Brexit and the Long, Slow EU-UK Divorce

This unhappy couple has been drifting apart for decades.

One could be forgiven for thinking that if Britain decides to leave the European Union on June 23, a whole host of horrible things will happen, including an economic meltdown, the collapse of the British National Health Service and a steep increase in unemployment across Britain (with Prime Minister David Cameron among those looking for a new job). Perhaps the most bizarre claim was made by Donald Tusk, current president of the European Council, who argued how a Brexit would mark nothing less than “the beginning of the destruction of western political civilization in its entirety.” Whatever the domestic impact of an exit for Britain, it is highly improbable that Tusk’s prophecy will come true. Indeed, it should be recalled that, despite some early setbacks (and a considerable degree of economic and political success), the European project had been in existence for twenty years before mildly Eurosceptic Britain finally boarded the European boat in 1973. Ironically, it was the post-membership years when harmony between the original EEC six was shattered, and a sense of hostility between London and its partners across the English Channel took hold of the integration process. But this was no ordinary lovers’ quarrel; the entirety of the past forty years of UK-EU relations is a turbulent narrative. Adopting a longue durée perspective, it is worth asking whether it is finally time to end Europe’s unhappiest political marriage? With British public opinion increasingly inclined to leave the EU, it is even more important to frame the question of Britain's relationship with Europe in realistic terms, however difficult that may be to accept.

On mature reflection a strong case can be made for divorce. Unhappy couples simply do not stay together. Even before membership, there was very little love lost between London and those attempting to forge an “ever-closer union” in the post-1945 period. Since the end of the Second World War, British relations with Europe have been troubled, and even Britain’s accession to what was then the EEC was poisoned with original sin. Denied membership to the EEC twice during the 1960s by the recalcitrance of French president Charles de Gaulle, Britain finally gained membership in 1973 after months of protracted negotiations between pro-European Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath and de Gaulle's successor, Georges Pompidou. But almost immediately after British accession, cracks appeared in that relationship. Indeed, if Cameron's latest strategy has a sense of déjà vu, it is because it comes almost directly out of the political playbook of former Labour Prime Minister  Harold Wilson. Just one year after Heath secured membership, Wilson made the renegotiation of British membership the centerpiece of Labour's 1974 election manifesto and promised, if elected, to hold a referendum on whether Britain would remain in the Community. Wilson’s party, like the Tories in more recent decades, remained hopelessly split on the Europe question, and seven of Wilson's cabinet colleagues openly pushed for a Brexit. Although Britain's original nationwide referendum on EEC membership ended with a comfortable “yes” vote in June 1975, it came only after Wilson negotiated generous additional monetary payments from Brussels through the Community’s regional policy. So while Britain avoided an annulment of its recent new partnership with Europe and Home Secretary Roy Jenkins claimed that the result “puts the uncertainty behind us”, his words rang hollow even at the time.

Britain’s relationship with its European partners deteriorated further when Margaret Thatcher entered Number 10 Downing Street in 1979. Thatcher was determined to confront what she viewed as the excesses associated with Britain’s annual contribution to the Community’s budget and EEC spending. After years of bickering with other European leaders, including German chancellor Helmut Kohl and French president François Mitterrand, Britain secured a permanent budgetary rebate at the 1984 European Council summit. Nonetheless, Thatcher continued to clash with European Commission President Jacques Delors throughout the 1980s over his attempts to advance European integration at the expense of national sovereignty. Fears from within even Tory ranks that Thatcher had overreached with her famous “No, No, No” speech to Europe contributed significantly to her downfall in 1990, though her successor John Major had an equally troubled relationship with Europe, especially after the Maastricht Treaty entered into force in 1993.