What is the history of the EU and of Britain’s membership within it?

Since Britain’s exit the European Union has 27 member states.

The issue of the exit of Britain from the European Union as dominated British politics since the decision of the British people to leave on the 23rd June 2016. Britain had joined the European Economic Community in 1973 and the decision to leave was a transformational one. But why did the EU develop in the first place, why did it develop in a way that led to Euroscepticism and why did Britain decided to leave?

How and why was the European Economic Community born?

Robert Schuman was behind the declaration.

The Second World War saw the greatest destruction humankind had ever created. Two of the great powers of Europe, Germany and France, had gone to war for the third time in just 60 years. Following the horrors of the war, and the growth of USSR in Eastern Europe, there was a belief that cooperation between Western European countries was the only way to maximise the chance of never seeing the horrors of the continental war again.

This belief led on the 9th May 1950 a declaration by the French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman that is known as the Schumann Declaration. In it he said:

World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it. The contribution which an organised and living Europe can bring to civilisation is indispensable to the maintenance of peaceful relations. In taking upon herself for more than 20 years the role of champion of a united Europe, France has always had as her essential aim the service of peace. A united Europe was not achieved and we had war. Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity. The coming together of the nations of Europe requires the elimination of the age-old opposition of France and Germany. Any action taken must in the first place concern these two countries. With this aim in view, the French Government proposes that action be taken immediately on one limited but decisive point. It proposes that Franco-German production of coal and steel as a whole be placed under a common High Authority, within the framework of an organisation open to the participation of the other countries of Europe. The pooling of coal and steel production should immediately provide for the setting up of common foundations for economic development as a first step in the federation of Europe, and will change the destinies of those regions which have long been devoted to the manufacture of munitions of war, of which they have been the most constant victims.

An Excerpt from the Schumann Declaration
The six members of the ECSC.

In 1951, and on the basis of the Schumann Declaration, the European Steel and Coal Community was created under the Treaty of Paris. Under the treaty six western European states agreed to create a common market for steel and coal. The states that were parties to the treaty were: France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. The states agreed that a High Authority would be created to oversee the joint management of these resources.

The success of the ECSC led to a further growth of pan-Europeanism and calls for greater integration. Subsequently, in 1957 the Treaty of Rome was signed. This created the European Economic Community. The EEC worked by creating a common market for goods, meaning free trade within the area. This promoted trade between the member states and, consequently, improved relations meaning peace was more likely. Institutions were set up to carry out the work of the EEC:

European Commission – The European Commission was the executive branch of the EEC (and now the EU). Its key responsibility is to propose and then implement EU policies and laws.

Council of Ministers – The Council of Ministers was the decision-making branch of the EEC (and now the EU). It consists of representatives from member states.

European Parliament – The European Parliament was the legislature of the EEC (now the EU). It can adopt, amend or reject EU laws.

European Court of Justice – The ECJ was the judicial branch of the EEC (and now the EU). Its responsibility is to adjudicate on EU disputes and ensure that member states are complying with EU law.

How did the EEC develop into the European Union?

President De Gaulle twice vetoed UK membership of the EEC.

The EEC was quickly viewed as an economic success and other countries applied to join. These included states included the UK, Ireland and Denmark. However, Britain twice had its application to join the EEC vetoed by President Charles De Gaulle of France. De Gaulle was primarily concerned that due to to Britain’s close relationship with the United States they may act as a ‘trojan horse’ for US influence in Europe. He was also sceptical as to regards how much Britain bought into the same European ideals as other EEC members. However, in 1973, Britain was a part of the first enlargement of the EEC alongside Ireland and Denmark.

A number of changes to place to the EEC after Britain joined. Firstly, in 1979 the Parliament became directly elected. Prior to this, its members were appointed by the national governments of member states. This increased the level of democratic legitimacy that the EEC had (although the Parliament was, and remains, the only directly elected institution). Secondly, there were further expansions with Greece in 1981 and Spain and Portugal in 1986.

