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History of European Union–United Kingdom relations

Since the foundation of the European Communities, the United Kingdom has been an important neighbour and is currently a major member, until its withdrawal.


EU roots and British accession (1957–1973)Edit

The UK was not a signatory of the three original treaties that were incorporated into what was then the European Communities, including the most well known of these, the 1957 Treaty of Rome, establishing the European Economic Community (EEC). Britain first began talks to join the EEC in July 1961.[1] The UK's applications to join in 1963 and 1967 were vetoed by the President of France, Charles de Gaulle, who said that "a number of aspects of Britain's economy, from working practices to agriculture" had "made Britain incompatible with Europe" and that Britain harboured a "deep-seated hostility" to any pan-European project.[2]

Once de Gaulle had relinquished the French presidency in 1969, the UK made a third and successful application for membership. By this time attitudes to Britain joining the EEC had shifted in political and business circles in both the UK and France: by the late 1960s exports from Britain to western Europe outstripped those to countries participating in Imperial Preference and British investment in the EEC was faster than that going to the Commonwealth. Large firms in advanced manufacturing became increasingly vocal advocates of joining the EEC, and the Confederation of British Industry, whose predecessor the Federation of British Industries had originally opposed the establishment of a European customs union after World War II, stressed the importance of pan-European investment, collaboration and coordinated industrial policy. In France, government and business opinion were increasingly aware that American firms were dominating high-tech sectors and were better at organising integrated production networks in Europe than local companies, in part due to the fragmentation of European businesses, as argued by Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber in his 1967 book Le défi américain. In response, senior French civil servants and the country's main employer's organisation, the Conseil national du patronat français, lobbied to reverse de Gaulle's policy regarding British membership.[3]

The question of sovereignty had been discussed at the time in an official Foreign and Commonwealth Office document. It listed among "Areas of policy in which parliamentary freedom to legislate will be affected by entry into the European Communities": Customs duties, Agriculture, Free movement of labour, services and capital, Transport, and Social Security for migrant workers. The document concluded (paragraph 26) that it was advisable to put the considerations of influence and power before those of formal sovereignty.[4]

The Treaty of Accession was signed in January 1972 by the then prime minister Edward Heath, leader of the Conservative Party.[5] Parliament's European Communities Act 1972 was enacted on 17 October, and the UK's instrument of ratification was deposited the next day (18 October),[6] letting the United Kingdom's membership of the EC come into effect on 1 January 1973.[7]

Referendum of 1975Edit

In 1975, the United Kingdom held its first ever national referendum on whether the UK should remain in the European Communities. The governing Labour Party, led by Harold Wilson, had contested the October 1974 general election with a commitment to renegotiate Britain's terms of membership of the EC and then hold a referendum on whether to remain in the EC on the new terms.[8] All of the major political parties and the mainstream press supported continuing membership of the EC. However, there were significant divides within the ruling Labour Party; a 1975 one-day party conference voted by two to one in favour of withdrawal,[9] and seven of the 23 cabinet ministers were opposed to EC membership,[10] with Harold Wilson suspending the constitutional convention of Cabinet collective responsibility to allow those ministers to publicly campaign against the government.

On 5 June 1975, the electorate were asked to vote yes or no on the question: "Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?" Every administrative county and region in the UK returned majority "Yes" votes, apart from the Shetland Islands and the Outer Hebrides. With a turnout of just under 65%, the outcome of the vote was 67.2% in favour of staying in, and the United Kingdom remained a member of the EC.[11] Support for the UK to leave the EC in 1975, in the data, appears unrelated to the support for Leave in the 2016 referendum.[12]

From Referendum to Maastricht Treaty (1975–1992)Edit

Comparison of results of 1975 and 2016 referendums

In 1979, the United Kingdom opted out of the newly formed European Monetary System (EMS), which was the precursor to the creation of the euro currency.

The opposition Labour Party campaigned in the 1983 general election on a commitment to withdraw from the EC without a referendum.[13] It was heavily defeated; the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher was re-elected. The Labour Party subsequently changed its policy.[13]

In 1985, the United Kingdom ratified the Single European Act—the first major revision to the Treaty of Rome — without a referendum, with the full support of the Thatcher government.[citation needed]

In October 1990 — despite the deep reservations of Margaret Thatcher,[citation needed] who was under pressure from her senior ministers[citation needed] — the United Kingdom joined the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), with the pound sterling de facto pegged to the deutsche mark.

