The Definition: Eurosceptic
A person, especially a politician, who opposes closer connections between Britain and the European Union.
Let’s go right back to the beginning when the UK joined the EU…
Britain joined the European Economic Community (which later became the European Union) in 1973 alongside Denmark and Ireland, while under the leadership of Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath.
Comprised initially of six founding members: Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany, the community had been formed in the aftermath of the second world war as a way of keeping the peace between the previously warring nations. The idea was that in creating greater economic integration across the continent, primarily through a common market and customs union, they could enhance international cooperation and so lessen the chance of another bloody conflict.
Did everyone like it?
No they did not. Opposition towards the UK’s membership of the EEC/EU has been a thorn in the side of British politics from the very outset. So much so that in 1975, just two years after Britain joined the EEC, Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, called a referendum on Britain’s membership.
But while the Europe question may be ripping apart the governing Conservative party today, back then it was a problem for the Labour party. Ahead of the 1975 referendum, the Conservatives, led by Margaret Thatcher, were championing Britain’s continued membership in the Union, as were big business (like now) and the tabloid press (now pretty unanimously pro-Brexit). Labour, on the other hand, was deeply divided over the issue. The more left-leaning wing of the party was comprised of vocal critics of the Common Market, which they saw as a “capitalist club” that would take away jobs and undermine British democracy. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Wilson was leading the ‘In’ campaign, brandishing what he said was a new and improved deal he’d recently secured from Brussels.
In the end, the public voted to remain with 64% (on a turnout of 72%) in favor of continued membership in the EEC. That ended the Europe debate… for about a minute.
By the time Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, opposition to the Union was again bubbling up within Westminster, captured in her Bruges speech of 1988 which became the blueprint for Tory Euroscepticism: “To try to suppress nationhood and concentrate power at the center of a European conglomerate would be highly damaging and would jeopardize the objectives we seek to achieve,” she said. Following calls for greater European integration in 1990, she famously responded: “No, no, no”.
The original purpose of the EU had, the eurosceptics believed, been overridden by overzealous Franco-German ambitions for ever-greater political and economic union.
But what had changed to make people think this?
Quite a lot actually. When the UK first joined the EEC it was joining a “Common Market” that was made up of nine member states and 250 million people. Today, it has 28 member states and is comprised of over 500 million people.
So what changed? Well, a series of treaties has bolstered European integration and transformed what began as a trading arrangement into a far more comprehensive political union, with far greater policy cooperation across a broad spate of areas from the environment to policing to social policy. While the European Parliament began as a consultative body, it broadened its legislative function, assuming veto power in the majority of areas relating to economic integration and member-state budgetary policy, thereby strengthening the influence of Brussels over a broader set of what had previously been domestic policy issues.
But the biggest change to the make-up of the European alliance came about in 1992, with the signing of the Maastricht Treaty. Initially known as the Treaty on European Union (TEU), it established the constitutional basis for the EU and put in place the framework for expanding cooperation between European countries, most notably with regards to economic and monetary union. It made a few key changes:
Firstly, it lay the foundations for a single European currency, the euro, and established a central banking system, the European Central bank, to maintain price stability and safeguard the value of the new currency.
Secondly, it created European citizenship, granted to every person with citizenship of a member state.
Thirdly, it expanded the social dimension of the community by introducing policies that covered a range of different social issues, including workers’ health and safety, workplace conditions, and equal pay.
The Maastricht Treaty, unsurprisingly, elicited vociferous opposition from rebel Eurosceptic MPs within the Conservative party, who argued that the new configuration of the Union represented too great a transfer of powers from Britain’s Parliament to Brussels.
So while the rest of Europe sought greater and greater integration, the UK remained a reluctant participant in the strengthening Union, opting out of the single currency (adopted by 11 member states in 1999) and of the Schengen agreements, which introduced free movement across 25 states.
As the Treaty created the modern-day European Union, it simultaneously fed fuel to the fire of Tory Euroscepticism.
Fast forward to 2015…
And the Europe question continued to haunt the UK’s Conservative party. Then leader, David Cameron, was intent on putting the party’s internal strife over Europe to an end... to ensure they didn’t “bang on about Europe” any longer.
So Cameron promised his Conservative Party ‘rebels’ that he would put the question of UK membership in the EU to a referendum of the people. But he had underestimated the extent to which public resentment had been building towards Europe, at least in part because of negative perceptions around the impact of increasing immigration from the EU. Two key factors helped fuel this: 1. the accession to the EU of Eastern European countries in 2000, which contributed to the acceleration of Britain’s annual net migration figures (which had been increasing in magnitude since the late 90s) and 2. the financial crash in 2008, which lowered living standards and shrunk the job market, subsequently stoking resentment towards perceived ‘outsiders' seen to be ‘stealing’ UK jobs.
While politicians in the three main parties were generally slow to respond to this festering resentment, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), led by Nigel Farage, capitalized on it, drumming up concerns over immigration and channelling economic frustration and political disillusionment into anti-Europe sentiment. Without Nigel Farage, it is unlikely there would have ever been a referendum in the first place.
Britain votes to leave
In the end, it was “Britain Stronger In Europe” (remain) versus “Take back control” (leave) and leave won with 52% of the vote. David Cameron conceded defeat and stepped down as Prime Minister, to be replaced by Theresa May who triggered Article 50 (the formal process for leaving the Union) and kicked off negotiations with the EU, due to conclude two years later, in March 2019.
Two delays later and Britain remains stuck in political deadlock around the question of how exactly to leave. Why? Because the withdrawal agreement May was finally able to negotiate with the EU was deemed unsatisfactory all-round and rejected three times by Parliament.
The main sticking point, around which resolution seems virtually impossible, concerns the Irish backstop. There are currently no physical barriers or checks on people or goods crossing the borderbetween Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but if the UK leaves the EU’s Customs Union and European Single Market, then the EU will be legally obligated to apply customs checks to anything that comes into the Union through the Irish Republic. A hard border in Ireland would then be unavoidable. Yet this is deeply problematic since it risks destabilizing Northern Ireland’s very sensitive peace process - the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, putting to end years of political violence around how Northern Ireland should be governed. Any border posts may, according to senior policy chiefs, become a target for dissident terrorists.
And then came Boris…
Unable to lead Britain out of this Brexit-quagmire and get her deal through Parliament, Theresa May was forced to step down as Tory leader and UK Prime Minister in June this year. After a heated leadership battle, Boris Johnson entered Downing Street in her place, pledging to take Britain out of the EU by the October 31st deadline no matter what, even if that meant leaving without a deal (meaning there would be no agreement with the EU on how the UK leaves). To that end, Johnson began his tenure in office by announcing a deeply controversial decision to prorogue(essentially, shut down) Parliament for five weeks following the summer recess, thereby preventing MPs from blocking a no-deal Brexit. It is slated to begin today (but might be pushed back as late as Thursday) and will last until the 14th of October.
But Parliament was having none of it. A coalition of rebel Conservative Party MPs, led by ex-Chancellor Philip Hammond, put forward a bill to stop a no-deal Brexit and compel the Prime Minister to ask the EU for another Brexit deadline extension if no deal is agreed before October 19th. Johnson promptly expelled 21 of his own MPs for rebelling against the government and supporting the bill, including some former cabinet ministers and the former Chancellor.
Mired in a mounting political and constitutional crisis, Johnson is running out of options. Meanwhile, EU diplomats are growing increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress being made in Brexit talks, some expressing doubts as to whether the UK should be granted yet another extension on its exit deadline.
So, as we enter into what is being called the most crucial week in recent British history, chaos, confusion, and mounting despair plague the halls of Westminster. The country waits and wonders.
“Europe Here We Come”
That was the title splashed across UK tabloid paper the ‘Daily Mail’ on the eve of Britain’s entry into the European Communities (EC). The press was then virtually unanimous in its support for the union, as was the business community and most of the governing Conservative party. This was a ‘new beginning for a new generation,’ who were already growing fast accustomed to the notion of becoming ‘more European’.
Britain was no longer the pillar of economic strength and proud master of empire it once was, but had become beleaguered by economic woes, with its GDP growth lagging behind its European counterparts. Forming closer economic ties with the European bloc was becoming increasingly appealing. But, even as the fanfare for Europe was in full swing, plans for a divorce were being cooked up by opponents to the union.
In this podcast episode, the first of an excellent series tracking the evolution of Britain’s relationship with the EU, BBC Radio 4 takes us back to the start, with Britain’s accession to the European Communities.
The Brexit Crisis Begins
It's the 23rd of June, 2016 and Britain has voted to leave the EU 52% to 48%. The reaction across the country is a mixture of horror and jubilation. The country is divided.
The referendum sought to put to rest the question that has plagued British politics since the UK first joined the E.C. in 1973: ‘do we want to be in the European Union, or out of it’? But, it did no such thing. Instead, the years following the vote have been characterized by political indecision and discord, both within the halls of Westminster and beyond.
So what went wrong? How did Britain arrive at this seemingly intractable point of contention both domestically and with its European partners?
In this episode, The Daily examines the origins of this strained relationship and why the notion of European integration never really captured the hearts and minds of the British like it did their European counterparts.
The Brexit Crisis Worsens
The (delayed) Brexit deadline is fast looming, and the U.K. is no closer to reaching a resolution to its Brexit woes. With Theresa May out, having been unable to negotiate an exit deal capable of satisfying the warring political factions, and with Boris Johnson now at the helm, the country has been plunged into even deeper chaos. The new Prime Minister is determined to lead the country out of the Union on October 31st at all costs, even if that means leaving with the uncertainty of no deal. Parliament is determined to stop him.
In this episode, the New Yorker’s Dorothy Wickenden discusses what these recent events mean for the Brexit process and for the future of British democracy.