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The UK's road to EU membership

Abigail Frymann Rouch London
March 29, 2017

Decades before Europe-bashing became standard political currency, Britain asked three times to be let into what is now the European Union. Abigail Frymann Rouch delves into the UK's EU history.

Großbritannien tritt der EG bei 1972
Image: picture-alliance/AP Images

Anyone familiar with the "take back control" rhetoric around Britain leaving the EU could infer that the country had been dragged into the European Economic Community (EEC) against its will.

Yet in the 13 years leading up to "Brentry" on Jan. 1, 1973, including when French President Charles de Gaulle twice vetoed Britain's entry to the European Economic Community (EEC), British political heavyweights argued forcefully in favor of it, and for varying degrees of federalization.

Prime Ministers Harold MacMillan and Harold Wilson argued that membership would boost the economy and Britain's place in the world as it searched for status post-empire; Edward Heath passionately believed it would prevent a repeat of war. But all this would ultimately prove insufficient to keep a majority of British voters wanting to remain within it.

Infografik Brexit Timeline Englisch

Read: British PM Theresa May signs Brexit letter to begin divorce from EU

A United States of Europe

In 1946 Winston Churchill declared, "We must build a kind of United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living." But this did not mean Churchill envisaged British membership of this pan-European community, argues Peter Hennessy, Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary University of London. "Churchill said to his cabinet [in 1951], 'I mean it for them, not for us - we're the midwife' … Asked about his views when Britain first applied to enter, he'd never say," Hennessy told DW.

British PM Theresa May launches Brexit process

Having declined to join the EEC at its inception in 1957, momentum to join began to grow among Britons envious of its economic growth, persuaded by the desire to prevent another war, and wanting to find a post-empire role internationally. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan warmed to the European project, especially after the humiliation of the Suez Crisis, and urged Britons to see joining the EEC as a way to greater influence, security and trade. Hennessy argues that Macmillan pragmatically "nudged his cabinet toward" the EEC - along the lines of if "if you can't beat them, join them."

However, that did not convince de Gaulle, who, fearing Britain would dominate, rejected Britain's application twice, in 1963, and in 1967 when Labour's Harold Wilson was prime minister. In 1963, Macmillan lamented: "Britain, isolated from the Continent since the Reformation, wishes to leave its isolation behind … Now … the General comes to deliver this blow to us. The creation of political unity is necessary for Europe as it is for the world beyond."

The future was once bright

Großbritannien Erste EU-Erweiterung: Beitrittsurkunden unterzeichnet
Edward Heath viewed the UK's membership of the EU as a crucial factor towards more European unityImage: picture-alliance/dpa

De Gaulle's successor, Georges Pompidou, was more open, and accession was agreed under Edward Heath, whose Conservative party manifesto had pledged to "negotiate the right terms" for entry, and who drew on the support of a pro-European faction of Labour MPs. Ideologically driven, Heath said Britain's accession to the Common Market marked a degree of European unity "for which people have longed for centuries." Even the Daily Mail, which last year campaigned viciously against remaining in the EU, welcomed New Year's Day 1973 with the words: "For 10 years the Mail has campaigned for this day … Britain's best and brightest future is with Europe."

Read: 'Kick in the teeth' for EU nationals in the UK

Harold Wilson sought to return to power and unite his party by offering to renegotiate the terms of Britain's membership and hold a referendum on whether to stay in. "Harold Wilson was an astute politician; he saw [membership] as a way of moving the UK forward," recalls Lord Naseby, who as an advertising executive turned Conservative MP, took part in the pro-Europe rallies and canvassed among voters. Such efforts paid off and a two-thirds majority of voters voted to remain in the EEC.

UKIP before her time

Margaret Thatcher was ambivalent about the EEC, welcoming the opportunities it provided for free trade but resisting closer political ties with her famous "no, no, no." In her 1988 speech on the setting up of the Single Market, she declared: "Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community," but she continued: "We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels." For John Campbell, biographer of Heath and of Thatcher, the longer the Iron Lady was out of office, the more English nationalist she became. "She was UKIP before her time," he told DW. "Brexit is her posthumous triumph."

Margaret Thatcher Europa Großbritannien Referendum
What would she have done?Image: Getty Images/P. Floyd

Read: Opinion: Calamitous Cameron puts UK, EU to the test

State-sanctioned ambivalence towards the EU has flowed freely ever since. When her successor, John Major, brought to Parliament the Maastricht Treaty that would create the European Union and pave the way for the euro, "people's hearts weren't in it," Lord Naseby, who chaired the laborious 1993 Commons sittings, told DW. The treaty was narrowly ratified - but with 500 amendments.

Through to David Cameron, prime ministers have scapegoated the EU at will and portrayed it opposed to British concerns. Tony Blair's failure to put transitional controls on immigration from Eastern Europe in 2004 played into this narrative and strengthened eurosceptics' claims regarding the erosion of sovereignty; the aftershocks of the eurozone crisis that began in 2008 raised questions about the economic benefits of continued membership.

Last year's referendum tested Brits' emotional attachment to the EU and found it wanting. The ranks of the war generation that saw the EU as a guarantor of peace and thus tended to be very pro-European are growing thinner. As Dr. Peter Sloman of Cambridge University's Department of Politics and International Studies points out: "It's not the experience of war that put people off Europe, it's the way it's been mythologized."