Britain and Europe

951 words | 4 page(s)

The European Community, predecessor to the European Union (EU), was established in 1967. As the epicenter of world colonialism, and with the ravages of the Second World War still firmly planted in memory, there was a mostly shared desire in Europe to establish an international organization that was not founded in the use of force. Despite Churchill’s call, immediately following the war, for a so-called “United States of Europe”, Britain did not join what was to become the EU until 1973. There was a near-Brexit just a couple of years later, in 1975, with about two-thirds of voting Britons in favor of remaining in the EU. With the actual plan for Brexit being established in 2016—and especially with the immense conflict, strife, and near-chaos that has followed the decision—the time is ripe for an examination of the long-troubled relationship between the U.K. and Europe.

It should be mentioned that the U.K. had actually applied for a sort of informal membership in Europe as early as 1961, and again in 1967. Each time the French Government vetoed the application. It is only natural, given the events of the still fairly recent war, that Britain should have resented this attitude taken by France. It is also significant that even when the U.K. succeeded in joining the European Economic Community, in 1973, it was controversial. The Labour Party soon manifested a desire for renegotiation of the terms of membership. It was this desire that led to the aforementioned first referendum on (what we now call) Brexit. Going back still further, Britain was not a member of the 1951 European Steel and Coal Community, a forerunner of the forerunner of the EU. Again, it is not at all difficult to imagine a certain level of resentment, given (at least the perception) that Britain had sacrificed much for the protection of Europe that had been provided during the war (Jones and Parker). One must also wonder, however, whether the way that the United States sought to insert itself rather forcefully into post-war “state-making” also played a role in the tension between Britain and the rest of Europe at the time.

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Largely because of these facts, there are those who maintain that despite its long-standing membership in the EU, Britain was never “truly” a part of the European Union. Some maintain that former Prime Minister David Cameron was irresponsible in holding the 2016 referendum in the first place. Among many other problems, it is arguable that neither the voting public (nor, perhaps, those who governed them) could have understood all that leaving the EU would entail. It has also been alleged that so-called “Brexiteers” simply lied to the voting public to improve the chances of a vote to leave the EU. Prominent among such lies were promises of greater economic prosperity, on one hand, and a harder and more effective line on immigration, on the other. As one recent article explains the point,

Britain was never ‘at the heart’ of Europe. In their 42 years in the EU, the British have always been an awkward, Eurosceptical partner. Approval of membership has only briefly been above 50%, and by 2010 was dipping below 30%. A referendum then most likely would have resulted in an even bigger majority for leaving. (Skidelsky).

With these facts in view, one can observe that it is not at all surprising that Brexit was voted positively upon; what is surprising is merely that it took so long.
The remainder of the paper will look at more specific reasons that so many British voters opted for Brexit. First, there are economic reasons. Many of those opposed to the EU view it as a “dysfunctional economic entity”. Among many other concerns, the unemployment rate in southern Europe had reached a devastating 20%. All that kept Brexit from occurring previously, apparently, was the belief that the alternative to remaining in the EU was economic chaos and enhanced disaster. We are, at least arguably, now experiencing how prescient this belief was. Second, there was an undeniably understandable recoil, on the part of the U.K., from the nationalism that had gripped large European nations and consumed the United States. Comprehended within this recoil was a distrust of further immigration and a suspicion of large, multinational organizations after the worldwide financial collapse of 2008. Finally, the British public seems to have become disillusioned with “politics as usual” (Mauldin). Both Conservative and Labour leadership had arguably ignored the voting public. This is a lesson that America has learned the hard way: if voters are ignored for long enough, you end up with a semi-literate buffoon as President.

It would be incautious dogmatically to draw lessons from the Brexit debacle at this relatively early stage in the process. Theresa May has been dealing with a crisis that few Prime Ministers have faced. It is open to dispute to what extent this is her own fault and to what extent it was simply inevitable, given the underestimated complexity of the issues involved. It certainly does seem clear, however, that it was irresponsible for Cameron to have held the referendum in the first place. While it would be unfair to blame the voting public for Brexit, it would not be unfair to criticize politicians for putting the public into a position where it must make a decision the ramifications of which it simply could not understand.

  • Jones, Mark and Chris Parker. “A Short History of Britain and the European Union.” World Economic Forum, 24 June. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/06/a-short-history-of-britain-and-the-european-union/
  • Mauldin, John. “3 Reasons Brits Voted for Brexit.” Forbes, 5 July. https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnmauldin/2016/07/05/3-reasons-brits-voted-for-brexit/#5764e4fb1f9d
  • Skidelsky, Robert. “The UK was Never Truly Part of the European Union.” Financial News, 17 July. https://www.fnlondon.com/articles/britain-was-never-truly-part-of-the-eu-20180717

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