From complicated relationship to divorce: the UK’s road to Brexit

The UK is leaving the EU tonight. MaltaToday looks into Britain's sometimes contradictory relationship with the bloc and how it eventually decided it would take a different path to membership

Brexit is happening tonight
Brexit is happening tonight

At midnight (11pm UK time), Britain will be leaving the EU, marking the first time a country has broken off its membership with the bloc.

Over three and a half years after Brits voted to cease their country’s participation in the European project, and following much political upheaval, the UK will formally be withdrawing and embarking on a new and uncertain venture alone.

The withdrawal will be the start of an 11-month transition period, during which the UK with continue observing EU laws and paying into its budget. For almost all intents and purposes, the UK’s relationship with the EU won’t change much over the next 11 months, but, importantly, it will no longer have a voice within the Union’s institutions.

From 1 February, the UK will start a complex process to negotiate trade arrangements with its key partners, with the EU being chief amongst these.

While EU figures are skeptical a trade deal can be negotiated in the narrow 11-month period, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has disagreed, insisting it is “epically likely” that an agreement can be reached by the end of 2020.

Britain leaves the EU on Friday at 11pm GMT (midnight in Malta)
Britain leaves the EU on Friday at 11pm GMT (midnight in Malta)

Whatever the results of the negotiations in the coming months will be, Britain’s status as an EU member ends now, after 47 years and following a lengthy and stormy withdrawal process. 

MaltaToday spoke with Dr Isabelle Ragonesi, a senior lecturer at the University of Malta’s Department of International Relations, to understand the UK’s complicated attitude towards EU membership, what lead to Brexit, and the importance of both parties maintaining strong ties.

Ragonesi highlighted that the UK has always had a love-hate relationship with the EU, starting from before it became a member in 1973.

“The UK was historically in favour of a united Europe. As far back as 1946, Winston Churchill had called for the creation of a United States of Europe. However, he saw this as something which the UK would support, but not actually be a part of,” Ragonesi said.

At the time the UK had its Empire - although this had started to decline after the Second World War - and already maintained a special relationship with the US, so while it felt it would support a united continental Europe, it did not feel it should be part of it, Ragonesi noted.

The UK also had different ideas about how the then European Community (EC) ought to develop. “The UK felt the EC should be a unity of sovereign states, but not an integration effort at a supranational or federal level. This was one of the biggest conflict points between the UK and EC,” she said.

Within this context, the UK along with six other European countries had formed the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in 1960, a group primarily based on economic integration which Britain saw as an alternative to the EC.

By the mid-1960s, Ragonesi said, the UK had however started to realise that the EU was doing well, and several of its members were more advanced in economic terms compared to the British. At the same time, the US was piling some pressure on Britain to have a stronger voice when it came to the EC.

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In light of this, the UK decided to request EU membership, only to be turned down twice after French president Charles de Gaulle vetoed its applications in 1963 and 1967. Once de Gaulle relinquished his presidency in 1969, the road was finally open for Britain to join, becoming an EU member state in 1973, under the leadership of prime minister Edward Heath.

Two years after joining, the UK held its first national referendum on membership, which resulted in 67.2% voting to stay in the EU.

A contradictory attitude towards EU membership

Since joining, the UK has historically been a very important participant in the European project, Ragonesi said.

“The UK has actually been an extremely important member of the EU and has pushed European integration forward,” she underscored.

Despite the controversy surrounding the implementation into British law of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty - one of the two treaties which now form the constitutional basis of the EU - the British were at the heart of the whole notion of creating an open common market to further liberal economics, she said.

The same was so for Britain’s role in shaping EU foreign policy, which it also pushed for. “Even when it comes to the Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), Britain had a lot of say in how this was drawn up. The British were at the core of CFSP, and it developed on an inter-governmental basis by adopting structures which the UK advocated.”

Despite this, Ragonesi said Britain’s attitude towards the EU was slightly contradictory. While the UK fully participated in core EU areas, such as embracing free movement early on, Eurosceptic elements remained prominent.

“The UK was split over its EU membership. The elites have been continuously supportive of it, because it reaped benefits for them,” she said.

Although the issue surrounding the large influx of foreign workers into Britain was one of the core reasons people voted for Brexit, after the 2004 enlargement the UK was one of the few existing member states which opened their borders immediately, without constraints, to Eastern European jobseekers, Ragonesi said.

“The UK chose not to apply the optional transition period before member states had to open their doors to the newcomers,” she said, “Britain was pressed by its industrial elites to open up its borders, because cheap labour was wanted.”

This paints a picture of a complex situation when it came to Britain’s feelings about EU membership, Ragonesi emphasised.

Cameron’s gamble

So, how did the UK go from a complex relationship with the EU to deciding to break things off?

On 24 June 2016, the day after Britain voted to leave the EU, David Cameron announced he would resign as prime minister
On 24 June 2016, the day after Britain voted to leave the EU, David Cameron announced he would resign as prime minister

One of the reasons why Britain got to the point of having a referendum on Brexit was that David Cameron - who was elected prime minister in 2010 - wanted to use this to put the issue of EU membership, which was splitting the Conservatives Party on an internal level, to bed once and for all.

“Cameron was under the impression that the remain side would win the referendum. But, within the EU’s institutions, it was recognised that it was a very risky gamble,” she said.

“Throughout the Brexit campaign, the remain camp were badly prepared, the Tories did not make good, concrete, arguments in favour of the EU and were very ambivalent, and there was a lot of misinformation going around.”

This all culminated with a result which shocked many: on 23 June, 2016, the UK voted to withdraw from the EU by 51.89% for the Leave camp to 48.11% for Remain.

Continuing strong relationship in both UK and EU’s interest

Within the EU, Britain had an “optimal position”, Ragonesi said.

“The UK was one of the earlier members and had in place a number of important derogations in its favour. It was in a very good position. Even economically, it did very well. Unemployment was low, for example”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson appears confident a trade deal can be mapped out with the EU by the end of 2020
Prime Minister Boris Johnson appears confident a trade deal can be mapped out with the EU by the end of 2020

And, going forward, it will be important for the UK to ensure its relationship with the EU does not falter if it is to continue safeguarding its economic status.

“The biggest problem will be how to go about the four freedoms. Keep in mind that 53% of all UK imports are from the EU, and 45% of its exports go to Union member states. Even the UK’s industrial production chain has strong links with the EU. This can’t be destroyed.”

Ironically, Ragonesi pointed out, economic disruptions due to Brexit will first impact the northern areas of Britain, which voted most strongly to leave.

At the same time, the UK - one of the world’s few nuclear powers and one of five permanent members on the UN's Security Council - also has a lot to offer the EU.

In terms of the way forward, however, things are far from certain.

“What will the UK do? Is it going to work mostly alone? Is it going to partner closely with the US? And if it chooses to work with the US, will it be the metaphorical 51st state? This would surely place it in a weaker position than the US. In the EU, the UK was at the top - one of the most powerful members - whereas working with the US it will be the weaker party,” she said.

One thing is clear, though. Both the UK and EU will benefit from strong ties.

“Both the UK and EU have a lot to gain in ensuring the relationship remains strong, otherwise both will suffer," Ragonesi said. 

"The UK will suffer more, but the EU will lose out as well. It will be a diminished Union,” she added.

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