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Britain and Europe

There have been many cultural links between Britain and the rest of Europe as European civilization developed and close proximity have intertwined Britain’s economy with those of other European countries but these have been the political links in the last two centuries.

The Battle of Waterloo

On 18 June 1815 one of the most famous battles in British history took place between the forces of the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon Bonaparte. Find out more here

From the end of the Napoleonic Wars to 1914

From the end of the Napoleonic Wars until 1914 Britain’s involvement with Europe was limited and instead Imperial expansion dominated British Politics and extensive trading patterns existed across the world, while defence became based on the ‘two power standard’ of keeping a navy bigger than the next two countries combined.  Nevertheless diplomatic activity remained important:-
  • There was the need to deal with Continental crises and watch the changing balance of power in Europe. In the early 19th century Britain looked to maintain the status quo established by the Congress of Vienna but this gradually shifted to give limited support to liberal nationalist movements in Greece, Belgium, Poland, Hungary and Italy, as long as the balance of power was not unduly affected.
  • Britain had to sort out colonial disputes with other European powers in order to prevent major conflicts and with Russia over its influence in Afghanistan and Persia.
  • Britain interests involved Egypt, the Suez Canal and the route to India and this meant that it was concerned with the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the growth of Russian influence. This led it into the Crimean War (1853-6), interest in the Balkans and the establishment of a Protectorate over Cyprus in 1878.

Post Second World War

  • Britain was involved in sorting out the post-war settlement which this time, involved the occupation of Germany and Austria.  The United States remained involved beyond the immediate post-war period and the idea of a British/American Special Relationship introduced a new element into Britain’s relationship with Europe. 
To prevent the same economic problems that had occurred after 1918, American Marshall Aid revived the European economies and Britain was involved in the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation, together with other West European democracies and Turkey, to coordinate the programme. This became the worldwide OECD in 1962. 
  • Britain became part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in 1949 together with the US, Canada, West European countries and Turkey, guaranteeing each of its members from outside attack.  NATO was designed to deter the revival of aggressive nationalism but then became an alliance against the Soviet block.

  • Britain, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands agreed a defence pact in 1948, in the Treaty of Brussels and an agency was set up within which Prime Ministers and Chiefs of Staff met to discuss defence issues, while economic and social collaboration was also promoted.  This was expanded into the Western European Union in 1954 with Italy and Germany joining and agencies created to allow for collaboration and shared research in relation to armaments. Other countries across Europe became involved in the 1990s. 
The WEU had a very limited role until the 1980s when the members began to discuss common ground in foreign policy and in 1992 the Petersberg Tasks were agreed so that the WEU would organise a joint force to deal with peace-keeping and humanitarian and other crises.  It remained intergovernmental rather there being any real European defence force and the WEU was gradually merged into the European Union by 2010.
  • Britain and the other Western European democracies set up the Council of Europe in 1949 to promote a common European cultural heritage.  In the wake of Nazi occupation and the Holocaust there was support for cooperation on human rights and the Council drafted the European Convention of Human Rights in 1950, with the Conservative MP and lawyer Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe playing a leading role, and Britain signed the Convention when members of the Council of Europe were invited to in 1953. 
A European Court of Human Rights was established in 1959 to determine cases in relation to the Charter and Britain accepted the rights of British citizens to take cases there in 1966.  British Governments gradually began to amend British legislation to take account of the Court’s decisions and the Labour Government adopted the European Convention into British Law in the Human Rights Act, 1998. Some of the Court’s decisions have recently become controversial and Conservative politicians have discussed withdrawing from the Convention. The Council of Europe now has 47 members and has expanded into areas such as counter terrorism and preventing doping in sport.

1960s - Present

  • Britain helped set up the European Free Trade Association in 1960 which consisted of non-Communist countries who were not members of the European Economic Community but excluding Spain. It was purely economic in nature (Portugal was a member but still a dictatorship) and had no external tariff wall unlike the EEC.  It still exists but most members, including Britain, have withdrawn and joined the EU.
  • Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1972 and has been involved in most of the phases of integration since except adopting the Euro currency.
  • Britain has been involved since 1995 in military action through the UN, European Union and NATO within such areas as the break-up of Yugoslavia. The main frontier for Europe has been its relationship with Russia following activities in Georgia and Ukraine.
  • In other areas recent relationships in Europe have focused on the effects of the economic downturn and immigration. Britain within the EU looks to coordinate policies on the movement of migrants, bail-outs of struggling countries and the amount of money Britain pays into the EU budget.
  • In the 2015 UK General Election, over four million people voted for the UK Independence Party who advocate leaving the EU. The Conservative Party who won the election responded in their manifesto with the promise of an in/out referendum. The 'In' will not be to keep the status quo but be a vote for remaining with a package of reforms. The European Referendum Bill was declared by the Queen in the State Opening of Parliament on May 27th.