Is the UK part of the EU?

| February 20, 2023
Is the UK part of the EU?

United Kingdom and the European Union

The United Kingdom (comprising the four countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) is no longer a member of the European Union. The British exit, or Brexit, came into effect at the start of January 2021, and since that point in time, the United Kingdom is no longer under the primacy of EU law or of the European Court of Justice, although some legislation pertaining to Northern Ireland is still in effect.

Although the United Kingdom as a single entity is no longer part of the EU, Northern Ireland retains access to the European Single Market, which allows the free movement of capital, goods, services and people within the confines of the European Union member states.

Long History

The concept of easier trade and commerce between countries first appeared in 1951 when six major European countries signed the Treaty of Paris.
Referred to as the “Inner Six” or simply “the Six” the countries were:

  • Belgium
  • Germany
  • