1973 – Britain joins the European Economic Community
2016 – Britain votes to leave the European Union
A story of 43 years. A story that has been dramatic throughout including many ups and downs in the complicated relationship between the EU and the UK.
Everything began in 1961 when then-Prime Minister Harold Macmillan decided to seek entry into the European Economic Community (the predecessor of the EU). The relationship was off on a complicated start when the French president Charles de Gaulle vetoed Britain’s entry on 29 January 1963. However, even within Britain, joining the EU was not a unanimous decision and Macmillan faced strong opposition by the Conservative party. Nevertheless, a second attempt to join the EU was made by Britain in 1969 – and again it was vetoed by French president de Gaulle. On a third attempt the love-hate relationship between the UK and the EU finally took a turn for the positive and the UK was allowed to join the European Economic Community in 1973 under Prime Minister Edward Heath.
In 1975 already, the Labour government of Harald Wilson held a first referendum on the continued membership of Britan in the EEC. Back then, 67% of the British population voted to remain, only 33% wanted to leave. However, even though there was strong support to stay in the EEC, the relationship was complicated. British Prime Ministers, like Margaret Thatcher continued to negotiate special deals for the UK within the European community. Moreover, in 1992 Britain attained a legal opt out from the EU Treaties granting them an exemption from the obligation to ultimately adopt the Euro as their legal currency.
This illustrates the difficult relationship Britain and the EU always had. Nevertheless, both partners were always willing to work on differences in viewpoints and met at the same table to evaluate and advance their relationship – until today.
Britain decided to break away and leave the table. The referendum held on 23 June 2016 showed that 51.8% of the British people want to leave the EU. It is a small margin, but, given the high voting participation of about 70%, a referendum that reflects the current stance of the people in Britain. This must now be respected by the British government which will have to apply to leave the EU in a more formal process.
The rest of Europe and many pro-Europe supporters in Britain are shocked and saddened. Given the many problems the EU is facing currently, many fear a rise of nationalism and the end of the European Union if more and more countries are leaving. A substantial amount had rallied for a stronger EU that will be capable of solving big global problems such as increasing refugee numbers, climate change and remaining competitive among big players such as China, India and the US.
Nevertheless, many have also tried to view the positive side-effects this referendum may have. Among these are a wake-up call for EU and national politicians to dramatically improve the communication on how the EU is actually improving the lives of many thousands of people. Another one might be stronger focus on reforming decision-making processes to make them more democratic and transparent.
A story of 43 years of many agreements and disagreements has now ended. No one knows yet how it will continue – will it be a final break-up or will there be re-kindling in a few years or decades?
On the one hand, EU politicians want to make clear that ‘out is out’ and they will not allow the British government to cherry-pick the best deals for them without assuming any responsibility. On the other hand, as German chancellor Angela Merkel has said, the future relationship to the UK will be close and cooperative. Nevertheless, she also emphasized that the ‘European Union is a unique community of values and solidarity. The European Union is our warranty for peace, wealth and stability.’ It has been constructed to avoid wars and national resentment among European nations after two disastrous world wars that left Europe in shambles. This European Union has been built on the values of respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. This is the European Union we need to remember, that we need to cherish and that we now need to bring forward among all difficulties ahead.