Euroscepticism in the United Kingdom

Euroscepticism, i.e. the opposition to policies of supranational European Union institutions and/or opposition to Britain's membership of the European Union, has been a significant element in the politics of the United Kingdom (UK). A Eurobarometer survey of EU citizens in 2009 showed that support for membership of the EU was lowest in the United Kingdom, alongside Latvia and Hungary.[1]:91–3

The United Kingdom European Communities membership referendum was held in 1975, resulting in majority support for Britain's membership of the European Communities (also known as the Common Market, which later evolved into the present European Union). Another membership referendum was held in 2016, with a 51.9% majority for Britain leaving the European Union.


The European Unity movement as a political project after 1945 was supported and inspired by important British voices. For example, Winston Churchill pledged in his 1946 Zurich speech for "a kind of United States of Europe" led by France and Germany but did not intend to involve Britain.[2] The ambivalent position of British politics and citizens has been described as "wishing to seem an important part of Europe without being a part of it".[3] The othering of European Unity as a Continental issue and somebody else's problem has been rather strong.[4] Pro-European British politicians and citizens have faced various defeats and humiliations with regard to Britain's steps in the direction of increased European integration.[5] Even parties like the Liberal Democrats with an outspoken pro-European platform, have members that share the British lack of enthusiasms "of all things European".[6] After joining the EU, confrontational attitudes of British politicians, as in the UK rebate controversy, gained further popularity among the British public, and many Britons feel a much stronger affection for the Commonwealth of Nations than they ever have for the EU.[3]

An ideological divide between reverence for continental European refinery and classics and xenophobic sentiment has existed for centuries, but Euroscepticism is different from the anti-Europeanism more prevalent in American culture.[7] Britain's foreign policy stance of relatively minimal involvement in European affairs, on the other hand, was characterised as "splendid isolation" back in the late 19th century.[8]

After 1945

The United Kingdom (dark green) in the European Union (light green).

Britain was urged to join and lead western Europe in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The American Committee for a United Europe and the European Conference on Federation led by Winston Churchill were among the early endeveaours for European unity with British participation. Churchill also participated in the Hague Congress of 1948, which discussed the future structure and role of a proposed Council of Europe.[9] However, British governments and political mainstream players, while advocating stronger integration of the Continent, did not intend to take part themselves. Britain never had a strong pro-European movement like the one founded in post-war Germany. During the postwar years up to 1954, the UK was occupied with the dissolution of its global empire. It was not among the six founding member states of the European Communities in the early 1950s (described as the "Inner Six"). The six member states signed the Treaty of Paris, creating the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), on 18 April 1951 but failed to create a European Defence Community.

Whilst after the war Churchill was an early supporter of pan-Europeanism[9] and called for a "United States of Europe" and the creation of a "Council of Europe".[9] he did not have Britain join the ECSC in 1951

We have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked but not combined. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.[10]

In the years before, only the British extreme right – in particular Fascist politician Oswald Mosley– were rather outspoken, based on the Union Movement and the Europe a Nation slogan, for a stronger integration of Britain with Europe.[11][12] The British elites did not assume Britain should or could take part as a simple member in the European communities at that time.[13] The reservation was based less on economic considerations, since European integration would have offset the decreasing importance of trade within the Commonwealth of Nations trade,[14] but rather on political philosophy.[14] In Britain, the concept of unlimited sovereignty, based on the British legal system and parliamentary tradition was, and is, held in high esteem and presents a serious impediment to attempts at integration into a Continental legal framework.[14]

Hugh Gaitskell, a staunch opponent of European integration.

The Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell once declared that joining the European Economic Community (EEC) would mean "the end of a thousand years of history".[15] However, some Gaitskellites (including the later founders of the Social Democratic Party), were favourable to British involvement. Labour later changed from its opposition towards the European Community and began to support membership. Important groups of Conservatives also opposed joining the Common Market. One of the earliest groups formed against British involvement in Europe was the Conservative Party-based Anti-Common Market League, whose president Victor Montagu declared that opponents of the Common Market did not want to "subject [themselves] to a lot of frogs and huns".[16] Conversely, much of the opposition to Britain's EU membership came from Labour politicians and trade unionists who feared bloc membership would impede socialist policies, although this was never the universal Labour Party opinion. In 2002 a minority of Labour MPs, and others such as Denis Healey, formed the Labour Against the Euro group in 2002, opposing British membership of the single currency.[17] The Trades Union Congress remains strongly pro-EU.[18]

Impact of the Suez Crisis 1956

Even before the events of the Suez Crisis in 1956, the United Kingdom had faced strains in its relationship with the U.S. After the Suez conflict it had finally to accept that it could no longer assume that it was the preferred partner of the United States and underwent a massive loss of trust in the special relationship with the U.S.[19] Britain, Denmark, Ireland, and Norway then started to prepare for a trading union, the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). British politicians, such as Labour's George Brown were in 1962 still of opinion, that Britain should not only be allowed to join, but be welcomed to lead the European Union, and met then with ridicule.[4]

In the 1960s the membership attempts of Conservative UK governments faced strong resistance from the Continent, especially from the French president, Charles de Gaulle.[13] Instead of being offered a leadership role, Britain was put on a yearlong waiting list, a major political humiliation for pro-European Britons. De Gaulle's veto in 1963 was a devastating blow for Harold Macmillan,[5] who, according to Hugo Young, was not the last Tory politician to end his or her career as a result of European affairs. The UK faced a major economic decline and a row of disturbing political scandals as well. The combination did not help much with the Europe's image in the UK, and vice versa. With Georges Pompidou replacing de Gaulle, the veto was lifted and negotiations began in 1970 under the pro-European government of Edward Heath. The question of sovereignty had been discussed at the time in an official document (FCO 30/1048) that became open to the public many years later in January 2002, under the rules for availability after thirty years. It listed among "Areas of policy in which parliamentary freedom to legislate will be affected by entry into the European Communities": Customs duties, Agriculture, Free movement of labour, services and capital, Transport, and Social Security for migrant workers. The document concluded (paragraph 26) that it was advisable to put the considerations of influence and power before those of formal sovereignty.[20] Among disagreements that Heath had to deal were those relating to the Common Agricultural Policy and the remaining relationship with the Commonwealth of Nations. In 1972 the accession treaties were signed with all but Norway.[21]

Admission and referendum

Despite the decision to join the European Community, internal Labour divisions over EEC membership prompted the Labour Party to propose a referendum be held on the permanence of the UK in the Communities. Proposed in 1972 by Tony Benn,[22] Labour's referendum proposal led the anti-EEC Conservative politician Enoch Powell to advocate a Labour vote (initially only inferred) in the February 1974 election,[23] which was thought to have influenced the result, a return to government of the Labour Party. The eventual referendum in 1975 asked the voters:

"Parliament has decided to consult the electorate on the question whether the UK should remain in the European Economic Community: Do you want the UK to remain in the EEC?"

British membership of the EEC was endorsed by 67% of those voting, with a turnout of 64.5%.

From 1975 to 1997

The debate between Eurosceptics and EU supporters is ongoing within, rather than between, British political parties, whose membership is of varied standpoints. The two main political parties in Britain, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, each have within them a broad spectrum of views concerning the European Union.

In the 1970s and early 1980s the Labour Party was the more Eurosceptic of the two parties, with more anti-European Communities MPs than the Conservatives. In 1975, Labour held a special conference on British membership and the party voted 2 to 1 for Britain to leave the European Communities.[24] In 1979, the Labour manifesto[25] declared that a Labour government would "oppose any move towards turning the Community into a federation" and, in 1983,[26] it still favoured British withdrawal from the EEC.

Under the leadership of Neil Kinnock after 1983, however, the then opposition party dropped its former resistance to the European Communities and instead favoured greater British integration into European Economic and Monetary Union. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher however gained much popularity with the so-called UK rebate in 1984. Britain then managed to reduce its contributions to the Union to a certain extent, as it was then the EU's second poorest member and, without much agriculture, benefited little from farm subsidies.[27]

A speech by Jacques Delors, then President of the European Commission, at the TUC conference in 1988 helped to weaken the eurosceptic inclination in the Labour Party.[28] In the context of Thatcher's Conservative premiership, when policies to reduce the power of the trade unions were pursued, Delors' advocacy of a "social Europe" became attractive to many.[29] However the UK rebate has been held up as well by following Prime ministers.[27] In late October 1990, just before her premiership ended, Mrs Thatcher reacted strongly against Delors' plans for a single currency in the House of Commons;[30] her stance contributed to her downfall a few weeks later.[31]

Role of the Post-Maastricht Blues

The overall acceptance of the European Union in all member states saw a strong increase of support till the 1990s and a major decline afterwards, support sinking to 1980s levels then.[32] Due to the timely connection with the Maastricht Treaty 1992, it has been called the post-Maastricht-Blues.[32][33] The European integration process faced a major defeat with the failed Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe and eurosceptical opinions gained more impact overall. The role of public opinion had been lower before but gained importance with state referendums, as in the rejection of the constitution by French and Dutch voters in 2005.[32]

Since 1997

UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage is arguably the United Kingdom's most famous Eurosceptic campaigner and wants the UK to leave the European Union.

The financier Sir James Goldsmith formed the Referendum Party as a single-issue party to fight the 1997 General Election, calling for a referendum on aspects of the UK's relationship with the European Union. It planned to contest every constituency where there was no leading candidate in favour of such a referendum, and briefly held a seat in the House of Commons after George Gardiner, the Conservative MP for Reigate, changed parties in March 1997 following a battle against deselection by his local party. The party polled 800,000 votes and finished fourth, but did not win a seat in the House of Commons. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), advocating the UK's complete withdrawal from the European Union, had been founded in 1993 by Alan Sked, but initially had only very limited success. Due to a change in the election principle, the European Parliament election, 1999 allowed for the first UKIP parliamentary representation. Many commentators[34] believe over-interest in the issue to be an important reason why the Conservative Party lost the General Election of 2001. They argue that the British electorate was more influenced by domestic issues than by European affairs.

After the electoral defeat of the UK Conservatives in 2001, the issue of Eurosceptism was important in the contest to elect a new party leader. The winner, Iain Duncan Smith, was seen as more Eurosceptic than his predecessor, William Hague. As opposition leader, Iain Duncan Smith attempted to disaffiliate the British Conservative Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from the federalist European People's Party group. As MEPs must participate in a transnational alliance to retain parliamentary privileges, Duncan Smith sought the merger of Conservative MEPs into the Eurosceptic Union for a Europe of Nations (UEN) group. Conservative MEPs vetoed this move because of the presence within the UEN of representatives of neo-fascist parties who do not share similar domestic politics. In 2004, Duncan Smith's successor, Michael Howard, emphasised that Conservative MEPs would remain in the EPP Group so as to maintain influence in the European Parliament. However Michael Howard's successor David Cameron pledged to remove Conservative MEPs from the EPP Group and this has now been implemented.

UKIP received 16% of the vote and gained 12 MEPs in the 2004 European Election. The party's results improved in the 2009 UK European Election, coming in second, above the incumbent Labour Party.[35] In the 2014 European Parliament elections UKIP support reached a new high water mark, coming first ahead of the Labour party, and gaining 26.6% of the vote.

"Awkward partner" status

Professor Stephen George states in his 1990 book An Awkward Partner: Britain in the European Community that the UK is an "awkward partner" within the European Union, emphasising that although the UK is not the only EU member state to oppose further EU integration, it is less enthusiastic than most other members.[36] Factors contributing to "awkward partner" status include the distinct identity and culture of the UK, such as a "special relationship" with countries such as the United States. Additionally, the UK has not experienced the major political upheavals of continental Europe.[37]

British government officials have often been hostile towards further European integration, supporting intergovernmental cooperation as opposed to supranational authority, and a single market rather than the EMU. Great importance has also been attached to the defence of national sovereignty, i.e. where ultimate decision-making authority is located in the United Kingdom as a nation state.[37]

The UK has also experienced limited influence in EU negotiations; on key EU policies (e.g. the EMU), British governments have not set the agenda but reacted to proposals from others by attempting to slow the pace of integration, or limit its impact. Although influential in some areas – e.g. the single market and defence – the UK is often in a minority of states opposed to change, and has not developed durable alliances to counter the Franco-German partnership.[37]

The UK does not have the consensus among the elite of the country on the benefits of EU membership, as opposed to other EU member states. As Andrew Williamson notes, the issue has caused divisions within Labour in the past and the Conservatives today, and is most prominent in the Conservatives and the UK Independence Party (UKIP).[38][37]

Levels of support are lower in the UK than most other member states, as well as having less knowledge about the institution. UK citizens are less likely to feel a sense of European identity and sovereignty issues are prominent in the British debate, with many major newspapers taking Eurosceptic positions.[37]

Campaigns for withdrawal

The original two major anti-EU campaigns in the UK were Vote Leave and Leave.EU, both of which received limited support from Nigel Farage, leader of the UK's largest Eurosceptic political party.[39] Vote Leave is a cross-party group working with the campaigns Labour Leave, Conservatives for Britain and Business for Britain.[40] Its donors include former Conservative treasurer and banker Peter Cruddas, Labour donor John Mills and spread betting tycoon Stuart Wheeler, who was a major donor to the Conservatives before becoming UKIP treasurer.[41] It is also the preferred campaign of UKIP's only Member of Parliament, Douglas Carswell.[41]

The Grassroots Out campaign launched as of 23 January 2016 in Kettering as a national, cross party with the aim of bringing together all leave groups, founded by Conservative MPs Peter Bone and Tom Pursglove and Labour MP Kate Hoey following in-fighting between Vote Leave and Leave.EU.[42]

The Better Off Out campaign, run by Simon Richards, a non-partisan organisation campaigning for EU withdrawal, lists its reasons for EU withdrawal as freedom to make trading deals with other nations, control over national borders, control over UK government spending, the restoration of the British legal system, deregulation of EU laws and control of the NHS among others.[43] Get Britain Out and Campaign for an Independent Britain are similar non-partisan campaigns.

