Why did the UK join the EU?

The Week looks back at the rocky relationship between Britain and the bloc

Brexit Brussels
(Image credit: Getty Images)

With less than ten days to go until the UK’s original scheduled departure date from the European Union, The Week looks back at how and why the country joined the bloc in the first place.

How did the EU begin?

The birth of the EU is linked to the end of the Second World War. Following the death and destruction of the six-year conflict, there was a “desire to tie Europe’s nations so closely together that they could never again wreak such damage on each other”, says the BBC.

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Winston Churchill fully supported this idea, proposing for Europe “a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom... a kind of United States of Europe”.

Yet Britain stood on the sidelines when the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was eventually forged, in 1951. And when the six founding members of EU precusor the European Economic Community - Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands and West Germany - signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957, the UK declined an invitation to join them.

One of the architects of the ECSC, France’s Jean Monnet, once said: “I never understood why the British did not join. I came to the conclusion that it must have been because it was the price of victory - the illusion that you could maintain what you had, without change.”

Indeed, the UK was “buoyed by a confidence in its own exceptionalism, by memories of a great empire and a glorious war”, says The Guardian. Detached from the Continent both physically and culturally, “it did not need Europe – and showed it, by sending a mid-ranking trade official, one Russell Bretherton, to the treaty signing as a mere observer”, the newspaper adds.

Another reason for the British reticence appears to be that now familiar refrain of sovereignty.

Then-Prime Minister Clement Attlee told Parliament in 1950 that his Labour Party was “not prepared to accept the principle that the most vital economic forces of this country should be handed over to an authority that is utterly undemocratic and is responsible to nobody”.

There was also concern that such a move might make close ties with the Commonwealth and the United States more difficult.

So what changed?

By the late 1950s, Britain had fallen into a despondent mood of national “declinism”, and the UK’s leaders began knocking on Europe’s doors, “believing that joining the trade bloc would ‘remedy’ the country’s economic failures and increase its international political influence”, says Quartz.

The United Kingdom made its first application to join in 1961. “It was quickly apparent that there was a danger of political isolation within Western Europe, Commonwealth states were rushing to do deals with the new bloc, and it had American support,” according to the Kings College London website.

This application was vetoed in 1963 by the French government. French President Charles De Gaulle “had feared British membership would weaken the French voice within Europe, and that the US-UK relationship would strengthen America’s influence”, reports The Sun.

De Gaulle gave an emphatic “non” when the UK again asked to enter the common market in 1967, with the French leader warning his nation’s EEC partners that if they tried to force through British membership, it would result in the break-up of the community.

He accused Britain of a “deep-seated hostility” towards European construction, presciently warning that the UK was a “proud” nation who would disrupt a truly “European Europe”.

So how did the UK eventually join?

It was only with De Gaulle’s resignation in 1969 that the green light was given for negotiations for British membership of the EEC.

Veteran British Conservative and Europhile Ken Clarke would later recall: “De Gaulle was ferociously anti-American and pretty anti-Anglo-Saxon. He was a great man, but slightly unworldly. Sooner or later we were going to join because no one had any alternative.”

On 22 January 1972, the UK signed the Treaty of Accession in Brussels, and joined the EEC the following year. Then-PM Edward Heath said the ceremony marked “an end and a beginning” and spoke of a “common European heritage”. Going forward would take “clear thinking and a strong effort of the imagination”, he added.

According to Heath, the Commonwealth and the EEC were complementary. The Tory leader “predicted the EEC could help improve relations with countries under the control of the Soviet Union”, reports the BBC. But the old arguments over sovereignty remained.

What about the 1975 referendum?

Thanks to pressure from within Labour - not least by left-wing luminary Tony Benn - the party’s 1974 election campaign promised a renegotiation of EEC membership, followed by a referendum on whether the UK should remain a part of the bloc.

Having won power, Labour PM Harold Wilson’s government was split on the issue, with seven of his 23 ministers seeking withdrawal from the EEC.

Many of the arguments made in public will be familiar but when membership of the bloc was finally put to a referendum in 1975, it had the support of Britain’s three main parties and all its national newspapers. The result was resounding - with more than 67% voting in favour of remain.

Yet the debate raged on, as strikes and power cuts continued, and rising oil prices caused double-digit inflation. And although new Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher backed the campaign to stay in the bloc in 1975, “her premiership saw her party become increasingly divided by the issue, and her own relationship with EU leaders was tense at times”, says Reuters.

Indeed, it was her famous Bruges speech of 1988, in which she warned against power becoming centralised in Brussels, that “became a template for a new generation of Tory sceptics”, adds The Observer.

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