In 1986 the Single European Act was agreed. This created a full single market amongst member states that would begin at the end of 1992. Then, in 1992, the Maastricht Treaty was signed. This treaty created European citizenship and looked to move towards more aligned foreign and home affairs policies. It also created the European Monetary Union which had the stated aim of moving towards a common EU currency.

What is meant by the Single Market?

The creation of the European Union also saw the establishment of the Single Market. The Single Market covers all EU member and has the fundamental aim for creating clear opportunities for economic growth across the whole of the EU. The single market is based on ‘four freedoms’. These are:

Freedom of movement for goods – Not only would trade barriers be eliminated (as a customs union would do) but it was required that member states imposed common external tariffs to protect their collective market. It also required the standardisation of regulations in order to make trade more seamless.

Freedom of movement for services – This allows companies to freely operate in any EU member of their choice.

Freedom of movement for capital – This allows individuals and companies to move money and other financial investments across EU member states without restriction.

Freedom of movement for people – The free movement of people allows EU citizens the right to freely move and live in different parts of the EU.

What is meant by European Monetary Union?

The European and Monetary Union is an attempt to create a single currency across the EU. There were three stages under the EMU:

Stage 1 – Exchange control are abolished meaning capital can move freely across the UK.

Stage 2 – Central currency mechanisms are established (what would later become the European Central Bank) and countries are selected for the Euro.

Stage 3 – The Euro is launched as a currency. It has now been adopted by 20 countries.

Speculator George Soros made around $1 Billion dollars from Black Wednesday.

Britain had an opt out from the EMU. However, Britain was hurt quite badly by preparations for closer monetary union. In October 1990 Britain jointed the Exchange Rate Mechanism. This would attempt to stabilise EEC currencies by tying them to the German Mark. However, this turned out to be a disaster as currency speculators bet on the pounds decline and Britain was eventually forced to leave the ERM Black Wednesday. This episode cost around £3.4 billion.

Why was Britain’s position in the EU unique?

Whilst Britain was a full member of the EU, it had a bespoke relationship with the EU that included a number of ‘opt outs’ from various rules of the European Union:

Schengen Agreement

The Schengen Area in blue.

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.

Economic and Monetary Union

Countries that use the Euro are in blue.

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.

Area of Freedom, Justice and Security

The ASJF in blue.

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.

Charter of Fundamental Rights

Charter Signatories in Blue.

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.

Britain’s Rebate

Thatcher negotiated a budget rebate for the UK.

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 impact did membership of the EU have on Britain?

When Britain joined the European Union it had to accept the precedence of EU Law over UK Law. This was codified into the British Law in the European Communities Act (1972). In this act it states:

All such rights, powers, liabilities, obligations and restrictions from time to time created or arising by or under the Treaties, and all such remedies and procedures from time to time provided for by or under the Treaties, as in accordance with the Treaties are without further enactment to be given legal effect or used in the United Kingdom shall be recognised and available in law, and be enforced, allowed and followed accordingly

Section 2 (1) of the European Communities Act 1972

However, it took the Factortame Case to finally confirm this case in UK law. The case began after a group of Spanish Fishermen argued that laws passed by the UK Parliament requiring British vessels to be majority-owned by British citizens violated EU law. The case went to the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords (then the highest court in the UK) who ruled against the UK government. In their landmark judgement they confirmed that EU law did indeed take precedence of UK law whilst the European Communities Act (1972) remained in statute.

Membership of the European Union had a significant impact over British policy. For example, between 1990 and there were 50,000 laws passed in the UK as a result of directives or regulations issued from the EU. Significant policies in the UK had a major impact on Britain.

The Common Fisheries Policy

What is it about?

The Common Fisheries Policy regulates fishing across the European Union.

When and why was it introduced?

The Treaty of Rome, which founded the EU (then EEC) in 1957, stated that a Common Fisheries Policy should be established across the EU. It was officially established in 1970 in order to manage fish stocks across the European Union. For example, it sets quotas on the numbers and type of fish that fishermen in EU Member States are allowed to catch and also aims to encourage the long-term viability of the fishing industry by regulating the market.

