Reluctant European

Sir Stephen Wall, Political Expert, Historian, and Former Ambassador, highlights how the tale of British hostility towards Europe existed well before the referendum to leave the European Union. He reasons this through Britain’s sense of national identity, which has been in conflict with its political and economic need for partnership with continental Europe.


This blog post is published in conjunction with the UCL European Institute’s event Reluctant European: Britain and the EU from 1945 to Brexit, where Sir Stephen Wall will discuss his new book, “Reluctant European: Britain and the EU from 1945 – Brexit”. More about the event and registration details can be found here.


In 2016, voters in the United Kingdom decided to leave the European Union. The UK had been a member for more than 40 years. Yet, for much of that time, support for membership in the UK hovered either just below or just above the 50% mark. In most other EU countries levels of support for membership were almost invariably higher.

         There are three big landmarks in the history of the EU: the Single Market, enlargement to include the countries of Eastern and Central Europe, and the Single Currency. The Single Market for goods and services lies at the heart of the Treaty of Rome, the EU’s founding treaty of 1957. Yet very little was done to complete that market until Margaret Thatcher campaigned vigorously for it to happen in the mid 1980s. Paradoxically, for someone who was sceptical about European political integration, the changes wrought by the Single European Act of 1986 (the Treaty that allowed the Single Market to happen) were more far-reaching than anything else that had been done up to that point.

         Similarly, Mrs Thatcher was the first European leader, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, to proclaim publicly that Warsaw, Prague and Budapest were just as great European cities as Paris, Bonn or London. She, and her successors, John Major and Tony Blair, championed the cause of enlargement at a time when some other EU Member States were reluctant.

         So, in the case of two out of three of the big European achievements, the UK can claim significant successes for its membership of the EU, to the extent that, by the time of the 2016 referendum, most of our EU partners believed that the UK had skilfully shaped the organisation to suit its interests.

         However, the UK opted out of the third major development: the Single Currency. Through the Maastricht Treaty, the UK secured for itself the right to opt out of the currency, and to join later if it so chose. John Major was the Prime Minister who negotiated the opt-out/opt-in. I was working for him at the time and failed to foresee the extent to which the advent of the Single Currency would be the start of a parting of the ways, as the UK detached itself from what became the core existential policy for most of the other EU members.

         Significant as that divide was, not least in strengthening anti-EU sentiment within the Conservative Party, it was at the same time one more example of a Britain that had always been ill at ease with its membership of the EU. The UK emerged from the Second World War with its democratic institutions, and its own sense of moral rectitude, intact and enhanced. The same was not true for much of continental Europe. It was Churchill in 1946 who first gave voice to the radical idea that peace in Europe had to be based on the combined leadership of France and Germany, the enemies who had fought three wars in less than a century. Yet Churchill saw the UK, like the US, as benign supporters. Neither he, nor the Labour Government of post-war Britain, seriously considered UK membership of the European Coal and Steel Community, and then the European Community. The British disliked the pooling of sovereignty which lay at the heart of the new European project. The UK’s interests were perceived to lie more with the United States and with the Commonwealth, not least because, until the mid 1950s, most of the UK’s trade was with the countries of her former empire. As late as 1955, the UK’s largest export market was Australia.

         It was British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, in 1961, who perceived the economic success of the new European Community, the strong support for it from the USA, and the fact that the UK could no longer sit at the superpower top table alongside the United States and the Soviet Union. The decision to apply for membership was taken reluctantly: there was no alternative.

         Twice, first under Macmillan and then under his Labour successor, Harold Wilson, France’s President de Gaulle vetoed the UK’s application. When, ten years after the first application, the French finally lifted their veto, the UK was obliged to accept harsh terms as the price of entry. Successive British governments spent the next ten years renegotiating the terms of membership from within. Europe had become a battleground, both domestically and between the UK and her partners. The governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, in hock to the Murdoch Press, failed to make the case for the EU strongly and consistently. David Cameron, with a divided party under threat from UKIP, sought to solve his political problem by putting the whole issue to a referendum. We live with the consequences of that vote.


NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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