United Kingdom membership of the European Union

The United Kingdom was a member state of the European Union and of its predecessor the European Communities from 1 January 1973 until 31 January 2020. Since the foundation of the European Communities, the UK had been an important neighbour and then leading member state, until Brexit ended 47 years (17,196 days) of membership. During the UK’s time as a member state two referendums were held on the issue of its membership with the first being held on 5 June 1975, and the second which produced the vote to leave the EU which was held on 23 June 2016.

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EU roots and British accession (1957–1973)

The UK was not a signatory of the three original treaties that were incorporated into what was then the European Communities, including the most well known of these, the 1957 Treaty of Rome, establishing the European Economic Community (EEC). Britain first began talks to join the EEC in July 1961.[1] The UK's applications to join in 1963 and 1967 were vetoed by the President of France, Charles de Gaulle, who said that "a number of aspects of Britain's economy, from working practices to agriculture" had "made Britain incompatible with Europe" and that Britain harboured a "deep-seated hostility" to any pan-European project.[2]

Once de Gaulle had relinquished the French presidency in 1969, the UK made a third and successful application for membership. By this time attitudes to Britain joining the EEC had shifted in political and business circles in both the UK and France: by the late 1960s exports from Britain to western Europe outstripped those to countries participating in Imperial Preference and British investment in the EEC was faster than that going to the Commonwealth. Large firms in advanced manufacturing became increasingly vocal advocates of joining the EEC, and the Confederation of British Industry, whose predecessor the Federation of British Industries had originally opposed the establishment of a European customs union after World War II, stressed the importance of pan-European investment, collaboration and coordinated industrial policy. In France, government and business opinion were increasingly aware that American firms were dominating high-tech sectors and were better at organising integrated production networks in Europe than local companies, in part due to the fragmentation of European businesses, as argued by Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber in his 1967 book Le défi américain. In response, senior French civil servants and the country's main employer's organisation, the Conseil national du patronat français, lobbied to reverse de Gaulle's policy regarding British membership.[3]

The question of sovereignty had been discussed at the time in an official Foreign and Commonwealth Office document. It listed among "Areas of policy in which parliamentary freedom to legislate will be affected by entry into the European Communities": Customs duties, Agriculture, Free movement of labour, services and capital, Transport, and Social Security for migrant workers. The document concluded (paragraph 26) that it was advisable to put the considerations of influence and power before those of formal sovereignty.[4]

The Treaty of Accession was signed in January 1972 by the then prime minister Edward Heath, leader of the Conservative Party.[5] Parliament's European Communities Act 1972 was enacted on 17 October, and the UK's instrument of ratification was deposited the next day (18 October),[6] letting the United Kingdom's membership of the EC come into effect on 1 January 1973.[7]

Referendum of 1975

In 1975, the United Kingdom held its first ever national referendum on whether the UK should remain in the European Communities. The governing Labour Party, led by Harold Wilson, had contested the October 1974 general election with a commitment to renegotiate Britain's terms of membership of the EC and then hold a referendum on whether to remain in the EC on the new terms.[8] All of the major political parties and the mainstream press supported continuing membership of the EC. However, there were significant divides within the ruling Labour Party; a 1975 one-day party conference voted by two to one in favour of withdrawal,[9] and seven of the 23 cabinet ministers were opposed to EC membership,[10] with Harold Wilson suspending the constitutional convention of Cabinet collective responsibility to allow those ministers to publicly campaign against the government.

On 5 June 1975, the electorate was asked to vote yes or no on the question: "Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?" Every administrative county and region in the UK returned majority "Yes" votes, apart from the Shetland Islands and the Outer Hebrides. With a turnout of just under 65%, the outcome of the vote was 67.2% in favour of staying in, and the United Kingdom remained a member of the EC.[11] Support for the UK to leave the EC in 1975, in the data, appears unrelated to the support for Leave in the 2016 referendum.[12]

1975 United Kingdom European Communities membership referendum
Choice Votes %
Yes 17,378,581 67.23
No 8,470,073 32.77
Valid votes 25,848,654 99.78
Invalid or blank votes 54,540 0.22
Total votes 25,903,194 100.00
Registered voters and turnout 40,086,677 64.03
Source: House of Commons Library[13]

NOTE: Unusually for a referendum Yes was actually the no change (status quo) option.

National referendum results (without spoiled ballots)
17,378,581 (67.2%)
8,470,073 (32.8%)

From Referendum to Maastricht Treaty (1975–1992)

Comparison of results of 1975 and 2016 referendums

In 1979, the United Kingdom opted out of the newly formed European Monetary System (EMS), which was the precursor to the creation of the euro currency.

The opposition Labour Party campaigned in the 1983 general election on a commitment to withdraw from the EC without a referendum.[14] It was heavily defeated; the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher was re-elected. The Labour Party subsequently changed its policy.[14]

In 1985, the United Kingdom ratified the Single European Act—the first major revision to the Treaty of Rome — without a referendum, with the full support of the Thatcher government.[citation needed]

In October 1990 — under the conservative governance of Margaret Thatcher — the United Kingdom joined the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), with the pound sterling pegged to a basket of eight other European currencies.

Maastricht Treaty and Referendum Party

Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister in November 1990, amid internal divisions within the Conservative Party that arose partly from her increasingly Eurosceptic views. The United Kingdom was forced to withdraw from the ERM in September 1992, after the pound sterling came under pressure from currency speculators (an episode known as Black Wednesday). The resulting cost to UK taxpayers was estimated to be in excess of £3 billion.[15][16]

As a result of the Maastricht Treaty, the European Communities became the European Union on 1 November 1993.[17] The new name reflected the evolution of the organisation from an economic union into a political union.[18] As a result of the Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force on 1 December 2009, the Maastricht Treaty is now known, in updated form as, the Treaty on European Union (2007) or TEU, and the Treaty of Rome is now known, in updated form, as the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (2007) or TFEU.

The Referendum Party was formed in 1994 by Sir James Goldsmith to contest the 1997 general election on a platform of providing a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU.[19] It fielded candidates in 547 constituencies at that election, and won 810,860 votes or 2.6% of the total votes cast.[20] It failed to win a single parliamentary seat because its vote was spread out across the country, and lost its deposit (funded by Goldsmith) in 505 constituencies.[20]

Role of UKIP (1993–2016)

The UK Independence Party (UKIP), a Eurosceptic political party, was also formed, in 1993. It achieved third place in the UK during the 2004 European elections, second place in the 2009 European elections and first place in the 2014 European elections, with 27.5% of the total vote. This was the first time since the 1910 general election that any party other than the Labour or Conservative parties had taken the largest share of the vote in a nationwide election.[21] UKIP's electoral success in the 2014 European election has been documented as the strongest correlate of the support for the leave campaign in the 2016 referendum.[22]

In 2014, UKIP won two by-elections, triggered by defecting Conservative MPs, and in the 2015 general election took 12.6% of the total vote and held one of the two seats won in 2014.[23]

Controversy on the European Court of Human Rights in 2013

The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) was drafted in 1950 and its court (ECtHR) was established in 1953. EU institutions are bound under article 6 of the Treaty of Nice[citation needed] to respect human rights under the Convention, over and above for example the Law of the United Kingdom.[24] The Court was criticised especially within the Conservative Party for ruling in favour of British prisoners obtaining the right to vote.[25][26][27][28] During the referendum the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, had called for the UK to leave the ECHR.[29]

Neither the ECHR nor the ECtHR is formally part of the European Union, and are not connected to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). The ECHR was drafted by, and the ECtHR is part of, the Council of Europe, of which the UK was a founding member in 1949. The UK was an independent signatory to the ECHR, 21 years before joining the EC/EU, in 1951.[30] However, the European Court of Human Rights (which is the court founded by the European Convention of Human Rights) does not have constitutional supremacy over the various judiciaries of European Countries. The European Court of Justice (which is the court founded by the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union) does in fact try to follow the European Convention of Human Rights and the judgements/opinions of the European Court of Human Rights.

Euroscepticism (1993–2016)

In a statistical analysis published in April 2016, Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University defined Euroscepticism as the wish to sever or reduce the powers of the EU, and conversely Europhilia as the desire to preserve or increase the powers of the EU. According to this definition, the British Social Attitudes (BSA) surveys show an increase in euroscepticism from 38% (1993) to 65% (2015). Euroscepticism should however not be confused with the wish to leave the EU: the BSA survey for the period July–November 2015 shows that 60% backed the option "continue as an EU member", and only 30% backed the option to "withdraw".[31]

Since 1977, both pro- and anti-European views have had majority support at different times, with some dramatic swings between the two camps.[32] In the United Kingdom European Communities membership referendum of 1975, two-thirds of British voters favoured continued EC membership. The highest-ever rejection of membership was in 1980, the first full year of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's term of office, with 65% opposed to and 26% in favour of membership.[32]

After Thatcher had negotiated a rebate of British membership payments in 1984, those favouring the EC maintained a lead in the opinion polls, except during 2000, as Prime Minister Tony Blair aimed for closer EU integration, including adoption of the euro currency, and around 2011, as immigration into the United Kingdom became increasingly noticeable.[32] As late as December 2015 there was, according to ComRes, a clear majority in favour of remaining in the EU, albeit with a warning that voter intentions would be considerably influenced by the outcome of Prime Minister David Cameron's ongoing EU reform negotiations, especially with regards to the two issues of "safeguards for non-Eurozone member states" and "immigration".[33] The following events are relevant.

Referendum of 2016

On 23 June 2016 the United Kingdom held its second referendum on membership to what had now become the European Union. This took place forty one years after the first which resulted in a overwhelming vote to remain within the bloc. The referendum came about after the Conservatives led by David Cameron won a unexpected small overall majority in the 2015 UK general election which included a manifesto commitment to holding a in-out referendum on Britain’s relationship with the EU following a renegotiation which took place in the autumn and winter of 2015-16 and at the same time legislated for the referendum by passing the European Union Referendum Act 2015. The UK Government was in favour of a “Remain” result, although cabinet ministers were allowed to campaign on either side in a suspension of Cabinet collective responsibility, just as ministers did back in 1975. The surprise result of the referendum after a long ten week campaign with a small narrow majority of people in favour of leaving the EU on a national turnout of 72% sent shockwaves both throughout Europe and the rest of the world causing turmoil in money markets and stock markets during the following day. David Cameron announced that he would resign as Prime Minister and was followed by Theresa May who became Prime Minister on 13 July 2016 to begin the process of the UK’s withdrawal from the bloc.

2016 United Kingdom European Union membership referendum
Choice Votes %
Leave the European Union 17,410,742 51.89
Remain a member of the European Union 16,141,241 48.11
Valid votes 33,551,983 99.92
Invalid or blank votes 25,359 0.08
Total votes 33,577,342 100.00
Registered voters and turnout 46,500,001 72.21
Source: Electoral Commission[34]
National referendum results (without spoiled ballots)
17,410,742 (51.9%)
16,141,241 (48.1%)

Brexit (2017–2020)

From 2017 to 2019 following the outcome of the referendum, the UK was engaged in negotiations to leave the European Union between the European Union and itself. Between the UK and EU, the so-called "Brexit" - a portmanteau of "Britain" and "exit" - would consist of a withdrawal agreement and a trade agreement, however at a global level this would/might also split various other free trade agreements. The withdrawal agreement is viewed by the EU as a "settlement of accounts" unrelated to the post-exit trade agreement, and viewed by the UK as a 'goodwill payment' to enable a fair post-exit trade agreement. In the event of a no-deal scenario each side will consequently have different views as to the validity of any payment.

On 29 March 2017, the then British Prime Minister Theresa May formally triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty by sending a letter to the then President of the European Council Donald Tusk, which gave the UK and EU 2 years, until 29 March 2019 at 11pm (UK time) to agree an exit deal. If the two parties were not able to strike an agreement, and Article 50 had not been extended, the UK would leave the EU without a deal as the default position.

Come March 2019, the UK was unable to reach a deal and so, to avoid a no-deal scenario, agreed a deal with the EU to delay Article 50 until 12 April - two weeks after the original deadline. This deadline was not reached, and the two parties then postponed the so-called "Brexit Day" until 31 October 2019. This required Britain to participate in the 2019 European Parliament election. The newly established Eurosceptic Brexit Party, headed by Nigel Farage, made sweeping gains, taking a high percentage of the UK vote.

In July 2019, Theresa May resigned as Prime Minister. On 23 July 2019, Vote Leave campaigner Boris Johnson took office as her replacement. Johnson extended the deadline until 31 January 2020, and then called an early general election. Johnson and the Conservative Party won a majority of 80 seats. Both the EU and UK Parliaments ratified with Withdrawal Agreement, which allowed the UK to leave the bloc at midnight CET on the 31st of January 2020. Negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship subsequently began once the UK formally left the EU and entered the transition period.

See also


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  3. Georgiou, Christakis (April 2017). "British Capitalism and European Unification, from Ottawa to the Brexit Referendum". Historical Materialism. 25 (1): 90–129. doi:10.1163/1569206X-12341511. Retrieved 14 September 2019.
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