LONDON — Britain officially leaves the European Union on Jan. 31 after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Difficult negotiations setting out the new relationship between Britain and its European neighbors will continue throughout 2020. The notion of a unified Europe that included Britain has been around since Winston Churchill but the complex relationship between Britain and Europe has been a constant force driving the two apart.
Churchill’s call in 1946 for a “United States of Europe or whatever name or form it may take” started taking shape swiftly.
In 1952, the European Coal and Steel Community was founded. Its intention was to integrate the coal and steel industries of Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and what was then West Germany.
For Britain, imperial considerations still reigned supreme. It would stay out of the subsequent formation five years later of the European Economic Community, the precursor of the European Union, in 1957. The Treaty of Rome, which created the EEC, had grander ambitions, the establishment of a customs union and a single market for capital, goods, labor and services as part of a grand plan to rid Europe of war.
With the British empire in its death throes and the British economy ailing — certainly when compared to the postwar boom taking place in large parts of the EEC, particularly in West Germany — it wasn’t long before a consensus emerged within political circles in London that Britain had “missed the bus.”
The Conservative government of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan pushed for British membership in the EEC, but his ambition was thwarted by French President Charles de Gaulle. After de Gaulle vetoed Britain’s first bid to join in 1963, Macmillan was so distraught he confided in his diary that “all our policies at home and abroad are in ruins.”
De Gaulle said “non” again in 1967, this time to Britain’s Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
De Gaulle, who spent much of World War II in London when France was under occupation, warned his five EEC partners that Britain had a “deep-seated hostility” to European integration that could bring about the end of what was then referred to as the “common market.” He also worried that in crunch times, Britain would always side with the United States over its continental neighbours.
De Gaulle’s comments certainly proved true decades later during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, when Britain did side with the U.S. over its EU partners France and Germany.
It was only after de Gaulle had left the scene that Britain could finally take its place at the European top table. De Gaulle’s successor, French President Georges Pompidou, was far more amenable to British membership and by 1973 Britain finally joined the group, with all of its the main political parties in favor of the move.