Today marks a hugely significant day in British and European History. After 47 years of membership, the UK will officially leave the European Union at 11pm on Friday 31st January 2020. Though little will change in the immediate future while the UK moves through a transitional period, Brexit marks what Boris Johnson himself has called “the dawn of a new era”. So, in a Brexit 5 special, today we transport through the decades and look back on five significant events in the long-standing UK-EU relationship, as we bid farewell to our European neighbours.
70s – New year, new me
Though the UK belatedly began its application to join the EC (which would later become the EU), Britain was finally given the green light to join the Common Market in 1973, following negotiations in which the UK raised concerns about issues relating to sovereignty, agriculture and the free movement of labour. Then-PM Edward Heath, arguably the most pro-European Conservative to have ever held office, said the ceremony marked “an end and a beginning” and spoke of a “common European heritage”. But then, as now, disagreements about the UK’s membership existed across the political spectrum. Labour opposed what they called the “Tory terms” on which the UK had entered the Common Market and there was a strong anti-EU rhetoric in the right-wing facets of the Conservative party. Still, despite a degree of division, the United Kingdom officially joined the EC on New Year’s Day in 1973.
80s – Maggie’s Moment
Despite famously demanding for “a very large amount of our own money back” in 1984, Thatcher generally played a key role in establishing the UK’s relationship with the project of European integration and, despite her reservations, strongly supported the creation of a single European market. During a historic speech in Bruges in 1988, she spoke passionately about the Union, insisting that the foundations of the Union must be based on active cooperation between independent sovereign states: “Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community”. However, many argue that this speech did much to undermine the UK’s commitment to the EU because it questioned the direction in which Jacques Delors, the president of the European Commission, was taking the Union.
90s – Maastricht Mayhem
The Maastricht Treaty, signed in 1992, laid the foundations for a single European currency, significantly expanded cooperation between European countries, established EU citizenship and gave the EC broader authority with regards to community policies on development, education and public health. Reactions to the Treaty across Europe were mixed, with less than favourable reactions emerging in the UK. In an effort to appease Eurosceptic members of his party, Thatcher’s successor John Major had negotiated opt-outs for the UK joining the Euro. After Tony Blair’s Labour government emerged as winners in the 1997 election, the Treaty was brought into UK law. However, negative sentiments towards the EU, exacerbated by the implementation of the Maastricht Treaty and the reformation of the EU’s control, would continue to dominate UK politics for many years to come.
00s – The Big Bang
The EU’s most ambitious expansion to date took place in 2004, when ten new member states joined, of which eight were former communist countries in Eastern and Central Europe. Tony Blair called the moment “a great opportunity for Britain”. Over the following years, hundreds of thousands of Eastern Europeans would come to live and work in the UK after their labour markets opened to citizens of new member states immediately without any restrictions, igniting debate on immigration, free movement and open borders. Following this influx of immigration, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) began campaigning against immigration and EU membership. UKIP came third in the European elections in 2004. Ten years later, Farage’s party emerged victors.
10s – The end is nigh
As anti-European voices grew increasingly loud, David Cameron’s victory in 2010 opened up an opportunity for Eurosceptics within the Conservative party to put pressure on their leader to address the issue of EU membership. Marking what has arguably come to be the most significant political decision in the UK’s recent history, Cameron pledged to renegotiate the UK’s membership with the EU and hold a referendum if the Conservatives won the election in 2015: “It is time to settle this European question in British politics…I say to the British people: this will be your decision.” Critics accused him of using the issue to serve his career. The Conservative Party, along with the whole country, found itself divided between two cohorts: “Leavers” and “Remainers”. Cameron himself campaigned to remain in the EU but on the 24 June 2016, the fate of the UK’s relationship was sealed and the rest is history…
The Whitehouse team are experts in the potential impact of Brexit, providing political consultancy and public affairs advice to a wide range of clients, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the member states of the European Union. More information about our Brexit experience can be found here, or, if you have any questions, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at firstname.lastname@example.org.