There are four key aims of the Common Fisheries Policy:

  1. Regulate quality of fish products and packaging.
  2. Regulate the market to discourage spikes in price.
  3. Regulate minimum prices to support fisherman.
  4. Regulate trade of fish between EU Countries and Non-EU Countries.

How does it work?

There are a number of mechanisms in place by which the Common Fisheries Policy tries to achieve its aims:

Total Allowable Catch – Every two years research takes place to ascertain the population of different groups of fish. Based on this, each country in the EU is given a quota of different types of fish that they can catch. This quota is agreed annually by the EU Council of Ministers.

Fishing Controls – In order to monitor and control fishing, the Common Fisheries Policy mandates that records must be kept. In addition, certain areas are barred from being fished in. This is to allow fish stocks to be replenished. Each EU country is also given pre-set fishing grounds. Exclusive national fishing grounds are defined as those within 12 miles of the coast.

Onshore Support – The Common Fisheries Policy supports the fishing industry by putting money into onshore facilities, such as filleting, sorting and preserving facilities.

Producer Organisations – The Common Fisheries Policy supports producer organisations (similar to Unions) from across the EU. Currently there are 160 such organisations across the European Union. These organisations work together to plan ahead to adjust their fishing to meet the current demands of the market.

How has the Common Fisheries Policy evolved?

1985-86 – More countries joined the European Union changing the existing territorial boundaries. These countries included Portugal, Spain and a reunified Germany.

1992 – Stricter regulations were put in place to prevent overfishing. It included yearly recovery plans for different stocks.

2013 – Means that states must change their fishing capacities, so they are balanced with the opportunities to fish given to them by the European Union.

What was the impact of the Common Fisheries Policy on the UK?

There were arguably many negative impacts:

  • It arguably hurt Britain disproportionately as an island nation. Of 6 million tonnes of fish caught in the EU, 700,000 was caught in the UK.
  • Although UK waters are extensive (as shown below), lots of fish that is central to the UK economy only passed through them and cannot be consistently fished. An example of this is mackerel.
  • Certain fish, like Cod, are populous in the North Sea. However, they prefer spawning along the border between UK and Norwegian waters. It is impossible therefore to accurately give a quota to the UK on this fish stock that is very important to the UK fishing economy.

However, there were arguably some clear positives:

  • Since the CFP fish stocks have replenished to sustainable levels. Popular fish like Cod may well have been fished to extinction without the quotas placed on UK fisherman.
  • There are a number of fish that are not covered under the CFP. These include crab, shellfish and lobsters, which were managed independently in Britain.
  • The quota system was managed independently, taking the risk of a repeat of the ‘Cod Wars’ of the 1960s out of reckoning.
  • The UK fishing industry is less than 0.5 of GDP. The Common Fisheries Policy was a price worth paying for the other benefits that Britain gains in areas like financial services.

The Common Agricultural Policy

What is it about?

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) helps to regulate agriculture across the European Union.

When and why was it introduced?

The CAP was introduced in 1962, although it has developed significantly since then. The CAP was originally introduced for two key reasons:

  • France had been promised a CAP when they agreed to the Treaty of Rome in 1957. They demanded a substantial CAP to protect its agricultural sector.
  • Having a working CAP was essential to the introduction of a successful Common Market, which has always been a key goal of the European Union.

How does it work?

There are three major principles to the CAP:

Market Unity – This means that there is freedom of trade for agricultural products. This means there can be no tariffs or special taxes on agricultural products.

EU Preference – This ensures that products made in Europe are always been by EU countries in preference to those that have been grown or reared elsewhere within the EU.

Financial Solidarity – This means that all EU countries are responsible for the costs of the CAP, including subsidies offered to farmers.

How has the CAP evolved?

In the 1980s the EU took action to tackle ‘food mountains’. This refers to the surplus of food. They did this via subsidies and managed export. Although this was somewhat successful, it was hugely expensive.

In 1984 a milk quota was introduced across the EU. This was in addition to a quota that was already in place on sugar.

In 1992 the ‘MacSharry’ reforms changed the way farmers were supported. This marked a move away from price-fixing and towards direct subsidies.

How does the CAP effect the UK?

