With the vote looming on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, commentators have gone into overdrive. What is notably lacking is a historical perspective on Britain’s distinctly ambivalent relationship to European integration. That ambivalence is hardly a recent phenomenon.
The British stood aside as the idea of European integration began to gather momentum in the 1950s. They refused a role in the European Coal and Steel Community, proposed in 1950 by French Foreign Minister Robert Schumann and set in motion in 1952 in an effort to coordinate economic policy. They again held back in 1957 when the member states of the ECSC created a more ambitious European Economic Community. This initiative resulted in a single market, more wide-ranging economic coordination, and the establishment of political institutions to facilitate cooperation. This was all a bit too much for British leaders fixated on a glorious imperial past and determined not to have Britain become “just another European country” (as a Labour government’s foreign secretary had put it in early in the postwar). Better to concentrate on salvaging something from a rapidly dissolving empire by promoting a British-led Commonwealth.
London had second thoughts once the EEC proved a success. Concentrating on imperial prestige had proven a costly dead end. Moreover, manufactured exports, the basis for Britain’s reputation as a great trading nation, slid dramatically. Britain’s growth rate lagged behind those of the major economies of the EEC, and Britons enviously watched the rising living standard of their neighbors. But gaining membership was not easy. France’s Charles de Gaulle was adamantly opposed. In 1963 and again in 1967 he blocked Britain’s admission in part because he saw London as a rival for European leadership but also because he feared Britain would serve as a stalking horse for American influence on the continent.
Even after finally gaining admission in 1973, the British remained ambivalent. Margaret Thatcher during her time as British prime minister (1979–1990) embodied that ambivalence. While supporting membership in the EEC, she forcefully articulated widely shared reservations. She feared that centralized power in Brussels would encroach on British national identity and political autonomy. She disliked the European attachment to “welfare capitalism” with its proclivity toward intervention in the economy. The large subsidies directed toward the agricultural sector were a source of special irritation. Her critique had at times a distinctly contemporary ring: “Of course, we want to make it easier for goods to pass through frontiers. Of course, we must make it easier for people to travel throughout the Community. But it is a matter of plain common sense that we cannot totally abolish frontier controls if we are also to protect our citizens from crime and stop the movement of drugs, of terrorists and of illegal immigrants.”
Hesitation about a close relationship with the continent again came to the fore as talk of deeper integration culminated in the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 creating the European Union. While British leaders signed up for the EU, a familiar set of doubts held them back from full participation. They opted out of one of its signature initiatives, the single currency. The British pound was a reminder of past glories and a symbol of a distinct national identity. On the free movement of people within the Union and on aspects of social policy, they also demurred.
In recent decades, this habitual ambivalence about the relationship with the continent has persisted. The leading grievances have been the population influx from other EU states and the meddling of the Brussels bureaucrats. These are the very grievances trumpeted by the current campaign in favor of leaving the EU. That these complaints have now come to a head can be traced to some of same anxieties and resentments that have in the United States fueled the rise of the Tea Party and more recently the Trump presidential candidacy. Immigration, slow economic growth, and inequality have become the bane of the Anglo-American world in an era of globalization. Euro-skepticism has taken hold within the Conservative Party and fueled the rise of the UK Independence Party, finally forcing Prime Minister David Cameron to schedule the referendum on membership now nearly upon us.
The vote this coming week, no matter which way it goes, is not likely have cataclysmic consequences. Britain will remain a multi-cultural society. Defending Englishness against outsiders will remain an uphill battle even outside the EU. The British economy may well take a hit if the Leave-takers prevail, but the damage will probably not be deep or long lasting. Inequality, which cannot be blamed on the EU, is likely to persist in a global economy dominated by the neoliberal preferences that Thatcher instilled in her party. In promising dramatic changes, the Leave campaign is as misguided as the proponents of Little America. Both are looking for scapegoats and simple solutions.
Whatever the consequences for Britain, Brexit might prove a good thing for the EU. Its expansion eastward since the Communist collapse along with the continued British presence has created a political entity with widely divergent points of view. This divergence disrupts consensus on fundamental values and objectives and makes decision-making difficult. The priority given expansion has done the EU cause no favors. A deepening of integration — both economic and political of states on the continent — might well become easier to achieve were Britain to depart. A diminution of membership might seem to some a setback but losing the ambivalent Brits could prove a long-term blessing.