According to a famous story, a 1940s headline in one of the British newspapers once read: ‘Fog in Channel, Continent Cut Off’. While its existence has been disputed, the headline has since often been used as a symbol of Britain’s individualism and sense of isolationism with regard to continental Europe, and with it the European Union.
On June 23rd, 2016, following a referendum, the United Kingdom became the first country in history to decide on leaving the EU. Among the reasons cited for Brexit, many refer to the usual suspect – the various aspects of globalisation, such as weakening national sovereignty and rising immigration. In addition, these same issues are said to have contributed to similar nationalist backlashes around the world, such as the election of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, and successful performances of nationalist parties elsewhere in the EU.
However, Euroscepticism – the suspicion and criticism of the EU and European integration – has been an indistinguishable part of the UK politics long before immigration was considered a problem. In a speech to the House of Commons in 1953, Winston Churchill gave an account of the relationship between Britain and the rest of Europe: ‘We have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked but not combined. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.’
There is no denying that concerns about immigration and eroding sovereignty have played a role in strengthening negative feelings towards the EU over the years. Indeed, 73% of people who cited immigration as a worry voted to leave the EU. However, as Churchill’s quote shows, in part, the history of British Euroscepticism may just go further back than these relatively recent developments.
One of the most interesting features of British Euroscepticism is that it has largely been bipartisan. Historically, Britain has mostly been ruled by either one of its two main parties – the Conservatives or Labour. It was Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan that applied for EU membership back in 1961, and his successor that oversaw Britain’s accession more than a decade later.
Meanwhile, Labour viewed the European project with suspicion, as one created to benefit elite capitalists through free trade. Therefore, just two years after the accession, the Labour government led a referendum, the predecessor to the one in 2016, asking if the UK should stay in community. The result was 67% of voters in favour of staying.
Over time, these dynamics switched sides. Increasing protection of workers’ and human rights in general turned Labour into the more pro-European force, even if the party’s position in the campaign before the 2016 referendum was not always very strong. Meanwhile, as European integration developed further, ranging from common currency to talks about a common defence system and even a constitution, the Conservatives became more disillusioned with all things European. Instead, they started perceiving the EU as a threat to national sovereignty. In addition, a whole party dedicated to, mostly, the single issue of exiting the EU – the UK Independence Party – came to be. These tensions culminated in the promise of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron to hold a referendum on the membership in the EU. In his own words, it was to stop the more anti-EU lobby in his party from ‘banging on about Europe.’
The Leave campaign for the 2016 referendum did capitalise on people’s anti-immigration sentiment and the sense that Britain is spending much more than it is profiting from the EU. One of the campaign’s most iconic attributes has been the red buses covered with big white letters announcing: when the UK leaves, the £350 million per week currently sent to the EU can go to fund the National Health Service instead.
This element perhaps reveals best the nature of the British-European relationship. Recounting it in one of his speeches, the European Parliament’s Brexit Coordinator Guy Verhofstadt mused that this relationship has not been an affair of passion, but a marriage of convenience.
For countries like France and Germany, a deep social and economic relationship within a European community was a way to avoid another major conflict that had ravaged the continent for centuries. For many former socialist and Soviet states, the EU has been a guarantee of freedom and democracy as well as a certain sign of prestige of being accepted into a community of some of the most powerful countries in the world.
In contrast, Britain did not decide to join the EU until it saw how European free trade benefited other member states. From the beginning, it has largely been a transactional relationship, one of balancing costs and benefits. Thus, leaving when the former exceeds the latter, whether real or perceived, seems to be a logical action to take.
However, the roots of Euroscepticism and the ‘awkward partner’ status has not only been based in economics, but in British culture as well. For centuries, Britain was an important world power in its own right: a major maritime nation, a birthplace of the industrial revolution, and an empire that once ruled a quarter of the world. In combination with the strong parliamentary tradition and the distinct Common Law system, both dating back to 13th C, all these aspects have made national sovereignty particularly important in British history and culture. Even during the Reformation, Britain did not join one of the new European strands of Christianity: instead, it created its own, with the ruling monarch as the head of the church.
Moreover, in part due to its geographic isolation as an island, Britain was largely spared foreign occupations and endless devastating wars fought on home soils. All other EU countries, except for Sweden and mainland UK, were occupied by foreign armies and/or domestic dictators during the 20th century.
Its significant role in World War II made Britain one of the Big Three, once again reinforcing its major power status. Due to its three post-war relationships – the special relationship with the US, UN Security Council, and the Commonwealth – it is not hard to see why a relationship with continental Europe may not have seemed very important.
The EU, perhaps aware of such contextual differences, made an effort to accommodate the UK over the years. Britain has been the least integrated state, with four opt-outs from the EU law: it is not part of the Schengen agreement or the Eurozone, it can limit the jurisdiction of the European courts in Britain over the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and it is able to either opt in or opt out from legislation concerning areas of freedom, security and justice. However, this has seemingly not been enough to appease those who have long thought that the EU has been taking too much and giving too little.
In the same speech on the British-EU history, Mr Verhofstadt noted that perhaps it was naïve to expect that all these differences could be reconciled, and Britain be united with the continent. ‘Perhaps it was never meant to be’, he noted. In a 2017 survey, the sentiment of British Euroscepticism appeared stronger than ever: 75% of people said that they would like to either leave the EU or limits its powers.
However, for all the Eurosceptic sentiments, it is also important to remember that 48% of people in the last Brexit referendum voted for a future in the European Union and have since fought to save it. Nevertheless, whichever way Brexit heads now, its outcomes might just be very similar: political instability, a divided nation, and continued distrust, not only of the European project, but in domestic politicians as well. It is hard to say whether there is a winning side in such circumstances.