Why Britain’s membership of the EU unique before Brexit?

Britain joined the European Economic Community (now the European Union) in 1973. Following the decision by Edward Heath to enter the EEC, the Labour Party narrowly won the Feb 1974 election and honoured their pledge to hold a referendum on membership. This referendum was held in 1985 and at that point 67.2% of Britons voted to remain in the EEC.

Following Britain’s accession into the E.E.C the organisation changed dramatically and so did Britain’s relations with it. However, Britain possessed a number of opt outs that left its particular relationship with the EEC unique to that of other states.

So how was Britain’s membership different?

What criteria need to be met to join the EU?

With the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 the E.E.C became the European Union which we would somewhat recognise today.

The European Union is not a simplistic organisation. It is incredibly complex. CGP Grey explains some of the complexities of the European Union in this excellent video:

A number of countries currently want to join the European Union. These include Turkey, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania. In order to join the European Union a candidate state has to meet a number of conditions. Each state:

  • Must be a demonstrably stable democracy. They must respect Human Rights and the Rule of Law.
  • Must have the consent of other EU Members in order to join.
  • Must show they are able to take on all the responsibilities of EU Membership. These include accepting the single currency (the Euro) and committing to free movement of people and goods.
  • Must accept all EU Rules and Regulations as they were at the time of their accession.

What were the opt outs that Britain managed to achieve?

Schengen Agreement

The Schengen Agreement creates an area in which citizens can travel without having to pass through customs and without having to produce a passport. Of 28 EU Members before Brexit in 2019, 22 were members of the Schengen Area. Britain argued that, as an island, Britain was in a unique position that needed special consideration. Britain therefore opted out of the Schengen Agreement.

Countries in blue are members of the Schengen Area. Switzerland and Norway are members of the Schengen Area despite not being in the European Union.

Economic and Monetary Union

As part of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 it was agreed that a Single Currency would be introduced in the European Union but that Britain would not be forced to join. In 1999 the Euro was introduced and 19 of 27 EU Members currently use the Euro as their currency. The New Labour Government of Tony Blair were keen for Britain to adopt the Euro and promised a referendum on the issue. However, the policy was clearly unpopular and the party backed down over the issue.

Countries in blue use the Euro.

Area of Freedom, Justice and Security

The Area of Freedom, Justice and Security are a set of home and justice policies that all members sign up to implement. For example, members would be required to implement the same border controls and asylum policies. Britain had an opt-out for the full quota of policies, but did participate in some areas.

Countries in blue fully participate in the AFSJ.

Charter of Fundamental Rights

The Charter of Fundamental Rights was signed in 2000. It codifies certain political, social and economic rights of citizens across the European Union. It also gives EU Court’s the power to strike down national laws that do not comply with the charter. Britain had an opt-out from the Charter, meaning EU Courts could not overturn UK Statutes, meaning Parliament remained sovereign in the UK.

Countries in blue are fill signatories to the Charter of Fundamental Rights
Margaret Thatcher claimed a major political victory by winning a rebate for Britain’s contribution to the EU Budget.

In addition to these opt-outs Britain had a rebate that reduced the amount of money that Britain contributes to the EU Budget each year. The rebate was negotiated by the government of Margaret Thatcher in 1985 and sees a net reduction of 66% in the amount that Britain was expected to pay into the EU Budget.

What does this mean in the future?

Presently both the Conservative and Labour Party are clear that they fully intend that Britain should not seek to return the European Union in the future. However, notably, if Britain were to join the EU again in the future it would not be on the more generous terms on which it left it in January 2020. Britain will almost certainly be forced to adopt the Euro, the Schengen Agreement, the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Area for Freedom, Justice and Security. In addition, Britain will be expected to pay the full quota of membership fees and would get no rebate on this amount. Britain, like the countries currently applying for membership, would have to fully comply with all the normal conditions of membership.

Leave a Reply