When the Brexit referendum was announced during Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech in 2013 not only British Europhiles were astounded and appalled. Many analysts, critics and politicians around the world wondered what happened to Europhile Cameron1, was he sincere? The consequences that were expected if the United Kingdom (UK) were to leave the European Union (EU) seemed enormous. Some examples of possible consequences could be excessive fees on both import and export as well as a negative impact on living standards, especially for internationals living in the UK2. The speech in 2013 caused such an obstreperous and unstable situation in the years that were to come, but how did it get this far? Further analysis of referendum announcement led to many people, not only professionals, questioning the causes for this referendum. This essay will argue that the growing gap between the EU and the UK was one of the main reasons that contributed to the Brexit referendum.
Firstly, the EU and the UK have always been struggling to coalesce in institutions. A perfect example of this struggle was the UK joining the European Economic Community (EEC). The UK did not join the EEC until 1973 and it was not approved of by the public until 19753. Although the EEC was already created in 19574, the UK only joined 16 years later. Nevertheless, in 1975 many people were already suspicious of the institution becoming too political5. However, even before joining the EEC the UK already stood on the side-lines when the European Coal and Steel Community was founded, since its own industries were already nationalised6. Furthermore, in 1985 the UK also declined the Schengen Agreement7 and in 1992 the UK was removed from the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) which caused the pound sterling to be devaluated and eventually led to the UK suspending its membership of the ERM8. Moreover, the UK did not participate in the founding of the EU and therefore had trouble adjusting to the rules that were set and therefore ended up signing with many opt-outs9. If the UK had accepted to help co-create the EU it could have had more influence on the rules and less struggle to adhere to them. Then in 2011 Cameron vetoed a set of budget rules which overjoyed Eurosceptics and led to them wanting more influence in politics10. In addition, it is important to mention that no country has discussed opt-outs as much as the UK has11 and no country has ever left the EU before12.
Secondly, most Britons have never actually identified themselves with the European culture. Moreover, only 15 percent of the UK would describe themselves as ‘wholly European’ while in Germany only 25 percent would describe themselves as ‘wholly German’13. The UK has a clear concept of what it means to be British and the culture that goes with it. Culture here is defined as the way of living, identity, customs, and beliefs14. Patriotism has always been significant in the country; the flag is ubiquitous and everyone is proud of it15. This might be the result of the UK’s history that includes many victories in multiple colonies, signifying the UK’s superiority. The decision to join the EEC was made for mostly economic reasons16, to have a common market17, since the UK did not want to form a cultural or political unity yet18. Some researchers have argued that the difficult relationship between the EU and the UK is the result of the UK being an island19. What one then fails to consider is the fact that there are more island-member states of the EU like Malta and Ireland who have never objected to sharing power with the EU since they joined. Both countries have been using the Euro as currency and have been in the EU for over 14 years20 and 45 years21, respectively. Malta has even joined the Schengen Agreement. In these two countries the Europhiles could be considered a majority: Malta had 51% and Ireland had 57% in 2015 meanwhile the UK only had a small minority22. Perhaps the UK has always had a special mentality towards the EU but that might also be a self-fulfilling prophecy: cultural cooperation is going to decline after Brexit since there will be less funds and more regulations as well as more fees on cultural goods and services23. This in result will result in a bigger gap between the EU and the UK.
Thirdly, the gap between the UK and the EU could also be explained through a political perspective. Many British Eurosceptics considered that the EU has been too centralised and could be considered as a suffocating bureaucracy with too much regulations24. These Eurosceptics have been feeling as if the UK is better off on its own. This mentality could possibly be traced back to the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). It was often seen as a party with only one goal but has widened its allure by explaining why leaving the EU is the solution to many issues like immigration25. Since its creation in 1993 the party has gained more and more followers and therefore more influence26, not only dividing the UK but also creating a bigger gap between the EU and the UK. The previously mentioned mentality could also be related to the sovereignty issues, which were a big part of the Leave-campaign27. The first issue is about the fact that the UK was one of the few countries that was not occupied by Germany during World War 2 and therefore saw itself as superior. The second sovereignty issue could be explained as a power conflict between the Communities Act of the EU and the British Parliament. The Communities Act states that the European Law has the upper hand over all domestic laws of member states yet the British Parliament states that it has the supreme power of the state28. Regardless of Churchill’s 1946 speech in which he called for a ‘United States of Europe’29 the UK has always had trouble with political and institutional integration, as observed before. It is even said by some researchers that the UK has not made a single valuable contribution to the EU since the 1980’s and therefore has always been on the benefitting side-lines30.
