When Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath took Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973 it was with a sense of optimism. After two failed attempts, Britain would finally be able to trade freely with its closest neighbours, and enjoy the kind of economic recovery being felt in France and Germany. Yet since the EU’s conception after World War II, the UK has stood on the sidelines: its attitude towards Brussels standoffish and, at times, downright hostile. From the Schengen project to the Euro, the island nation has negotiated numerous exceptions and opt-outs from joint European endeavours.
Initially the strongest opposition to the EU came from left-wingers. At a 1975 party conference, two thirds of Labour members, including current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, voted to leave. For them, the EEC was too cosy and too capitalist…a juggernaut that had rolled over Britain’s jobs, welfare state and sovereignty in the name of free trade.
However, those allegiances changed when Margaret Thatcher came to power. European integration was moving beyond economics and dipping its collective toe into the water of political and social issues. For the Iron Lady, Brussels had overstepped its remit.
Today, many of Thatcher’s Conservatives are calling for Britain to wrest back powers from Brussels, or leave the EU altogether. They claim most of Britain’s concerns can be dealt with more efficiently at home, and even believe a “Brexit” would reduce demands on the country’s social security system: despite the fact that most EU migrants living in the UK work, and therefore pay tax. Whatever the arguments for and against, a referendum on EU membership is now a certainty, and will likely take place in the summer of 2016.
How did we get here? In this video – the first of viEUws’ “Brexit” series – we provide a short potted history of Britain’s tumultuous relationship with its continental cousins.
Discover our interactive timeline on the rocky relationship between the EU and the UK here.