Feb. 22, 2016

Brexit or Not? Part 1

On June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom will hold a referendum on whether to remain in or to leave the European Union. A British exit, or Brexit, is now a very real possibility. The fundamental question is whether or not Britain will be better off as a country outside of the EU. In this post, I will explain the complex relationship of Britain with the EU. Forgive me for giving you a history lesson, but it is necessary to really understand how this debate started. My next posting will feature more of an analysis as to whether Britain should leave the EU.

Britain has always had an ambivalent relationship with the EU. The predecessor of the EU, the European Economic Community (EEC) was founded in 1957 but Britain only joined in 1973. It was British Prime Minister Winston Churchill endorsed the concept of a “United States of Europe” after the Second World War. However, Churchill also spoke of Britain’s role in Europe as being “with Europe, but not of it.” The EEC was started by the continental European nations of France, West Germany, Italy and the Benelux nations. The goals of the EEC were largely economic, but many continental European leaders also saw the EEC as a way of preventing another devastating European war. Over time, Britain lost the remnants of its Empire and started falling behind the rest of Europe economically. British voters voted by a large margin to join the EEC in 1975, and Britain seemed to become “of Europe.”

However, the EEC became ever more federalized during the 1980s with a bureaucracy growing in Brussels. More states, such as in Southern Europe and Scandinavia, joined the EEC. The two great rivals of the first half of the 20th century, France and Germany, were at the heart of European integration. France saw itself as the political leader of Europe, fulfilling Charles de Gaulle’s goal of France leading a European counterweight to the United States. Germany would become the economic powerhouse of Europe. The British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had been pro-Europe in the 1970s, grew alarmed over the 1980s as European integration meant more sovereignty would be sacrificed by the nations of Europe, eventually leading to powerful European institutions and a European currency and the Schengen Agreement, meant to abolish borders in Europe. Thatcher became vehemently euroskeptic, leading to divisions in her Conservative Party and partly leading to her political downfall in 1990. Her successor, John Major, inherited an increasingly divided Conservative Party with regards to Europe.

The EEC became the European Union in 1993 with the Treaty of Maastricht, which was signed by the Major government over the objections of Thatcher and her allies. Greater sovereignty was taken away from European states and the Euro was adopted as the currency of the EU by the end of the decade. Britain obtained opt-outs from the Euro and the Schengen Agreement, but major divisions tore apart the Conservative Party during the 1990s, leading to the Labour Party being elected in 1997. Tony Blair, the Labour leader, was a strong Europhile who wanted to adopt the Euro but was prevented by his Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. European expansion continued, with much of Eastern Europe joining the EU in 2004. This led to a significant migration of workers from poorer countries like Poland to economically booming Britain. Concerns within Britain, and especially the Conservative Party, over immigration rose. In 2010, the Conservatives won the general election and David Cameron became British Prime Minister.

Since the 1990s, the Conservatives have become increasingly euroskeptic, with a significant percentage of the party wanting to leave the EU. Also, the new UK Independence Party gained prominence by positioning itself to the right of the Conservatives and calling for a Brexit. Cameron is generally considered a moderate center-right Conservative, but even he is generally skeptical of European integration. Facing pressure from the right, Cameron promised in 2013 to hold a referendum on EU membership. Cameron argued that renegotiation of British membership in the EU had become necessary as the EU had changed significantly since Britain last voted on membership in 1975. However, the Conservatives were in government with the Europhile Liberal Democrats who prevented any referendum from taking place.

During this time, the EU faced increasing troubles. The Euro crisis erupted in Southern European states (as well as Ireland), leading to economic disaster in states such as Spain and Greece. Germany and its Chancellor, Angela Merkel, increasingly came to dominate the EU as the European economic powerhouse. The euro was increasingly seen as an economic disaster, despite European leaders endlessly calling for “more Europe.” Europe soon faced even more challenges from Russia, where Vladimir Putin has become more aggressive and threatening EU states in the Baltic and Eastern Europe. The migration crisis erupted in 2015, where once again Germany took an increasingly unpopular role in leading a European welcome of millions of refugees from the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia.

In the middle of these tumultuous events, Brexit rose to the top of the European agenda. In May 2015, the Conservatives won the British general election with a majority, able to rule without their Europhile Liberal Democrat partners. Cameron had promised a referendum on EU membership in the 2015 Conservative manifesto, and set out to renegotiate British membership. In early 2016, the renegotiation was completed and Cameron called for a referendum in June.