The EU’s One-Sided Love Affair With Britain

Brexit’s opponents call it a mistake, or an aberration—but the U.K. was skeptical of the EU before it even existed.

A pro-Brexit protester holds a sign that reads "I am not a European."
Britain was never thrilled to be part of the EU. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters)

LONDON—A misguided narrative is taking hold about Brexit, both here and abroad. According to this argument, David Cameron called the 2016 referendum on whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union solely for party-management purposes. When he did, he unleashed a wave of atavistic xenophobia whipped up by the tabloid media, and uneducated, working-class Britons were consequently fooled by lies and false promises.

If only politicians hadn’t picked the scab, the country could have ticked along quite happily, so the conceit goes.

This interpretation might provide comfort to some, but it’s fundamentally specious. Put aside the fact that—even after accounting for the most illiberal remarks by some Brexit supporters—Britain remains one of the most tolerant countries in Europe. Ignore the sneer toward one person, one vote democracy implied by the argument above. By 2016, democratic legitimacy for Britain’s membership in the EU was clearly hanging by a thread. If the referendum hadn’t happened then, the problem wouldn’t have gone away. If anything, it would have festered.

For most Brits, the European project was a pragmatic question, never a love affair. We joined a common market to improve our trading prospects and bolster our sclerotic economy. Yet in recent years, national trust in the EU has been damaged by a series of issues—from the eurozone’s problems to the refugee crisis. Politics soon responded. In the 2009 European Parliament elections, the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage’s outfit that advocated leaving the EU, came in second nationwide, and by 2014 it had topped the polls, beating both of Britain’s historically dominant parties, Conservative and Labour. Then, in 2016, 17.4 million people, 52 percent of the voting public, cast ballots to leave.

So was Brexit inevitable? A popular understanding suggests that Britain joined what it thought was a trading bloc, but instead found itself part of a political undertaking, with a common currency, supreme court, and civil service. Brits, the argument goes, suddenly realized they were on the path to “ever closer union” and a “United States of Europe.” This view is a simplification, but nonetheless it has some truth.

It’s possible to argue that different moments were turning points in our European relations. Perhaps it was British Prime Minister John Major’s support for the Maastricht Treaty, which set a path toward the creation of the eurozone, creating a de facto inner tier of the EU with Britain on the outside. Or was it Tony Blair’s decision to not impose transitional controls on immigration from the eight eastern European countries that acceded to the union in 2004, resulting in an unexpectedly large wave of migration? Maybe it was Labour’s broken promise to hold a referendum on the treaty that was meant to be the EU’s constitution. Others cite David Cameron pulling his colleagues out of the European People’s Party, a continental center-right grouping, isolating Conservatives from their sister parties.

Whichever you choose, one fact is clear: Britain has long been on a different trajectory from other EU member states. Stephen Wall’s memoir, A Stranger in Europe, recounting his time advising three decades of British prime ministers—Margaret Thatcher, John Major, and Tony Blair—on Europe is remarkable for the continuity it presents. British governments of all flavors have sought exemptions from every major EU treaty for 25 years. London secured a “rebate” from the EU budget, and opt-outs (or opt-ins) on an array of issues, including monetary union, the Schengen zone for travel without ID checks, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and legislation relating to justice and home affairs. Even left-of-center pro-Europeans have expressed skepticism. Nick Clegg, then the leader of the Liberal Democrats who would later go on to become deputy prime minister, called in 2008 for a “real referendum” on membership, while Caroline Lucas, the former leader of the Green Party, in 2011 endorsed such a vote as a “vital opportunity.”

In fact, the roots of our European ambivalence go even deeper. We often hear now how the European Union is the guarantor of peace on the Continent, a necessary construct to prevent a descent into barbarity. Yet the postwar generation of British political leaders didn’t quite see things like that. Winston Churchill supported a United States of Europe, albeit with Britain an ally outside it. Clement Attlee opposed the Treaty of Rome, saying it was “not our way.” Anthony Eden, a distinguished peacemaker as foreign secretary (although rather less successful in the top job) argued that joining a federation of Europe was “something which we know, in our bones, we cannot do.” It was Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson who offered Britain’s first referendum on the European question, arguably to resolve his own party-management issues, yet he failed to persuade his own wife to vote in favor. That referendum, which Wilson won, didn’t settle the question either, and less than a decade later Blair was first elected as a member of Parliament on a Labour manifesto promising “withdrawal from the Community.”

Britain has always struggled to decide whether to face Europe or the wider world. Since World War II, we have tried to find ways of organizing international cooperation on the Continent, from the Council of Europe, to the Western European Union, to the European Free Trade Association. None have entirely been successful.

As the historian Julian Jackson’s biography richly depicts, Charles de Gaulle was scarred by his bitter wartime rows with Winston Churchill, when he was told by the British prime minister, “You must know that when we have to choose between Europe and the open seas, we will always be with the open seas.” Therein lies the heart of Brexit. When Britain sought to join the European Community, a precursor to the EU, in 1963, de Gaulle vetoed its application. Perhaps he was ultimately right to doubt Britain’s commitment.

Put aside the current political imbroglio, the fights over a confusing array of Brexit negotiating outcomes, and the endless parliamentary crunch votes. Nearly three years since the referendum, the country is still split roughly down the middle. A new referendum cannot resolve those divisions.

If MPs ultimately pick their way through the political impasse, the issue of Britain’s relationship with Europe won’t simply go away. But it could find a new equilibrium. Although Theresa May’s withdrawal deal seems universally disparaged, she actually secured more than many will admit. Her deal creates a baseline for a future EU relationship in which Britain could control its borders, trade goods freely with the European single market, and end financial contributions. In many respects, it takes us back to the trading relationship that Euroskeptics spent years telling us they wanted. Neither European nor Atlanticist, perhaps a compromise Brexit deal, which Theresa May has almost accidentally secured, is precisely where we should end up.