There were arguably many negative impacts:

  • The CAP was been criticised for encouraging farming practices that hurt the environment. For example, the use of artificial pesticides to increase yields and meet quotas is damaging to the environment in the long-term.
  • The protectionism bought through EU preference meant that food is often more expensive for UK consumers than it would be if Britain could import from foreign markets, like the US.
  • It stopped Britain being able to support fair trade by trading with developing countries across the world.
  • The UK got much less from the CAP than it puts in.  The CAP is extremely expensive making up 43% of the EU’s spending. With Britain being the eighth largest contributor, a fair chunk of this burden was taken up by the UK.

There were arguably many positives:

  • British farmers received subsidies of £3 Billion per year from the CAP and only contributed around 0.7% of British GDP. This is a huge net gain for UK farmers.
  • Britain is predominantly a country of large farms. 22.4% have more than 110 hectares compared to 3.1% across the whole of the EU. Large farms benefit more from subsidies than smaller farms.
  • Between 2007 and 2013 the EU spent €4.6 Billion of EU funds developing the UK agricultural industry, including training a new generation of farmers.

The Working Time Directive

What is it about?

The Working Time Directive is a Directive of the European Union. It regulates the number of hours that workers within the EU can work and what holidays and rest breaks they are entitled to.

When and why was it introduced?

The purpose of the Working Time Directive was to protect the Health and Safety of workers. As workers in the EU could now work in any of the member countries, it was important to have a uniform set of regulations to protect workers. The latest Working Time Directive was passed by European Parliament and EU Council in 2003. Previous versions of the directive had been passed in 2000 and 1993.

How does it work?

The Working Time Directive places a number of clear rules for workers. These include:

  • No worker may work for more than an average of 48 hours per week.
  • No worker may work more than 13 hours in a single day.
  • Workers must have a minimum of 24 hours uninterrupted break per week.
  • Workers must have a minimum of 20 days annual leave per year.

How has the Working Time Directive evolved?

The 2000 version bought more forms of employment under the directive, for example fisherman at sea. The 2003 version was an update of previous versions with a greater focus on the importance of mental health in reducing working time and the directive now included Doctors.

How did the Working Time Directive effect the UK?

There were arguably many negative impacts:

  • The NHS struggled to move away from the system whereby Junior Doctors were ‘on call’ for a number of nights in a row. This has helped lead to a crisis in the number of Junior Doctors.
  • The Working Time Directive may have resulted in lower pay as employers cannot rely on workers to do as much work as they used to.
  • Britain never wanted to join the Working Time Directive. It was only forced to after losing a European Court of Justice case in 1998.

There were arguably a number of positive impacts too:

  • Britain had the ability to opt-out of parts of the Working Time Directive. For example, in Britain employers can choose to opt out of the restrictions of a 48-hour working week. This has meant Britain got a version of the Working Time Directive that best suits Brits.
  • The Working Time Directive may have actually increased the number of jobs, as more employees have been needed to ensure others were not working more than there 48-hour quota.

Why did Britain leave the European Union?

Thatcher campaigned for the EEC in the 1975 referendum.

Britain has a long history of euroscepticism. Whilst the EEC was popular when Britain joined in 1973 (67.2% voted to remain in the 1975 referendum), this popularity began to drop as the organisation moved away from a solely economic focus to a more political one. In particular, the Conservative Party faced enormous internal tension over the issue of Europe. The steady growth of UKIP after their formation in 1992 shows the growth of euroscepticism. By 2015, UKIP won 3.8 million votes, 12.6% of the total. This forced David Cameron to offer a referendum to get those votes back into the fold. When that choice was given to the UK on the 23rd June 2016 51.9% voted to leave. There were a number of factors that led to this:

Sovereignty – The Leave campaign’s promise to ‘take back control’ appealed to some voters who believed law affecting Britons should be made in the UK Parliament.

Immigration – The Free Movement requirements of being in the European Union were considered a major reasons for the immigration levels into Britain.

Democratic Deficit – There was a perception that the EU was not a democratic institution.

Trade – There was a belief that Britain would be better off outside the EU and able to strike free trade deals across the world.

