There has been a near total absence of historical context since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in June. The British have had a tortured relationship with European integration for several decades now. In 1945, after two global conflicts had concluded on the European continent in twenty-five years, some European (and many American) policymakers began the process of bringing Europe together in way that would spawn unprecedented interdependence and thus reduce the likelihood of yet another major war. Winston Churchill famously espoused a “United States of Europe,” but he did not intend for the UK to be a part of it.
The British were never enthusiastic about this process. Even collective defense and the creation of NATO—both hailed today by most proponents of Brexit—were viewed with skepticism by UK political elites and many citizens in the wake of World War Two, despite their clear-eyed appreciation of the emerging Soviet threat. While British leaders saw the value and necessity of European unification, the United Kingdom was skeptical of its own participation in continental integration projects.
Two factors drove these sentiments. First, the UK wanted to safeguard what Churchill called its “special relationship” with the United States. Less than a year later, London notified the United States of its inability to finance Greece and Turkey in the face of internal communist threats and external Soviet pressure. It was now clear that the UK’s younger cousin would inherit leadership of the Western world and spearhead its confrontation with Soviet communism. A collective Europe with the UK as its member would surely undermine the special relationship it was thought.
Second, the British Empire would soon be greatly reduced, but its leaders refused to engage in a corresponding adjustment of their imperial mentality. After being the world’s most dominant nation for over three centuries, the British did not want to be treated as just another European country—neither victorious but war-torn France, nor vanquished Germany. They would not allow themselves to be dragged into a nebulous union to advance the interests of others, that is, in order to assuage French fears of long-term German domination and help create conditions that would justify U.S. withdrawal from Europe.
The latter was certainly on the minds of American policymakers at the time. It was neither their desire nor their intention immediately after WWII to maintain a large U.S. troop presence in Europe and to keep European countries dependent on the United States. They soon concluded that the rapid political, economic and military revitalization of Europe could only be achieved on the basis of European integration, which was far more likely to succeed with British involvement. The United States put substantial pressure on the UK to take part in Europe’s unification. It succeeded with respect to collective security and NATO—only because the United States itself was willing to join, which preserved the special relationship—but failed to convince London to participate in the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and the European Economic Community (EEC).
Both Labour and Conservative governments under Clement Attlee and Anthony Eden declined to participate in the creation of a common European market. But by the late 1950s the UK’s attitude toward Europe and its economic integration project had shifted. This shift, however, was on pragmatic rather than philosophical grounds. The British did not suddenly see the merits of European integration like the French and Germans who viewed continental union as a way to achieve stability and—for the Gaullists at least—independence from the United States. The British viewed the European project almost purely in the context of economic growth. While European output surged in the decade after hostilities ended the British economy sputtered and could not seem to gain traction.
In 1961, the European common market looked far more attractive to the UK than it did just several years prior. That year the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan formally applied to the join the EEC. While Macmillan seemed to embrace the economic and even political rationale behind European integration, he also emphasized the importance of UK relations with the rest of the world and told the House of Commons:
“I believe that it is both our duty and our interest to contribute towards that strength by securing the closest possible unity within Europe. At the same time, if a closer relationship between the United Kingdom and the countries of the European Economic Community were to disrupt the long-standing and historic ties between the United Kingdom and the other nations of the Commonwealth the loss would be greater than the gain. The Commonwealth is a great source of stability and strength both to Western Europe and to the world as a whole, and I am sure that its value is fully appreciated by the member Governments of the European Economic Community.”
Because of his concerns related to the UK’s special relationship with the United States and its global rather than European focus, Charles de Gaulle vetoed British EEC membership in 1961 and again in 1967 when it applied to join under Harold Wilson’s Labour government. De Gaulle explained his decision:
“Britain is insular, maritime, bound up by its trade, its markets, its food supplies, with the most varied and often the most distant countries. Her activity is essentially industrial and commercial, not agricultural. She has, in all her work, very special, and original habits and traditions. In short, the nature, structure, circumstances peculiar to England are very different from those of other continentals. How can Britain, in the way that she lives, produces, trades, be incorporated into the Common Market as it has been conceived and functions?”
Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath established a close relationship with de Gaulle’s successor Georges Pompidou who eventually lifted French objections and in 1973 the UK finally joined what would later become the EU. Already in 1975, however, Wilson returned to Downing Street and retained his pledge to hold a referendum on EEC membership, despite having advocated for accession and filing an application during his previous mandate. Labour argued that the Conservatives had negotiated poor terms for UK membership and worried that EEC rules would prevent the party from pursuing leftist industrial policies.
Foreign Secretary John Callaghan also opposed the notion of European Union, which he described as “quite unrealistic and not desired by our peoples, certainly not by the British people.” He said that the UK was “deeply concerned about the politics of the [European Economic] Community; about the broad direction which it is going to take both in its international development and in its relations with other countries and group of countries.” Callaghan emphasized that the UK wanted to “remain a member of an effective Atlantic Alliance” and expressed concern about disagreements between the EEC and the United States.
In its 1974 election platform Labour promised to renegotiate the terms of EEC membership and then arrange a referendum to determine whether the UK would continue to participate in the Common Market. Although French Foreign Minister Jean Sauvagnargues called the UK’s objectives “wholly contrary to the very spirit of the community,” by March 1975, London had successfully convinced the eight other member states and European Commission to revise the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), grant the UK a refund of 125 million pounds because of “unfair” budgetary practices, and provide several other assurances regarding Labour’s continued ability to pursue “full employment.” Parliament overwhelmingly approved the renegotiation 396–170 and over 67 percent of Britons voted to remain in the EEC.
Much like the recent Brexit vote, the 1975 referendum was supported by a vast majority of parliamentarians, but it sharply divided the party and cabinet that organized the ballot. Soon thereafter, however, Labour decisively gravitated away from Euroskepticism and began to strongly favor European integration. The leftist elements of Labour who were previously worried about Europe’s encroachment on their authority to subsidize particular industries, and sectors of the economy realized that the Commission could serve as an ally rather than foe when it came to protecting the interests of the party’s electorate. As Labour became increasingly supportive of the European project and the UK’s role in it, the Conservatives, who had led the UK into Europe and almost unanimously supported continued EEC membership during the referendum, started to move in an anti-European direction.
Enter Margaret Thatcher. She took the helm of the Conservative Party in 1975 and four years later became prime minister. Among her qualms with the EEC, Thatcher believed that London still contributed disproportionately more to the Community budget than it received in benefits. At the time the UK was the second poorest member state and did not have a large agriculture sector, which was particularly salient because most of the budget was spent on CAP. On the basis of this Thatcher successfully negotiated an annual rebate in 1984 that has lowered the UK’s contribution to common budget since then.
In her 1988 Bruges speech Thatcher affirmed, “Britain does not dream of some cozy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.” But she also argued for a limited form of European integration that recognized the preeminence of sovereignty. Thatcher declared: