Brexit: How Did We Get Here?


Not a day goes by without Brexit making the front page of the papers, or the top of your social media feed. But with the situation being so fast-paced, there’s hardly any chance to ask ourselves: how did we get here?

Europe: A New Hope

The devastation caused by the Second World War and the new geopolitical threat faced by the Soviet Union led to a growing desire for cooperation across the countries of Western Europe. The Council of Europe (not officially related to the EU)  was founded in London in 1949, seeking to build closer cooperation between European states and was the brainchild of Winston Churchill. It called for greater humanitarian cooperation between European countries, such as establishing the European Convention on Human Rights.

The European Coal and Steel Community was founded in 1952 and sought to bind economic cooperation across the nations of Western Europe, creating a single market for goods, allowing for tariff-free trade and a unified regulatory policy. The UK, however, refused to join. After the Treaty of Rome in 1958, this gave way to the European Economic Community (EEC).

A Rough Start for Britain

In 1960, the UK joined a rival European trade bloc, the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), but soon applied to join the more powerful EEC. However, French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed Britain’s accession to the EEC on two separate occasions. When De Gaulle was no longer President in 1969 the UK reapplied and finally joined four years later during the office of Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath.  

Referendum: Round One

Many in the Labour Party, especially on the left, were hostile to the EEC. They thought that it would threaten their aim to create socialist policies in the UK by dictating economic policies which were more oriented to capitalism. When Labour won the 1974 election under the leadership of Harold Wilson, Wilson reluctantly agreed to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EEC in order to keep his party together, much like David Cameron in 2015. Unlike Cameron though, Wilson’s gamble paid off: the UK voted to stay in by over two-thirds.

The Parties Change Positions

In 1983 Labour lost by a landslide after running on their most left-wing manifesto in modern times, a component of which included a pledge to withdraw from the EEC immediately, without a referendum. The new party leadership, first under Neil Kinnock and later Tony Blair, recognised the party needed to moderate its stance on Europe in order to win wider support, especially as a bulk of pro-Europe Labour MPs had split to form the Social Democratic Party, who would later merge to create the Liberal Democrats. 

Meanwhile, the Conservative Party was changing its stance on Europe. They had been a strong supporter of the EEC in the 1975 vote, but as Europe drifted towards greater integration during the late 1980’s, so the love the Conservatives had for it waned. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 became especially controversial because there were concerns it would lead the UK to join a European single currency. Rebels in the Conservatives threatened to bring down the government of John Major over his support for signing the treaty. This contributed to Tony Blair’s landslide New Labour victory in 1997.

Euroscepticism Strikes Back:

Although Blair conceded Britain should not join the euro, eurosceptics had lost most of the major battles pulling Britain closer into European integration. However, over the next ten years, three important events gave fresh life into British euroscepticism:

  • UKIP

Although UKIP was founded in 1993, it didn’t break through until the 2004 European Parliament elections, when it won 14 MEP seats. This gave Eurosceptics a much more powerful voice, especially when Nigel Farage became leader in 2006.

  • Immigration

The fall of the Soviet Union led to many poorer countries in Eastern Europe joining the EU, with 11 of the 16 new members since 1995 being former communist countries. With many of these poorer populations seeking to improve their livelihoods, many used the EU’s promise of free movement of people to come and work in places like the UK.

  • Lisbon Treaty

Many eurosceptics criticised the content of the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, as they argued it weakened the status of individual members states when it came to agreeing on policy across Europe. It was this treaty from which Article 50, the instrument which allows a country to leave the European Union, is derived.

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The Road To The Referendum:

In 2010 a coalition government was formed between the Conservatives under David Cameron (above) and the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg. Cameron was not supportive of the UK leaving the EU, but during his premiership pressure grew on him to toughen his approach. UKIP gained support through the next five years, especially over the issue of immigration, and threatened to split the Tory vote. To prevent a Labour victory in 2015, Cameron promised a referendum if the Conservatives were elected – as we know, they proved polling wrong and won a majority in parliament of 12 seats. After returning to office, Cameron set in motion a bill for a referendum on EU membership to be held in June 2016, and the rest, as they say, is history.


History and Politics student. Loves studying, participating and writing about politics.

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