The perceived democratic deficit in the European Union, including legitimacy problems of the European Commission and the European Parliament and the supremacy of EU law over national legislation are some of the major objections of British Eurosceptics. The EU is also argued to have a negative financial impact due to rising costs of membership,[44] and an alleged negative impact of EU regulatory burdens on UK business.[45]

Opponents of the EU have accused its politicians and civil servants of corruption. A media scoop of this sort was 2005 Nigel Farage MEP request of the European Commission to disclose the individual Commissioner holiday travel, after President of the European Commission, José Barroso had spent a week on the yacht of the Greek shipping billionaire Spiro Latsis.[46] The European Court of Auditors reports about the financial planning are among the topics which are often scandalised in the British press.[47]

2016 membership referendum

On 23 June 2016, the United Kingdom EU membership referendum was held, giving support for Britain leaving the European Union by a margin of 51.9% to 48.1%, with slightly over 72% turnout. Subsequently, after Theresa May was appointed Prime Minister, she named three Cabinet ministers with new roles, all Eurosceptics, to negotiate the UK out of the EU: David Davis was appointed Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Liam Fox was appointed Secretary of State for International Trade and Boris Johnson was appointed Foreign Secretary.[48]

Opinion polling

The assessment of attitudes to the European Union and European Parliamentary Election voting intentions is undertaken on a regular basis by a variety of opinion polling organisations, including ComRes, ICM, Populus and Survation. For detailed polls see Opinion polling for the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum.

Opinion poll results

Polling on this issue has typically produced narrow majorities in favour of remaining within the EU, although some polls have found the reverse result. According to an Opinium/Observer poll taken on 20 February 2015, 51% of the British electorate said they would most likely vote the United Kingdom to leave the European Union if they were offered a referendum, whereas 49% would not (the figures exclude 14% who said they were unsure). These studies also showed that 41% of the electorate view the EU as a positive force overall, whereas 34% saw it as negative,[49] and a study in November 2012 showed that while 48% of EU citizens trust the European Parliament, only 22% of the UK trusted the Parliament.[50]:110–2: QA 14.1

However, support and opposition for withdrawal from the EU are not evenly distributed among the different age groups: opposition to EU membership is most prevalent among those 60 and older, with a poll from 22–23 March 2015 showing that 48% of this age group oppose EU membership. This decreases to 22% among those aged 18–24 (with 56% of 18- to 24-year-olds stating that they would vote for Britain to remain in the EU). Finally, the results of the poll showed some regional variation: support for withdrawal from the EU is lowest in Scotland and London (at 22% and 32% respectively) but reaches 42% in the Midlands and Wales (the only region polled with a plurality in favour of withdrawal).[51]

The February 2015 study also showed that trust of the UK's relationship with the EU is split along partisan lines. When asked which party they trusted the most to handle the UK's relationship with the EU, 35% trusted the Tories the most (Conservatives); 33% trusted Labour; 15% trusted UKIP; 7% trusted the Greens and 6% trusted the Lib Dems.[49]

See also


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  2. "Winston Churchill speaking in Zurich, I9 September 1946".
  3. 1 2 Watts, Duncan; Pilkington, Colin (2005). Britain in the European Union Today (3rd ed.). Manchester University Press. ISBN 9780719071799.
  4. 1 2 Gehler, Michael (2009). From Common Market to European Union Building. Vienna: Böhlau. p. 240. ISBN 9783205777441.
  5. 1 2 This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair, Hugo Young, Overlook Press, 1998
  6. Britain in the European Union Today: Third Edition, Duncan Watts, Colin Pilkington, Manchester University Press, 29 November 2005, p.220
  7. Anti-Europeanism and Euroscepticism in the United States, Patrick Chamorel No 25, EUI-RSCAS Working Papers from European University Institute (EUI), Robert Schuman Centre of Advanced Studies (RSCAS) 2004
  8. Margaret Macmillan, The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (2013) ch 2
  9. 1 2 3 Jenkins, p. 810 and p. 819-14how can this be 819-[8]14?
  10. "Remembrance Day 2003". Churchill Society London. Retrieved 25 April 2007.
  11. Culture of Fascism: Visions of the Far Right in Britain, Julie V. Gottlieb, Thomas P. Linehan.B.Tauris, 31 December 2003, p.75
  12. DRÁBIK, Jakub. Oswald Mosley´s Concept of a United Europe. A Contribution to the Study of Pan-European Nationalism. In. The Twentieth Century, 2/2012, s. 53-65, Prague : Charles University in Prague, ISSN 1803-750X
  13. 1 2 Drawn into the Heart of Europe?: Die britische Europapolitik im Spiegel von Karikaturen (1973-2008), Julia Quante, LIT Verlag Münster, 2013
  14. 1 2 3 From common market to European Union building, Michael Gehler, Böhlau Verlag Wien, 2009
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  16. Lieber, R. J. (1970). British politics and European unity: parties, elites, and pressure groups. University of California Press. p. 210. ISBN 978-0-520-01675-0.
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  18. Patrick Wintour "TUC accuses Tory Eurosceptics of trying to undermine labour law", The Guardian, 16 January 2013
  19. Pax Anglo-Americana, Ursula Lehmkuhl, Oldenbourg 1999, p.236
  20. FCO 30/1048, Legal and constitutional implications of UK entry into EEC (open from 1 January 2002).
  21. See Norwegian European Communities membership referendum, 1972
  22. Peter Oborne "David Cameron may have finished off the Tories – but he had no choice", Daily Telegraph, 23 January 2013
  23. Simon Heffer Like the Roman: The Life of Enoch Powell, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998, p.707-10
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  27. 1 2 Reuters (16 December 2005). "Reuters footage". ITN Source archive. Retrieved 26 January 2013. Blair is under pressure to yield on the rebate won by his predecessor Margaret Thatcher in 1984 to reflect the fact that Britain, then the EU's second poorest member, benefited little from farm subsidies.
  28. Peter Oborne "It's taken decades, but Labour has seen the light on Europe",, 21 April 2011
  29. Katwala, Sunder (12 September 2007). "Bring Back Social Europe". London. Retrieved 4 September 2008.
  30. "30 October 1990: 'No! No! No!'", BBC Democracy Live, 31 October 2009
  31. Charles C. W. Cooke "How Thatcher Came to Be Euroskeptic", National Review, 23 July 2012
  32. 1 2 3 Weßels, Bernhard (2009-01-01). Decker, Frank; Höreth, Marcus, eds. Spielarten des Euroskeptizismus (in German). VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften. pp. 50–68. ISBN 978-3-531-15969-0.
  33. Eichenberg, Richard/ Russell J. Dalton (2007): Post-Maastricht Blues: The Transformation of Citizen Support for European Integration, 1973–2004, in: Acta Politica 42(2–3), P. 128–152. (quoted in Weßels 2009)
  34. "Tories facing identity crisis". CNN. 8 June 2001. Retrieved 2 May 2010.
  35. "European Election Results 2009, UK Results". BBC News. 19 April 2009. Retrieved 2 May 2010.
  36. Stefan George (1990). An Awkward Partner: Britain in the European Community. Clarendon Press. ISBN 978-0-19-827563-3.
  37. 1 2 3 4 5 Lynch, Philip; Fairclough, Paul (2013). "The European Union". AS UK Government and Politics (Fourth ed.). Hodder Education. pp. 339–340. ISBN 978-1-4441-8352-8.
  38. Williamson, Andrew (5 May 2015). "The case for Brexit: lessons from the 1960s and 1970s". History & Policy. History & Policy. Retrieved 13 July 2016.
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  40. "The Campaign - Vote Leave" Archived 17 November 2015 at the Wayback Machine.. Vote Leave. Retrieved on 2 January 2016.
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  44. Winnett, R.; Waterfield, B. (31 March 2011). "£300 a year: the cost to each taxpayer of funding EU". London: The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 8 June 2011.
  45. "EU 'democracy' and why we always lose as its relentless expansion continues". London: Daily Mail. 18 November 2009. Retrieved 2 August 2011.
  46. Castle, Stephen (26 May 2005). "Barroso survives confidence debate over free holiday with Greek tycoon". The Independent. London. Retrieved 2 May 2010.
  47. Hannan, Daniel (14 November 2007). "Why aren't we shocked by a corrupt EU?". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 2 May 2010.
  48. Stewart, Heather (14 July 2016). "Theresa May's decisive reshuffle draws line under Cameron era". The Guardian. London, UK. Retrieved 15 July 2016.
  49. 1 2 Boffey, Daniel (21 February 2015). "Majority of electorate would vote for UK to leave EU in latest poll". The Guardian. Retrieved 30 March 2015.
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Further reading

External links

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