How & why
Did Britain join the EU
Student ID: 2352181
Foundations of Diplomacy
Department for Continuing Education
The University of Oxford
There are two important
factors to take into consideration when attempting to analyze how and why Britain
joined the European Economic Community(EEC), known at the time as the Common
Market, the precursor of the European Union. The first was the change of French
President from De Gaulle to Pompidou, the second was the shift in government in
Britain from Conservative, to Labour, to Conservative.
Britain was one of the few economies
that grew during WWII, and by the end of the War, it was in need of major
financial and physical repair thus relying heavily on the Marshall Plan aid and
Commonwealth support. Britain
was hesitant about joining its European neighbours in the wake of World War II
for two reasons: firstly, it did not want to let go of its established Commonwealth
ties for the unproven EEC. Secondly, according to Holmes (1996), by not joining,
they could avoid the surrender of national decision making thus keeping Britain’s
sovereignty intact and preserve the functions of the British institutions, such
as the government and parliament(p7). As a result, it refused to sign up to a
number of European integration agreements such as the European Coal and Steel Community and
the Rome Treaty.
An additional factor to
consider was the Suez Canal crisis which led to the need for Britain and France
to withdraw their troops. The Suez Canal crisis is often associated with the
end of British imperialism. Gamal Abdel Nasser having established himself as
the leader of Egypt, sought to bring about change and nationalized the Suez
Canal. His first objective was to eliminate the British military presence which
had brought about a resentment from many Egyptians due to the growing sense of
nationalism. Britain and France had attempted to invade the canal claiming that
they needed to separate the Egyptian and Israeli forces and thus protect the Canal,
but just eight days after the first airborne attack the united nations back by
the united states ordered a cease fire to the Anglo-French invasion.
According to Milner (2011) in her article for
the BBC, this caused massive outrage across Britain followed by political
backlash and an economic fallout, that resulted in complicating Britain’s
diplomatic relations with the Commonwealth and the United States. Proctor,
claims that the Suez crisis, showed that Britain could no longer act
unilaterally and arguably ended its reign as a super power. The UN threatened
Britain with sanctions and US president Eisenhower pressured the International
Monetary Fund to deny Britain any financial assistance which transcended into
economic panic and devaluation of the currency. Suffering from steady economic
decline, and from the impact of the Suez Canal complications, Britain realized
the importance of joining other European countries.
relationship with the EU was an unhappy union from the beginning. Britain was rejected twice for EEC membership
by De Gaulle, who used his veto to block the application for a number of
reasons such as Britain’s Commonwealth ties, domestic agricultural policy, and
close links to the United States. In 1961, at the time of the first membership
application, De Gaulle feared that British membership would diminish France’s
position in Europe, that it would influence Europe by its lack of commitment to
European integration and that it would make English, Europe’s working language.
De Gaulle used his veto
again in 1967 to block Britain’s second application by holding a press
conference declaring the need for a radical transformation. To support his
stance, he presented detailed arguments that focused on economic and monetary affairs.
government’s attempts at joining the EEC, during De Gaulle’s time in office, had
so far failed and only after a change in president, were the British finally
able to make a third successful attempt, under Prime Minister Edward Heath. He struck up a friendship with President
Pompidou, who was more open to the idea of Atlantic integration and agreed with
a policy that included the “maintenance of the Atlantic relation and
enlargement of the EEC” ( Kitzinger, 1973,
In January 1973, Britain’s
third application to join the EEC was successful and Heath announced that he
was “optimistic that the British membership of the community would bring
prosperity to the country” (National Archives).
explains that the success of Britain’s third application for EU membership was
mainly due to the fact that the “Heath government pursued its economic policies
based on a traditional pragmatic approach in order to rejuvenate the domestic
economy and prepare it for membership to further the overarching goal of
success as an EEC member” (Page 6),
whereas the previous PM Wilson, was arguably less modern in terms of his
political focus and on maintaining Britain’s relationship with the Commonwealth
and growing its Anglo-American alliance .
As documented in the UK
Government archives, the British referendum on EEC membership in June 1975, resulted
in 67% of the electorate voting in favor, which prompted PM Heath to call the
result a “Historic Decision”.
A renegotiation phase followed,
the reason being that when Britain was negotiating the terms of its third entry
it did not want to ruin its chances so it avoided adopting too hard of a stance.
When the agreement was revised, the British felt they had been treated unfairly
(Agaraa, 2015). There were many reasons for this feeling, the most important
being the fact that Britain was classified as an advanced industrial economy,
which as Young (2000) claims, was due to its strength in the coal and steel
industry which as a result entitled it to make higher contributions to receive
European grants. A large percentage of the EEC budget was primarily spent on
supporting the common agricultural policy, which would implement agricultural
subsidies, that amounted at the time to around 80% and the UK received a
minimal amount of that financial support, due to its small agricultural policy,
as it was mainly importing its goods. British consumers ended up paying
inflated food prices as they were no longer able to buy cheap food from the
Commonwealth. Another reason for the
British public discontent, was the restriction to the Right to Fish in
Britain’s customary grounds, due to the Common Fisheries policy which destroyed
the UK fishing industry. Moreover, Britain had to impose VAT on most
commodities which began at 8% in 1973 and later reached 17.5%. These changes
came at a time when WW II had taken a huge toll on the British financial power
and left it as one of the lowest performers in the European community. These
issues pushed the UK to renegotiate the terms of membership, and in 1984 Margaret
Thatcher successfully renegotiated a budget rebate.
In the aftermath of WWII,
Europe needed to improve its economy, in order to rebuild the continent.
Nations such as Germany and France decided to seize the initiative and sought
to create a more integrated Europe, in order to benefit from each other’s
resources and trade agreements. Britain had been reluctant to join the EEC but
when industries changed and developed and new opportunities came along, Britain
saw the need to advance and expand its ties with neighbouring countries.
such as Temin (2002) and Craft (1985) refer to the period from 1950 to
1973 as the golden age of European economic growth. For the British, however,
it marked the country’s most critical era of economic decline.
Previously, the Commonwealth
had been a crucial and reliable source of trade but the UK’s per capita GDP
relative to the EU’s founding members declined steadily from 1945 to 1972.
Heath believed that
Britain had done the complete opposite of its neighbors, by giving up on its ties
to a global grouping, by dismantling its Commonwealth ties. This process of
decolonization reduced the country to a nation state status, which lacked any
form of compensation in the shape of membership, regional or otherwise, which
was the reason for its economic decline. (Rossbach,2014, page 2).
Heath spent his term attempting to
address Britain’s industrial troubles and to combat its economic decline given
its heavy reliance on Commonwealth trade and Marshall Plan aid.
objective was to maintain its relations by focusing time and effort in building
and nourishing its connections at a time when the British economy was doing
well and experiencing a steady economic growth. In contrast, EEC member states
preferred to seek a more integrated market, as a result, Britain missed out on
the first few years of the European integration which were In economic terms “truly
impressive”. (World Economic Survey,1955)
The delay in joining the EEC cost
Britain a great deal, as at that time, its economy was performing well and
indeed far better than its European neighbours. For instance, in 1950 when the
Labour government declined to join the Schuman Plan for a European Coal and
Steel Community, the difference in per capita growth between the UK and the EU6
was 28%. Seven years later, however, when Britain failed to sign the Treaty of
Rome, this difference had shrunk to 15%.
There are additional reasons why Britain
needed to join the EEC, these include its increasing need to access the growing
European markets and attract foreign business while benefitting from European
grants and no-border restrictions for British workers, as well as finding regional
solutions for its social and financial problems at a time when Britain could
not survive on its own.
with the United States, the realization that it needed to expand beyond
Commonwealth agreements and the growing demand for faster domestic economic
It took many British government
changes and switches from one political party to another and a lot of
convincing and diplomatic efforts to get the Europeans to accept the British
membership into the EEC, but by that time, the British public was having second
thoughts and expressing its dissatisfaction with certain parts of the
While the first referendum that
took place in 1975 with regards to the UK joining the EU came in favour of
staying in, years of discontent and public pressure lead to completely
different results in the last British referendum in 2016, when the British public
voted in favor of exiting the EU.
In my opinion, the UK was
leaning to leave the EU from the moment it joined its ranks, as the terms that
were imposed on Britain as a condition to accept its membership in 1973, were a
high price that the British population refused to pay. Time will only tell
whether the UK joining the EU or subsequently leaving it is for the better or
for the worse of its interests. As Holmes (1996) claims, that as one of the world’s
leading economies and a crucial trading power, a country with great defense
capabilities, world class international knowledge and experience with a
credited and well established diplomatic service and more, all of these skills
will remain whether they are part of the EU or not(p9).
Crafts, N.F.R, 1985. British economic growth
during the industrial revolution, Oxford University Press
2011. British Relative
Economic Decline Revisited, University of Warwick
Young,W.2000.Britain and European Unity 1945-1999.Palgrave
Geddes, A, 2013. Britain and
the European Union, Palgrave Macmillan
Holmes, Martin,1996. The Eurosceptical Reader. Palgrave
Martin,2001. The Eurosceptical Reader 2.
Kitzinger,U, 1973. Diplomacy and persuasion,
Thames and Hudson.
The guardian.2001.1956: Suez and the end of an empire. Available
N, 2014. Heath, Nixon and the rebirth of a special relationship: Britain,
the US and the EC 1969-74, Palgrave Macmillan
British Parliament, Britain and
EEC to singe European Act,
available at: http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/evolutionofparliament/legislativescrutiny/parliament-and-europe/overview/britain-and-eec-to-single-european-act/
Milner,L.2011. The suez crisis. Available at:
Voxeu, Britain’s EU membership,
available at :http://voxeu.org/article/britain-s-eu-membership-new-insight-economic-history
National Archives, EEC: Brittan’s
late entry, available at:http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/cabinetpapers/themes/eec-britains-late-entry.htm
UK Government, Past Prime Ministers,
Harold Wilson, available
Ian Proctor, Why was the Suez crisis
so important, available at: