Always on the Sidelines? A Historians' View on Brexit

Eirini Karamouzi | 29 March 2019

◇ British History | Political History | Modern History | Economic History

Brexit is one, albeit the most consequential, chapter in a tale that has spanned decades. Britain’s ‘awkward’ relationship with European integration has a long and complex history. Advancing a thesis of ‘the awkward partner’ neither accepts the teleological tale that Britain was bound to leave the EU nor that the country’s ‘awkwardness’ towards Europe has been ‘exceptional’- on the contrary, it has been shared by others at different stages of European integration.

The difference is that British difficulties with the European project has been consistent and long-standing: from non-involvement in the original EEC, then a tortuous road to membership; once inside the Community, beset by budgetary hassles, Britain secured opt-outs from Schengen and the Eurozone whilst elite and the public opinion stood indifferent or most times negatively disposed.

A historical perspective can contribute to the understanding of this difficult marriage and gives us an insight into the reasons for the upcoming divorce. Without negating the immense value of the ever-growing political science literature on Brexit and on why the Brits voted to leave [1], a historical account will attempt to trace how Britain slowly and painfully advanced in Churchillian terms from ‘of but not with’ to arguably ‘with but not of’ Europe.

Hunting in vain for a role in Europe

Historians have offered contrasting explanations for Britain’s turn towards the EEC and its first application in 1961 ranging from commercial interests to political considerations. Moreover, in the 1960s, there was a hope that EEC membership would bolster prevalent perceptions of a ‘sense of relative decline’ in UK’s international reach and power. As Tomlinson has noted ‘declinism was an ideology, not a straightforward description of reality’. [2] Britain’s sluggish growth – not by historical records but in relation to the comparatively higher growth rate of EEC economies – meant that ‘by 1950 the difference in per capita GDP between the UK and Six [EEC countries] was 28%. Seven years later, when the Treaty of Rome was signed, it stood at 15%, and in 1961 when Britain applied, the difference had reached 10%.’[3]

In January 1963, several days after General de Gaulle’s veto, Harold Macmillan wrote in his diary: ‘the great question remains: What is the alternative to the European Community? If we are honest we must say there is none.’[4] Echoing similar disillusionment, but several years later, the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson would also come to acknowledge how far economic realities dictated Britain’s move towards the Community.

The French, however, still with de Gaulle at the helm, would not even permit the enlargement talks to commence – pointing to Britain’s financial problems and capitalizing on Wilson’s decision to devalue the pound in October 1966 and its balance of payment deficit.  By the time Edward Heath became prime minister in 1970 and revived the failed second application, Britain’s political elite hoped that joining the Community would achieve multiple goals. Rather than being relegated to the sidelines, Britain would be in a position to reap the economic and political benefits of Community membership. Importantly, accession to the Community would allow Britain to catch up to the superior economic performance the Six had experienced over the 1960s.

An awkward partner?

Stephen George rightly argues that Britain ‘did not participate in the most successful period of the history of the Communities’ (the 1960s) and so ‘membership did not come to have the popular positive connotations in Britain that it had in the founder states’.[5] Britain’s timing was poor, and an important factor in Britain’s awkwardness towards Europe’s.

The 1975 EC referendum contributed to Britain’s awkward partner status because, despite the vote in favour of membership, Britain was not transformed into a straightforward partner for the Community. On the contrary, it cemented the use and abuse of the European issue as an instrument of domestic political management.

Under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher ‘there was a significant reconfiguration’ of Britain’s relationship with the EC. The Thatcher government went through a multitude of highs and lows in its relationship with the Community; the Prime Minister herself was at the epicentre. Tumultuous periods were common, for example, the battle over British contributions to the EC budget.

More constructive engagement followed in relation to the Single European Act of 1986. The Act fulfilled Thatcher’s ambition of a Single Market within the Community and many applauded her on the triumphant exportation of Thatcherism to Europe. Towards the end of her time in Downing Street, fierce confrontations took place both within the Thatcher government over its European policy and between Thatcher and the EEC.

The end of the 1980s shed any illusions of the prospect of exerting leadership within the EEC, an ambition that was best summed up in Wilson’s comments in 1967: ‘if we couldn’t dominate that lot, there wasn’t much to be said for us’.[6] Britain’s insular policy, lack of enthusiasm and minimalist approach limited its influence within the Community, that never came close to the Franco-German engine of European integration.

However Thatcher’s most important legacy, however, was breaking once and for all the declinist narrative spiral of the 1960s and 1970s. Europe progressively ceased to be the medicine to British malaise as its economy far from being the ‘sick man of Europe’ had by ‘mid-1990s outperformed the leading economies of Western Europe by most measures.[7] This reversal of fortunes and the slow demise of the feeling ‘of no alternative to membership’  patched a hole in one of the most central arguments in selling the pro-European narrative, and was never truly replaced.  The lack of appeal of economic interest was concomitant to other European developments.

The Maastricht treaty of 1992, its aftermath revisions and the ‘big bang enlargement’ to central and Eastern Europe ushered in a period of deeper integration, mass migration and further pooling of national sovereignty, marking a shift within the wider European public opinion. Things were worse for Britain ‘where few have taken the European project to heart, as indicated by their low level of willingness to acknowledge a European identity’.[8]

Far from saving Britain, the Eurozone debt crisis and mass migration dealt the final blow to the already little relish for the European task and amplified British Euroscepticism. Brexit and the referendum result of 2016 was a result of short-term political and economic developments as well as longer-term socio-demographic changes in the electorate. But it’s hard to deny that the fuel that the Eurosceptics ignited in 2016 had been accumulated in these decades-long love-hate relationship with Europe.

Eirini Karamouzi is Senior Lecturer in Contemporary History at the University of Sheffield. Her main research interests lie in the history of European integration and the Cold War,  she is co-director of the Cultures of the Cold War Network and editor of Cold War History Journal. Her book, Greece, the EEC and the Cold War, 1974-1979: The Second Enlargement (2014), and edited volume Balkans in the Cold War (2017) are available through Palgrave Macmillan. You can find her on twitter @EiriniKaramouzi. 

[1] Sara Hobolt (2016), ‘The Brexit vote: a divided nation, a divided continent’, Journal of European Public Policy, 23, 1259-1277;

[2] Jim Tomlinson, The Politics of Decline: Understanding Post-War Britain (Harlow: Longman, 2001)


[4] Cited in Vernon Bognador, ‘Footfalls echoing in the memory. Britain and Europe: the historical perspective’, International Affairs 81:4 (2005), 693.

[5] George, An Awkward Partner, p.5.

[6] Robert Saunders, Yes to Europe! The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain (Oxford University Press, 2018), 47

[7] Charles Grant (2008). Why is Britain Eurosceptic? Centre for Europeanreform essay, published online.

[8] John Curtice, ‘Why Leave won the UK’s EU referendum’, Journal of Common Market Studies 55 (2017), 21