Does the History of Britain’s Relationship with Europe mean that Brexit was Inevitable?

by Ryan Chan

26 July 2019

The European flag, a contentious issue in Brexiting Britain (Image credit: Flickr)


In most analyses regarding the 2016 Referendum, Britain’s legacy of Exceptionalism and Empire is commonly cited as a crucial reason for the 2016 Referendum by critics and proponents alike. Yet this article will problematise the claim that Brexit was historically inevitable as it dismisses crucial explanations on the historical development of British Euroscepticism and marginalises the plethora of reasons as to why ordinary Britons voted as they did in the referendum.

The French saying ‘l’Angleterre est insulaire’ summarises the idea that Britain is an ‘island nation’, geographically and geopolitically detached from Europe, able to choose between the ‘continent or the open seas’. In his veto against British membership in what was then the European Economic Community, Charles de Gaulle asserted in 1963 that Britain is unfit to join: “She is unlike other European countries […] linked by her markets […] to the most diverse and farthest-flung nations.’ This view of an ‘insular Britain’ was not limited to De Gaulle’s time: Stephen George’s An Awkward Partner, for instance, argues that Britain had always preferred a ‘special relationship’ with the United States, and given Britain’s legacy of empire and ‘rehearsal of historical anti-French and German attitudes,’ it led to a ‘disdainful’ relationship between Britain and the EU, seeking for a ‘looser relationship based on free-trade’ rather than a political union.

Critically, the idea of Britain as an ‘island nation’ was a phenomenon that preceded a united Europe or the existence of Great Britain. After the loss of her French possessions following the Hundred Years War, Britain (then England) was more concerned with empire-building overseas rather than within Europe unlike the continental European powers. When Britain did engage with Europe however, her role as a ‘balancer’ coerced her into ‘difficult relationships’ and rivalries with most of her neighbours. Allusions to this history were prevalent in the rhetoric of the Leave Campaign. Many referenced the re-establishing of a Britain formulated on the ‘island nation’ concept: a Britain that once ruled the waves and through its Parliament opposed the evil continental European powers. For Eurosceptics, the EU is a German-led ‘fourth Reich’ and Brexit is a return to ‘global Britain’ and British sovereignty.

Over the centuries, there was little change to what ‘Britain’ was, and as a consequence, Britain placed less importance on being ‘European’ than her counterparts on the continent who experienced devastation from war and tyrannical rule. However, one does not need to look too far into British history in order to substantiate De Gaulle’s view. The inevitability of Brexit is also reflected in how Britain ‘tumbled’ into the European Community in 1973. Unlike founding members of the Community (like France, Germany and the Benelux Countries) who stress the importance of the European Union as a ‘historic success’ that brought a lasting peace to a region embroiled in centuries of conflict, Britain entered the Community during a decade of economic turmoil and the decline of empire, keen to re-establish her influence within Europe: She viewed the Community (and Europe) in economic, transactional and intergovernmental terms. Because of this history, Britain was a peripheral member within the Union, unwilling to compromise on sovereignty, strongly detested integration initiatives and only desired access to the single market. Britain’s historical legacy therefore does De Gaulle’s claim justice: Britain never belonged in Europe – she sought to redefine the Union in her own terms and was therefore first and foremost incompatible with EU values. Along with staggeringly low participation rates in European Elections, the decision to leave in 2016 seemed inevitable.

Yet, if Britain was too ‘insular’ and did not belong in the European Union, surely the decision to join the Community in 1973, the ratification of Maastricht in 1992 which founded a politically united Europe, or British support for EU expansion in the early 2000s would logically not have occurred? Could these instances dispute the claim that Brexit was historically inevitable? Such a claim overlooks Britain’s ‘Europhilic’ history, as Tim Oliver and Daddow highlight, Britain championed many European causes such as advocating for EU enlargement to central European states and was closer to EU policy decisions than generally ‘pro-European’ states like France, Holland or Ireland.

But what changed by 2016? It is important to acknowledge that British Euroscepticism was not given by virtue of history, but a ‘development’ against a perceived encroachment on British sovereignty and can be clearly demonstrated through Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s legacy. In her Bruges Speech of 1988, although she questioned the direction of European integration, she clearly states that ‘Britain’s future is in Europe’ and campaigned for Community policy reforms. This tone is unrecognisable after the Maastricht Treaty negotiations. In response to the prospects of a monetary union, Thatcher declared in 1992 that she could not support the ratification of Maastricht as it ‘conflicted with British democratic institutions and the accountability of Parliament’. British Euroscepticism was a development against an increasingly integrated Europe, as it was no longer, as Thatcher stated, in Britain’s interest to remain in a ‘federal Europe.’

Indeed, many Britons felt so as well – subsequent European policies that pushed Britain into a direction without the consent of the British electorate did much to exacerbate public opinion about Integration. A prominent case would be Prime Minister Blair’s premature push for free movement expansion to ‘A8’ EU countries in 2004, compromising support for core EU values. This would have serious repercussions in the following decade, where areas in which immigration drastically increased between 2001 and 2014 would experience a ‘94% chance of voting leave.’ These considerations therefore compromise the claim that the Referendum’s outcome was inevitable by virtue of history: the vote to leave was instead dealing with recent developments in European Integration, rather than premises of nationalistic nostalgia.

Yet, if we are to discern the core reasons for the vote to leave, we must acknowledge one fundamental truth: the ‘identity of Britain’ in relation to Europe is socially constructed and decided by the British people. Given that the vote to leave won by a mere margin of four percent and not a unanimous consensus, it is inaccurate to claim that ‘Leave’ was a product of historical nostalgia and a rejection of Integration. While some may have voted on grounds of nostalgia, it is equally probable that there are those who have voted for mundane reasons, such as immigration or political detachment from Brussels. It is also probable that many voted on pro-European issues, where some, although not a majority, voted on the premise of a shared ‘European Identity’. How British people perceive the Union could change within the near future, potentially altering the result of another Referendum as evidenced by the ever-changing opinions of Brexit polls, thus rendering the Brexit vote anything but historically inevitable or a universally shared sentiment.

Crucially, the vote to leave was not determined by Britain’s historical relationship with Europe, but more so by the attitudes of ordinary Britons towards the European Project which could significantly change in the near future given that the ‘remain’ vote was heavily concentrated among younger generations. Although it is established that Brexit was not historically inevitable, European policymakers cannot ignore that increasing retaliation against the process/direction of integration that won the vote to leave. This is an issue not exclusive to Britain, but also elsewhere in Europe like France, where the perceived loss of ‘sovereignty’ has given credence to Hard-Eurosceptic parties. Perhaps Macron’s proposal of a European Renaissance to stress the importance of Europeanism, or the creation of a European Constitution and greater representation of National Parliaments within the EU may be necessary solutions in order to quell sentiments of Euroscepticism or prevent future ‘exits’. These solutions to the problems of the EU can only be appreciated if it is established that Brexit was not historically inevitable, but a reaction.

Ryan Chan is a third year History and International Relations student at King’s College London and an opinion writer at King’s College London’s award-winning tabloid Roar News. He is interested in Modern 20th Century World History, particularly the Global Cold War, European Integration and Communist Chinese history. This article is the first of two winning essays of a writing competition jointly organised by the convenors of the module “Contemporary Issues in International History” and the Strife Blog.

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