Maastricht Treaty and Referendum partyEdit

Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister in November 1990, amid internal divisions within the Conservative Party that arose partly from her increasingly Eurosceptic views. The United Kingdom was forced to withdraw from the ERM in September 1992, after the pound sterling came under pressure from currency speculators (an episode known as Black Wednesday). The resulting cost to UK taxpayers was estimated to be in excess of £3 billion.[14][15]

As a result of the Maastricht Treaty, the European Communities became the European Union on 1 November 1993.[16] The new name reflected the evolution of the organisation from an economic union into a political union.[17] As a result of the Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force on 1 December 2009, the Maastricht Treaty is now known, in updated form as, the Treaty on European Union (2007) or TEU, and the Treaty of Rome is now known, in updated form, as the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (2007) or TFEU.

The Referendum Party was formed in 1994 by Sir James Goldsmith to contest the 1997 general election on a platform of providing a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU.[18] It fielded candidates in 547 constituencies at that election, and won 810,860 votes or 2.6% of the total votes cast.[19] It failed to win a single parliamentary seat because its vote was spread out across the country, and lost its deposit (funded by Goldsmith) in 505 constituencies.[19]

Role of UKIP (1993–2016)Edit

The UK Independence Party (UKIP), a Eurosceptic political party, was also formed, in 1993. It achieved third place in the UK during the 2004 European elections, second place in the 2009 European elections and first place in the 2014 European elections, with 27.5% of the total vote. This was the first time since the 1910 general election that any party other than the Labour or Conservative parties had taken the largest share of the vote in a nationwide election.[20] UKIP's electoral success in the 2014 European election has been documented as the strongest correlate of the support for the leave campaign in the 2016 referendum.[21]

In 2014, UKIP won two by-elections, triggered by defecting Conservative MPs, and in the 2015 general election took 12.6% of the total vote and held one of the two seats won in 2014.[22]

Controversy on the European Court of Human Rights in 2013Edit

The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) was drafted in 1950, largely under British leadership,[citation needed] and its court (ECtHR) was established in 1953. EU institutions are bound under article 6 of the Treaty of Nice[citation needed] to respect human rights under the Convention, over and above for example the Law of the United Kingdom.[23] The Court was criticised especially within the Conservative Party for ruling in favour of British prisoners obtaining the right to vote.[24][25][26][27] During the referendum the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, had called for the UK to leave the ECHR[28]

It must be noted that neither the ECHR or ECtHR are formally part of the European Union, and are not connected to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). The ECHR was drafted by, and the ECtHR is part of, the Council of Europe, of which the UK was a founding member in 1949. The UK was an independent signatory to the ECHR, 21 years before joining the EC/EU, in 1951.[29] It should be noted that the European Court of Human Rights (which is the court founded by the European Convention of Human Rights) does not have constitutional supremacy over the various judiciaries of European Countries. The European Court of Justice (which is the court founded by the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union) does in fact try to follow the European Convention of Human Rights and the judgements/opinions of the European Court of Human Rights.[30]

Euroscepticism (1993–2016)Edit

In a statistical analysis published in April 2016, Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University defined Euroscepticism as the wish to sever or reduce the powers of the EU, and conversely Europhilia as the desire to preserve or increase the powers of the EU. According to this definition, the British Social Attitudes (BSA) surveys show an increase in euroscepticism from 38% (1993) to 65% (2015). Euroscepticism should however not be confused with the wish to leave the EU: the BSA survey for the period July–November 2015 shows that 60% backed the option "continue as an EU member", and only 30% backed the option to "withdraw".[31]

Opinion polling 1993-2003Edit

Since 1977, both pro- and anti-European views have had majority support at different times, with some dramatic swings between the two camps.[32] In the United Kingdom European Communities membership referendum of 1975, two-thirds of British voters favoured continued EC membership. The highest-ever rejection of membership was in 1980, the first full year of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's term of office, with 65% opposed to and 26% in favour of membership.[32]

After Thatcher had negotiated a rebate of British membership payments in 1984, those favouring the EC maintained a lead in the opinion polls, except during 2000, as Prime Minister Tony Blair aimed for closer EU integration, including adoption of the euro currency, and around 2011, as immigration into the United Kingdom became increasingly noticeable.[32] As late as December 2015 there was, according to ComRes, a clear majority in favour of remaining in the EU, albeit with a warning that voter intentions would be considerably influenced by the outcome of Prime Minister David Cameron's ongoing EU reform negotiations, especially with regards to the two issues of "safeguards for non-Eurozone member states" and "immigration".[33] The following events are relevant.

Brexit (2017–2019)Edit

From 2017 to 2019, UK has engaged in negotiating a Brexit between the European Union and herself. Between UK and EU, this Brexit would consist in a withdrawal agreement and a trade agreement, while at a global level this would/might also split various FTA. The withdrawal agreement is viewed by the EU as a "settlement of accounts" unrelated to the post-exit trade agreement, and viewed by the UK as a 'goodwill payment' to enable a fair post-exit trade agreement. In the event of a no-deal scenario each side will consequently have different views as to the validity of any payment.


