The United Kingdom’s relationship with the EU – or, in political parlance, “Europe” – has long been one of the most divisive, emotive issues in British politics. Now it is centre stage again, and the debates between Eurosceptic Nigel Farage and Europhile Nick Clegg bring the argument down to a stark, binary choice not seriously faced in decades – In, or Out. But why does Europe produce such a polarised reaction? Many Has britain left the eu, on both sides of the debate, love visiting European countries and idolise elements of their culture – not least the food.
5 million Britons have moved there to live. But Europeans viewing British newspaper coverage, political debates or opinion polls would be forgiven for thinking we have little but contempt for our neighbours. It is, to say the least, a complex relationship. Maybe it is the long history of hostilities that clouds the British view of Europe with suspicion. As an empire builder and major trading power it was inevitable that Britain would come into conflict with rivals vying for the same territories and trade routes.
All of its main rivals – Germany in the world wars, Russia in the Cold War, and France through most of modern history – have also at times been important allies. But for many historians the most enduring influence on Britain’s self-image is World War Two. And it may be that the popular perception of Britain in its Darkest Hour, standing alone as the British Empire against Nazi Germany in 1940-41, informs a modern view of the UK as its own best friend. And that if anyone can be relied on to come to her aid, it is the United States.
Britain, obviously, is an island nation. Is this the key to its arms-length attitude to Europe? For centuries “we lived in splendid isolation, protected by the Navy and the Empire”, the historian Vernon Bogdanor has said. Now, of course, that period of isolation has long gone, but perhaps it still retains some of its impact upon the British people, who do not want ties with the Continent.
But other members of the EU – Ireland, Malta, and Cyprus – are islands, and they do not object so much to handing powers to Brussels. Perhaps it is Britain’s island mentality, combined with that imperial hangover, that is at play – Britain is used to giving orders, not taking them. The formation of the European Union had its origins after 1945, in the desire to tie Europe’s nations so closely together that they could never again wreak such damage on each other. Winston Churchill fully supported this idea, proposing for Europe “a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom a kind of United States of Europe”.
European Economic Community in signing the Treaty of Rome in 1957. One of the architects of the ECSC, Frenchman Jean Monnet, said: “I never understood why the British did not join. I came to the conclusion that it must have been because it was the price of victory – the illusion that you could maintain what you had, without change. With its own economy stuck in a rut, Britain saw France and Germany posting a strong post-war recovery and forming a powerful alliance, and changed its mind. It applied to join the EEC in 1961, only for entry to be vetoed – twice – by French President Charles de Gaulle. He accused Britain of a “deep-seated hostility” towards European construction, and of being more interested in links with the US. Britain may have had selfish reasons for wanting to sign up, but then seeking mutual benefits is part of the motivation for the European project.
As the historian James Ellison points out, Europe has not just been a place of conflict for Britain over the centuries. It was also a place of diplomatic agreement, trade, co-operation and – through most of the second half of the 20th Century and the 21st – peace and stability and growth,” he says. James Ellison: Is Britain more European than it thinks? Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath finally led Britain into the EEC in 1973, after Gen de Gaulle had left office. When membership was put to a referendum in 1975, it had the support of Britain’s three main parties and all its national newspapers. But that did not end the debate.