Relationship between Britain and European Union since 1945

Relationship between Britain and European Union since 1945


Great Britain is composed of states that have significant influence on most aspects of international relations. Among all the relationships, that Britain has had with other nations or regions where it traditionally had substantial influence and developed active foreign policies. The relationship with European Union has been most significant to it since 1945. Geographically the British Isles are in Western Europe however, Britain had for a long time viewed themselves to be more than Europe, which they associated mostly with the continental nations. It had an aloofness towards Europe.  After World War 2, the Great Britain lost most of its imperial power and was no longer an empire, which necessitated it to seek new tools to enhance its influence in the global stage. The European community stood out as the opportunity the Great Britain needed to restore stability. Additionally, the deepening integration among the Western Europe countries increased the need for Britain to rethink its identity as a European country, which marked the start of the rocky relationship between Britain and Europe for decades. The European Union has over the years enlarged and achieved new roles in the global community however; it has had complex relationship with UK, which has become a significant topic of study. This paper therefore, provides an elaborate discussion of the relationship between Britain and European Union since 1945.

The Idea to Join or not: 1945 to 1969

European Union has its origin after 1945 where the European nations sort to form close ties with each other with a desire to avoid a repeat of the damages they had caused each other (Dittmer & Dorn, 2013). At this point even its ally United States encouraged Britain to join the European Economic Community. Winston Churchill the then president of US supported the idea stating that it would be a structure that would offer safety, freedom and peace to the European nations. He referred it as a form of United States of Europe (Dittmer & Dorn, 2013).

However, the UK had withstood the Nazi invasion alone for a whole year during the Second World War 11. This reinstalled nationalist attitude and feelings of its supremacy hence it considered the formation of a European alliance as an association for the weak or defeated (Dittmer & Dorn, 2013). As a result, Britain did not participate in the formation of the European coal and steel community in 1951. Britain also had reservation that its social workers were not going to be protected when UK participated in the coal and steel community. Additionally, the labor party that won in 1945 was suspicious of the six Christian democratic countries that formed and dominated the European Economic Community (Leach, Coxall & Robins, 2011). This led it to decline an invitation to join the six countries during the signing of the treaty of Rome in 1957. Jean Monnet was an architect of the European coal and steel community and is of the opinion that Britain failed to join the alliance because of the price of victory. That is the illusion that Britain could still maintain what it originally had without there being any changes (Dittmer & Dorn, 2013).

In the 1950s, UK economy was stuck in a rut due to economic restraints that made it less favourable in comparison to other nation’s economies such as France and Germany whose post war economy recovery was strong due to formation of an alliance. Further, the political relations with the common wealth countries was loosening. Therefore, in 1957 when the founding nations of the European Economic Community (EEC) were signing the treaty of Rome UK supported the idea of free trade areas (Dittmer & Dorn, 2013). Britain supported the free trade areas in order to strengthen its ties with the commonwealth nations. This was with the exception of agricultural products and against the common external tariff. Instead of joining the EEC in 1957 it formed another treaty called the Stockholm treaty in 1959 with Norway, Austria, Denmark, Portugal and Switzerland to form a European Free Trade Area (EFTA) which was not successful for Britain (Leach et al., 2011).

Nevertheless, the founding nations in particular Germany and France formed an alliance and this rattled the British as they saw the two countries, which they were suspicious about form a powerful alliance (Leach et al., 2011). As a result, Britain reconsidered its attitude towards the ECC and decided to apply to be a member in 1961. At that time the idea was launched and supported by the conservatives led by the then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. However, Charles de Gaulle who was the president of France in 1963 vetoed its application twice. De Gaulle opposed UK entry into the ECC because of two reasons. First, he accused Britain of having deep hostility against the European constructions. This was because of Britain questioning the fundamental rules that formed the bases of the common agricultural policy when it was invited for negotiations on agricultural products in 1962 (Dittmer & Dorn, 2013). Secondly, he perceived the support that UK received from US to join the ECC as a threat being that the US was a foreign federator hence he accused Britain of being more interested in forming ties with the US (Dittmer & Dorn, 2013). EU decided to place Britain on a waiting list that lasted for one year without being given a leadership position. This was considered as a humiliating defeat to all those dedicated to the British efforts to join the EEC.