  1. ^ Tognina, Andrea (2 April 2019). "How the Swiss and Brits have dealt with Europe". SWI Retrieved 13 July 2019.
  2. ^ "1967: De Gaulle says 'non' to Britain – again". BBC News. 27 November 1976. Retrieved 9 March 2016.
  3. ^ Georgiou, Christakis (April 2017). "British Capitalism and European Unification, from Ottawa to the Brexit Referendum". Historical Materialism. 25 (1): 90–129. doi:10.1163/1569206X-12341511. Retrieved 14 September 2019.
  4. ^ FCO 30/1048, Legal and constitutional implications of UK entry into EEC (open from 1 January 2002 under the Thirty-year rule).[1]
  5. ^ "Into Europe". Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  6. ^ "English text of EU Accession Treaty 1972, Cmnd. 7463" (PDF). Retrieved 24 February 2017.
  7. ^ "1973: Britain joins the EEC". BBC News. 1 January 1973. Retrieved 9 March 2016.
  8. ^ Alex May, Britain and Europe since 1945 (1999).
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  10. ^ DAvis Butler. "The 1975 Referendum" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 August 2016. Retrieved 19 May 2016. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  11. ^ "Research Briefings – The 1974–1975 UK Renegotiation of EEC Membership and Referendum". Parliament of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 19 May 2016.
  12. ^ "Who Voted for Brexit? A comprehensive district level analysis". Becker, Fetzer, Novy, University of Warwick. Retrieved 22 November 2016.
  13. ^ a b Vaidyanathan, Rajini (4 March 2010). "Michael Foot: What did the 'longest suicide note' say?". BBC News Magazine. BBC. Retrieved 21 October 2015.
  14. ^ Dury, Hélène. "Black Wednesday" (PDF). Retrieved 24 February 2016.
  15. ^ Tempest, Matthew (9 February 2005). "Treasury papers reveal cost of Black Wednesday". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 26 April 2010.
  16. ^ "EU treaties". Europa (web portal). Archived from the original on 13 September 2016. Retrieved 15 September 2016. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  17. ^ "EUROPA The EU in brief". Europa (web portal). Retrieved 19 May 2016.
  18. ^ Wood, Nicholas (28 November 1994). "Goldsmith forms a Euro referendum party". The Times. p. 1.
  19. ^ a b "UK Election 1997". Archived from the original on 21 September 2011. Retrieved 16 July 2015. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  20. ^ "10 key lessons from the European election results". The Guardian. 26 May 2014. Retrieved 31 May 2014.
  21. ^ "Does Migration Cause Extreme Voting?" (PDF). Becker and Fetzer, University of Warwick. 18 October 2016. Retrieved 30 November 2016.
  22. ^ Matt Osborn (7 May 2015). "2015 UK general election results in full". The Guardian.
  23. ^ "Why are the Conservatives against the European court of human rights?". Guardian newspapers London. 14 July 2014. Retrieved 6 May 2017.
  24. ^ "European court is not superior to UK supreme court, says Lord Judge (the former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales)". The Guardian newspaper, Londion. 14 December 2013. Retrieved 6 May 2017.
  25. ^ "David Cameron to 'scrap' Human Rights Act for new 'British Bill of rights'". Independent Newspaper, London. 1 October 2014. Retrieved 6 May 2017.
  26. ^ "Human Rights Act versus a British Bill of Rights". British Broadcasting Corporation, Newsbeat report, London. 25 May 2015. Retrieved 6 May 2017.
  27. ^ "Plan to scrap Human Rights Act delayed again". Guardian Newspapers London. 2 December 2015. Retrieved 6 May 2017.
  28. ^ "UK must leave European convention on human rights, says Theresa May". Guardian newspapers London. 25 April 2017. Retrieved 6 May 2017.
  29. ^ "BBC News | UK | Human Rights: The European Convention". Retrieved 2018-10-29.
  30. ^
  31. ^ Tarran, Brian (8 April 2016). "The Economy: a Brexit vote winner?". Significance. 13 (2): 6–7. doi:10.1111/j.1740-9713.2016.00891.x.
  32. ^ a b c Mortimore, Roger. "Polling history: 40 years of British views on 'in or out' of Europe". The Conversation. Retrieved 25 October 2016.
  33. ^ New Open Europe/ComRes poll: Failure to win key reforms could swing UK's EU referendum vote, 16 December 2015.