• Kirsty Gregson

Brexit: A Brief History of the UK and EU Relations

In 2016 a vote was cast on the future of the UK in the European Union. 4 years later the country is still in limbo as to whether leaving the Union is a good idea. Most people never really understood what the European Union is until the campaign began for the 2016 referendum. The relationship between the UK and the EU has been a long and tricky one. The UK has often had issues with being told what to do by the higher authority, and eventually it has led to this…Brexit.


Hopefully, this will give you a bit of an understanding as to the past relations of the EU and the UK. I have chosen to discuss some of the main events in history and so there are some points you may think come across in other readings that are not included here.

So where did it all begin…Once upon a time there were two countries, they had had a tough relationship in the past and wanted to try and push past the history and focus on the future. One of these countries was called Germany, the other France. They put together the Schuman Plan in 1950. This plan aimed at creating a single authority to control the production of steel and coal between them. This was then to be opened for membership to other European countries…


A year later six more countries wanted in on the action. The creation of the European Coal and Steel Community formed (1951). Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany all signed to join the community and it was designed to integrate the coal and steel industries in these countries. As the bond between the countries formed, they decided to form the European Economic Community via the Treaty of Rome (1957). This is one of the most notable steps in the creation of the European Union.


The European Economic Community was growing stronger by the day. The objective of the group was almost envious. Some people believe it was this envy that led to the formation of the European Free Trade Association. This involved countries outside of the European Economic Community signing the Stockholm Convention (1960). Britain seemed to be leading the organisation, but it was no competitor for the European Economic Community and so was ineffective in establishing a useful free trade area.


Feeling a bit rough with the little success of the European Free Trade Association, the UK made an application to the European Economic Community (1961). The French President however blocked UK membership. It is argued that the veto was made because the French President was fearful of the relationship between the UK and the US and thought that the US would try to infiltrate the European Economic Community via the UK.


So, Britain tries again. The UK makes a second application to the European Economic Community and they are more hopeful, but the French President vetoes the UK’s membership again. Finally, the UK manages to join the European Economic Community and is an effective member from 1973. So, the UK join the EU, all seems well, and the British economy started to do well.


As can be seen by this graph here:


But there is an issue. Within both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party there are a few people who are sceptical of the EU. They do not understand why the UK should give money to the EU in order to form a united economy. The issues with the European Union really start to establish themselves when Margaret Thatcher became the Prime Minister of the UK. In 1984, she secured the first “rebate” from the EU, she subsequently soars in popularity. She later delivered a speech to the College of Europe in Bruges in which she criticises the direction of the European Community, she says: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at European level, with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels.” Arguably, this is the very beginning of the Brexit campaign. Attitudes towards the Union started to get more and more hostile. The cause of this is debatable, but some suggest the media has a huge part to play. Researchers found that the negative coverage of the EU increased from 24% to 45% between 1974 and 2013, “at the expense of positive and neutral coverage”. Positive coverage of the EU for the same period fell from 25% to just 10%.


In subsequent years, the government decided to opt-out of several European Directives and Regulations, including that of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, this secures every EU citizen’s basic human rights at the European Court of Human Rights. It is argued that the reason why the UK decided to opt-out of this was over fears that British citizens would go to the European Court of Justice in attempts to enforce their Charter rights in the UK, and the fear of increased costs for businesses. As a result of this, the UK secures a protocol that the Charter would not extend the powers of the European Court of Justice over the UK domestic law. Further opt-outs included the Exchange Rate Mechanism (1992), the single currency – The Maastricht Treaty (1992), Treaty of Amsterdam – allowing passport free travel (1997) and, Fiscal Compact Treaty (2011). This demonstrated the UK’s unwillingness to allow the European Union to have any direction of the UK laws, meanwhile, the coverage of the EU in the press gets increasingly negative.


In 2011, the UK made it clear to the EU that they wanted the last word. The European Union Act required that any new transfer of power to the European Union would need to be approved by a UK referendum. Just two years later, the Prime Minister – David Cameron – vows that if he were to win a majority in the next election, he would then renegotiate the terms of the UK’s membership with the EU. He then announced the infamous 2016 referendum.


David Cameron then won the majority and the UK’s distaste for the EU was evident, in 2014 the pro-Brexit UK Independence Party won the most seats in the European Parliament Elections, 24 out of the 73.


2 years later and the results were out. 51.9% of the UK decide to leave the European Union. 48.1% wanted to remain. This was the start of a bumpy road of legal challenges, social divisions, and economic pressures. 4 years later, in 2020, and we are still waiting for a reliable path from our government for the road out of the European Union.


On the 31st December 2020, the UK’s transition period will end. No more extensions, no more deadlines, nothing. This will be the end of the European Union holding the UK’s hand as we struggle to find a future of our own.




Hope all of that was useful, leave a comment if I missed anything out and make sure to share the website with friends and family!

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