK voted to leave the EU.  A vote which is probably the most significant event to occur in the history of the EU.  But little has happened since then in the way of an agreement. Let’s take a look back at the UK’s history with the EU to get a better understanding of how Brexit came about and perhaps explain why it’s become so complicated.

The 2016 Brexit referendum was actually the second time that the UK people were asked how they felt about their membership of the Bloc.  Back in 1975, when a vote took place in the UK, 67 per cent supported continued membership of the then European Communities (EC). The UK had only joined the EC two-and-a-half years earlier. In the years that followed, many observers remark that the UK endured a troubled and even rebellious existence within the EU.

However, initially the UK had trouble joining the bloc.  In 1961, the UK first applied for membership of the then EEC and that application was blocked by French President Charles de Gaulle.   It was reported that he was concerned that the UK membership would weaken the French voice in Europe. The French President was also afraid that the close relations between the UK and the United States would lead to the United States increasing its influence in Europe.  A second application in 1967 was rejected by Charles de Gaulle; the reason this time was that the French President felt that the UK economy would not be suited to membership of the EEC particularly given the UK’s practice of obtaining cheap foods from all parts of the world.   The UK did eventually bring a successful application and joined in January 1973; the same time that Ireland became a member state.

Since then the UK’s relationship with the EU has often been a divisive and somewhat emotive issue in British politics.  Margaret Thatcher, who became Prime Minister in 1979, had for some time been a supporter of the EC.  She even campaigned for the UK to remain in the EC in the 1975 vote.  However, during the early 1980’s, her view of the EC changed.  She spent five years battling to lower the UK’s contribution to the EC’s budget, which she eventually won after famously demanding “we want our money back”. She was fearful of the project to create the European Monetary Union which would eventually see the creation of the Euro.  She was also critical of the EU’s Single Market. Incidentally, the UK didn’t join the Euro. Nor did it sign up to the Schengen Area; a commitment by 26 other EU countries (with exception of Ireland) to abolish passport control and other border measures. 

So, it’s of no great surprise what was a complicated relationship has turned into an even more complicated divorce.  The stark reality is that if the UK and the EU fail to reach agreement on a trade deal, the UK will have to trade with the EU on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms which in reality has much fewer benefits and high tariffs.  The UK Prime Minister has said that this would still be a “very good option” for the UK but many businesses that trade with the EU will struggle to see how.  Reduced trading costs and bureaucracy are just some of the benefits of free trade agreements; both of which will be a major factor without an agreement. Avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland was not a dominant issue in the UK’s Brexit campaign and now it has become a huge stumbling block to a Brexit deal.  With talks ongoing, it would seem, given the history, to be a mammoth task.