All in all, the distinctive gap between the European institutions and the UK has existed for an extensive time already. The main reason the UK joined the EEC was for economic benefits which the British economy would gain through the common market. This partiality to economic benefits can be seen in both the cultural and political aspect of life where the differences between the EU and the UK are even more gargantuan. For example, most Britons do not consider themselves as European since they consider that identity as too dissimilar compared to their own British identity. Furthermore, most Eurosceptics in the UK consider the EU as too bureaucratic as well as undemocratic and they even question the EU’s sovereignty. This difficult relation between the EU and the UK is a unique case and needs to be treated that way during negotiations. Therefore, it is unlikely that the UK will get an agreement like that of Norway or Switzerland. A long history of failed institutional integration has set the road for the future. To guarantee any successful future relation between the EU and the UK, they need to work together on not only economic issues but also think about the cultural and political aspects.
1 Alison Little,”David Cameronhad issues with the EU and did not like ‘its flag and its parliament’,” Express, March 31, 2017.
2 Kimberley Amadeo, “Brexit Consequences: For UK, EU, and U.S,” The Balance, November 29, 2017.
3 Sam Wilson, “A long and rocky relationship,” BBC, April 1, 2014.
5 James McBride, “What Brexit Means,” Council on Foreign Relations, June 9, 2017.
6 Stefan Haagedoorn, “The historical evolution of EU-UK relations,” Library Blog of the General Secretariat of the Council of the EU, June 2, 2017.
7Kara Godfrey, “Post-Brexit travel: What is the Schengen area and is the UK included?” Express, August 15, 2017.
8 Sam Wilson, “A long and rocky relationship,” BBC, April 1, 2014.
9″Britain’s 40 year relationship with the EU,” The Telegraph, June 16, 2016.
10 Sam Wilson, “A long and rocky relationship,” BBC, April 1, 2014.
11 Mark Briggs, “Europe ‘à la carte’: The whats and whys behind UK opt-outs,” Euractiv, May 7, 2015.
12Adam Taylor, “This is the process for leaving the E.U. Except nobody’s ever used it,” The Washington Post, June 24, 2016.
13Rebecca Perring, “Britain is the LEAST European nation in EU…two thirds of us say we’re ‘only British’,” Express, October 28, 2015.
14Cambridge Dictionary, “Meaning of “culture” in the English Dictionary,” Accessed January 23, 2018.
15Alison Little,”David Cameronhad issues with the EU and did not like ‘its flag and its parliament’,” Express, March 31, 2017.
16 Nicholas Crafts, “The Impact of EU Membership on UK Economic Performance,” Political Quarterly, vol. 87 (April 2016): 264.
17 Alex Hunt and Brian Wheeler, “Brexit: All you need to know about the UK leaving the EU,” BBC, January 1, 2018.
18Alison Little,”David Cameronhad issues with the EU and did not like ‘its flag and its parliament’,” Express, March 31, 2017.
19 Sam Wilson, “A long and rocky relationship,” BBC, April 1, 2014.
20European Union, “Malta,” Accessed January 24, 2018.
21 European Union, “Éire,” Accessed January 24, 2018.
22TNS opinion & social, Public opinion in the European Union (Brussels: European Commision, 2015), 9.
23Stuart MacDonald, The Impact of Brexit on International Cultural Relations in the European Union (Stuttgart: Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, 2017), 9.
24James McBride, “What Brexit Means,” Council on Foreign Relations, June 9, 2017.
25 Alex Hunt, “UKIP: The story of the UK Independence Party’s rise,” BBC, November 21, 2014.
26Alex Hunt, “UKIP: The story of the UK Independence Party’s rise,” BBC, November 21, 2014.
27Stefan Haagedoorn, “The historical evolution of EU-UK relations,” Library Blog of the General Secretariat of the Council of the EU, June 2, 2017.
28Bojana Perisic, “Britain and Europe: a History of Difficult Relations,” Institute for Cultural Democracy, n.d. 2010.
29 Quentin Peel, “Historic misunderstanding underlies UK-EU relationship on Churchill anniversary,” Financial Times, September 19, 2016.
30Nathaniel Copsey and Tim Haughton, “Farewell Britannia? ‘Issue Capture’ and the Politics of David Cameron’s 2013 EU Referendum Pledge,” Journal of Common Market Studies, vol 52 (2014): 85.