Has Brexit returned sovereignty to the UK Parliament?

One of the key questions relating to Brexit is to whether it has truly returned sovereignty to the UK.

In its most basic sense, there can be no doubt that Brexit has returned legal sovereignty more fully to the UK. The UK is no longer required to implement EU regulations and directives into UK Law. In addition, it can, should it wish, repeal those that have become UK Law.

However, there are arguments that can be made that political sovereignty has not fully returned to the UK Parliament. For example, the EU remains Britain’s biggest trading partner and that will remain so. The absence of a free trade deal (promised as easy by the Leave Campaign in 2016) makes that ever more significant. whilst the UK is no longer legally obliged to comply with EU regulations, it naturally will have to in order to facilitate trade. This means that EU laws will still impact the British economy but the UK just no longer has any say over them.

In addition, Britain has a number of external relationships that regulate its behaviour, like membership of the ECHR. Leaving the EU does not suddenly return all political sovereignty to the UK.

Brexit has also put enormous pressure on the union of the United Kingdom. The ongoing crisis in Northern Ireland is over the DUP’s refusal to accept the Northern Ireland protocol or the the subsequent Windsor Framework. Meanwhile, Scotland voted by 62% to 38% for remain – giving more impetus to the independence movement in Scotland. It may eventually transpire that in voting to ‘bring back control’ to the UK the seeds of the end of the UK were sown.

Article Summary

Britain was a member of the EEC/EU from 1973 until 2020. However, whilst a member, Britain had a number of ‘opt outs’ that meant its relationship with the EU was a bespoke one. However, Britain was never fully aligned with the ‘European Ideal’ and Euroscepticism was always influential in Britain. Eventually, this led to the decision to leave the European Union in 2016.

Key Terms

Euroscepticism – A belief that membership of the European Union is not a positive thing.

Democratic Deficit – A perceived gap between how democratic an institution should be and democratic it actually is.

Working Time Directive – A European Union directive that dictates limits on working hours.

Common Agricultural Policy – A policy that provides collective support for EU farmers and regulates agricultural policies.

Common Fisheries Policy – policy that provides collective support for EU fisherman and regulates fishing policies.

European Communities Act (1972) – The UK Act of Parliament that confirmed Britain’s accession to the EEC.

Factortame Case – An important constitutional case heard by the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords which confirmed the supremacy of EU Law over UK law.

Rebate – A discount on the amount of money paid into budget. Margaret Thatcher earned Britain rebate on the sum in paid to the EEC budget.

Charter of Fundamental Rights – A document that sets out fundamental political and social rights for EU citizens.

Area of Freedom, Justice and Security – An area within the EU that seeks to create common legal approaches to tackling crime.

Economic and Monetary Union – A number of EU policies aiming towards creating a common currency.

Maastricht Treaty – The treaty in 1992 that created the European Union.

Schengen Agreement – An agreement that abolishes border controls between signatory states.

Black Wednesday – A day in September 1992 in which Britain was forced to withdraw from the ERM costing billions of pounds.

Exchange Rate Mechanism – A mechanism setup to stabilise exchange rates in preparation for a monetary union.

Four Freedoms – The four pillars behind the EU single market.

Single Market – A system created by European Union to promote common economic growth through the free movement of goods, services, capital, and people within the EU.

European Commission – The European Commission is  the executive branch of the EEC/EU. Its key responsibility is to propose and then implement EU policies and laws.

Council of Ministers – The Council of Ministers is the decision-making branch of the EEC/EU It consists of representatives from member states.

European Parliament – The European Parliament is the legislature of the EEC/EU.  It can adopt, amend or reject EU laws.

European Court of Justice – The ECJ is  the judicial branch of the EEC/EU Its responsibility is to adjudicate on EU disputes and ensure that member states are complying with EU law.

European Steel and Coal Community – A common market created for steel and coal between participating countries.

Schumann Declaration – A declaration by the French Foreign Minister in 1950 calling for Franco-German collaboration to share certain economic resources in order to promote harmony.

Treaty of Rome – The Treaty that established the European Economic Community in 1957.

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