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Guide to the European Union

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Why is EU membership such a divisive issue in the UK?

*** This information is subject to change due to the ongoing Brexit process

Britain has been seen as an ‘awkward partner’ in Europe and EU membership has been a difficult issue in British politics for a number of historical reasons:-

        The UK was not one of the founding members of the European Union in 1957 and so the institutions were already established when she joined in 1972.  This caused two problems:-

a)     A principle of the British Constitution is that the Westminster Parliament is sovereign and its laws cannot be overruled.  The EU has a set of institutions which, in some areas of policy, are superior to national parliaments and this limits the sovereignty of Westminster.

b)     British Governments are used to being able to decide issues, after what is often limited consultation, and in line with its election manifesto but decision-making in the EU involves negotiations and compromises between the various countries and economic interests.  In Britain, the Coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats from 2010 to 2015, also involved compromises between the parties but was disliked by many Conservatives and drastically affected the electoral popularity of the Liberal Democrats.

        Britain has never bought into the European ideal of political union in the way that other countries did.  The Treaty of Rome, signed in 1957 by the original six countries was designed to bind Germany into a union that would prevent another war in Europe. Southern and Eastern European countries saw joining the EU as recognition that they had left behind the authoritarian past of right-wing or Communist dictatorships. Britain joined because it was performing less well economically than other Western European countries.  The 1975 referendum confirming British entry was largely won on the basis of the economic benefits, particularly in employment, that the EU brought.

        The UK is an island state which has been used to playing an independent international role and has had a special relationship with the United States.  It is difficult for it to accept that in foreign and defence policy and in negotiating international trade deals that it should be only part of the EU.  The Iraq war showed that Britain was more concerned to agree with the United States than to get a European agreement, with France and Germany opposed to military intervention in Iraq.

The stages of division

        EU membership has been controversial within the two main political parties. This has gone through several stages:-

a)     The Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, was strongly pro-European and was determined to ensure that Britain joined in 1972 but both parties were divided on the issue, especially Labour.  Some Conservatives felt that membership would compromise Britain’s international role and relationship with the United States and that barriers to the entry of goods from outside the EU would affect Britain’s international trade, especially with Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Heath had to depend on pro-European Labour MPs to vote the necessary legislation through Parliament. Many Labour MPs were concerned that the single market would allow large capitalist enterprises to dominate the economy with little control by national governments and that the poorer Commonwealth countries would be affected by trade barriers.

b)     The Labour Party was split on EU membership and so, to resolve the issue, the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, held a referendum and allowed Labour politicians to campaign on either side. Despite this, the Labour Party moved to a more anti-European position after 1980.  Attitudes changed when, in opposition from 1979 to 1997, Labour found that the EU was the main source of legislation on employment rights and environmental protection.

c)     Mrs Thatcher accepted the EU and helped push through the EU’s Single Market Act in 1986 which removed many more barriers to competition within the EU.  However, when other countries looked to move towards political integration and a single currency, she announced, in her Bruges Speech in 1988 that this was a step too far. This launched a major battle within the Conservative Party.  John Major, who took over as Conservative Prime Minister, in 1990, was ready to take a pragmatic approach to integration and was ready to approve the Maastricht Treaty in 1992.  Some Conservative MPs refused to vote for it in Parliament, losing the party whip for a period, and Conservative constituency parties began to select more Eurosceptic candidates.

d)     After 1997, Labour became the pro-European party and the Conservatives the Eurosceptic party.  The Labour Government supported the Amsterdam and Lisbon Treaties. However, aware of public opinion and because Gordon Brown, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, was uncertain, Tony Blair did not allow Britain to join the Euro and promised that there would be a referendum before the country did so.  The Conservative leadership, while never proposing to leave the EU, opposed any attempt to join the Euro and raised the question of immigration.

e)     The Coalition Government, between 2010 and 2015, brought together Cameron, who as Conservative Prime Minister was generally ready to work with other European countries, and the Liberal Democrats who have been the most pro-European of British political parties. Despite this, Cameron came under pressure from many Conservative MPs, who either wanted to leave the EU or fundamentally change Britain’s relationship with it, and from UKIP who began to gain support and members at the expense of the Conservatives.  This pushed Cameron into committing the Conservative Party to supporting a referendum of whether Britain should remain in the EU.

The Media

Divisions over Europe have been intensified by the British media.

The SunThe Daily MailThe Daily Express and, to a lesser extent, The Telegraph have run strong campaigns against the cost of the EU and the level of migration from other EU countries into Britain and include front page stories distorting the impact of particular EU regulations.

Academic research has found that the EU is presented in the British media as a foreign power that is able to dictate to Britain rather than an organisation within which Britain negotiates with other countries.