In the subsequent years the European economy was stagnant and the economic and monetary situations were difficult for UK. Further there was the crisis of de Gaulle refusal to sit in the ECC meetings (Leach et al., 2011). The prime minister for labour at that time Wilson and the foreign affairs secretary recommended for a new adhesion demand and negotiation strategy that would convince De Gaulle to change his position (Leach et al., 2011). They focused on pledging a robust community that had not only a strong economy but also strong military fields and political power. However, France did not change its position and UK remained a non-member until after De Gaulle resigned and George Pompidou took leadership in France (Leach et al., 2011).

UK being part of the Common Market 1970-1979

The resignation of De Gaulle in 1969 made it possible for Britain to engage in proper negotiations with the EEC. The De Gaulle veto was lifted after Pompidou took over the presidency, which commenced the lengthy deliberations, discussions and negotiations (Dittmer & Dorn, 2013). At the time, the conservatives had won the election and Edward Heath was the prime minister of UK. Heath and his team of negotiators faced difficulties due to disagreements on matters relating to the common wealth countries and transitory measures for Common Agricultural Policy. During the negotiations there was no questioning of the Hague agreement, the existing treaties could not be modified by the transitory measures and the ECC achievements referred as Acquis communautaire were to be maintained (Leach et al., 2011). In mid-1971 the member states and UK arrived at an agreement. There was a strong division between the labor party members and the Tories on the necessity of UK joining ECC to become part of the continental Europe. As Leach et al. (2011) is quick to note the labor party was opposed to the idea of Britain joining ECC in the 1960s and 70s. An example is in the 1960 Hugh Gaitskell the labor party leader was of the opinion that Britain joining ECC would destroy its longtime history. Another head of the labor party Harold Wilson pledged with a motto that was opposed to Britain entering the ECC on tory terms (Leach et al., 2011). The labor party was more committed to socialism and nationalism in only one country.

Nevertheless, Heath proposal to the parliament was supported by a majority of 356 votes against 244 votes that were against Britain joining ECC. In 1972, the member states signed the accession treaty with the exception of Norway that was opposed to the ratification of the adhesion treaty (Leach et al., 2011). UK joined the ECC in 1973 but the uneven relationship continued across the union.  There was division among the labor party as some were still opposed to Britain entering the ECC. There were sharp debates on the issue that led to Tony Benn a labor party member to propose for a referendum to determine the need for joining the union in 1972 (Leach et al., 2011). This influenced the general election in 1974 that saw Harold Wilson being elected as the prime minister of UK. He declared he would renegotiate on the terms of British contribution to the community and on changes to the CAP. As a result the Dublin agreement in 1975 provided for changes in the budgetary process and CAP in terms of imports from new-Zealand. However, no labor themes were include in the agenda for discussion (Leach et al., 2011).

Harold Wilson put the issues that were renegotiated to a referendum. He was in favor of Britain remaining in the European Economic Community. Some of the labor party members supported the prime minister campaign for Britain to remain in the union while the others were against it. Most of the people were of the view that Britain should remain in the community as 67% wanted to remain in the union (Leach et al., 2011). This showed the public support although the renegotiated terms did not solve the budgetary issues.

Margaret Thatcher and the ECC Relations 1979-1990

Margaret thatcher was elected as the prime minister of UK in 1979. She strongly supported the free market economy and reduction of the state intervention in the economy. She supported nationalist views and is sometimes referred as Eurosceptic (Dittmer & Dorn, 2013). There is some truth in it because she favored the part of European integration that would enhance the open market. Additionally, she is responsible for the establishment of the single market which is considered as the greatest European Union achievement (Wallace, 2016). Nevertheless, in the 1980s the divide between UK and Brussels was increasing because Thatcher was opposed to the idea of the European super-state that wanted to exercise new dominance from Brussels (Leach et al., 2011). This was after Jacques Delors was selected to lead the European commission where she was advocating for a single currency and more federalization of Europe. In 1983 Kinnock Neil the opposition leader had successfully negotiated for the opposition to renounce its resistance and support the UK integration into the European monetary and economic union (Leach et al., 2011).

However, the British rebate agreement (1984) a result of tuff negotiations under the leadership of Margaret thatcher gained more attention diminishing the efforts of Neil. The British rebate was because Britain was receiving less agricultural subsidies in comparison to other nations such as France. Britain had small firms hence less subsidies but thatcher threated to halt payments if a rebate was not agreed upon (Dittmer & Dorn, 2013). During this period Britain was third poorest nation in the union but was on the path of being the biggest contributor to the community budget. It is a mechanism for controlling and balancing the costs and benefits incurred by being part of ECC. UK was contributing a lot to the community budget where much of it was allocated to the CAP which was not generating enough benefits for UK in comparison to what they contributed (Leach et al., 2011). As such the concept of ‘we pay for what we earn’ significantly influenced and shaped the European negotiations over the years.

EU Membership and Relations in the 1990s

Margaret thatcher’s successor John Major was also like thatcher not supportive of more political and economic integration in the community. Major’s agreement to secure for opt out from the social and single currency matters in the union was the epitome of the UK isolation (Leach et al., 2011). However, Major ratified the Maastricht treaty in 1992, which transferred most of the powers from individual member states to the European Union. The treaty required the member states to cooperate on security and foreign policies. The Eurosceptic Tories were against the ratification of the Maastricht treaty (Dittmer & Dorn, 2013). The European integration was being defeated because there lacked an EU constitution that could be enforced in the member states. This was a main factor that contributed to the increment of euro skeptics in Britain such as the labor party who were against the integration. In 1992, the removal of UK from the exchange rate mechanism is marked as one of the most humiliating moments in the relationship between Britain and Europe (Dittmer & Dorn, 2013). The 16th of September 1992 is also referred as the black Wednesday was the Chancellor of the Exchequer was forced to announce Britain’s withdrawal after it failed to control the substantive currency speculations at the time,

In 1997, Tony Blair was elected as the prime minister of UK and he quickly demonstrated support for the European integration by signing Britain up under the social chapter (Dittmer & Dorn, 2013). This provided social protections that were long awaited and he focused on the euro. However, at the time the British economy was stable hence there lacked enough support for the euro which forced the chancellor Brown to halt the plans.


EU membership and relations in the 21st century

British chocolate was not allowed to be sold in Europe until the year 2000. Britain had been involved in disputes with other member states such as France and Belgium that insisted that chocolate should be made from cocoa butter only (Wallace, 2016).

In 2004, the UK prime minister and France president had a fall out during negotiations on the European constitution. France had reservation that the concessions would establish a ‘two speed Europe’ which ended with Holland and France voting against UK in the referendums (Wallace, 2016). After the disagreements on the EU constitution plan, the members formed the Lisbon treaty that took two years for an agreement to be reached. In 2007, the chancellor Gordon Brown missed the signing of the Lisbon treaty, which involved handing over greater powers to Brussels (Wallace, 2016). In 2011, the prime minister of UK developed plans for putting restrictions on the London financial sector and levying the banks, which was against the EU agreements. Additionally, in 2014 the prime minister was ready to lead Britain out of the European Union due to the migration issues (Wallace, 2016). Finally, in 2016 due to the troubles experienced in the Eurozone and the increment of the migration problems led to the prime minister calling for a referendum that saw Britons opt out of the European Union (Wallace, 2016).


Going over the evidence in history one can identify certain themes that have featured in the relationship between Britain and European Union since inception in 1945. There is a certain level of antagonism throughout history. The common agricultural policy, political integration, Britain contribution to the common budget and the euro have been the main areas where conflicts arises in the relationship between Britain and the European Union. It is clear that Britain has over the past years has been focusing more on isolating itself from the union than on building lasting economic and political integration with the EU member states. The complexities of issues such as the increment migration within the member states and other problems arising from the euro led to the Britons voting out from the European UnionReferences

Dittmer, L., & Dorn, L. (2013). The United Kingdom as an outsider to the EU: History, politics and ideological determinants. München: GRIN Verlag.

Leach, R., Coxall, B. and Robins, L., (2011). British politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wallace, H. (2016). Reflections: Does Britain need the European Union? Does the European Union need Britain? British Academy Lectures 2014-15, 185-196. doi:10.5871/bacad/9780197265987.003.0007


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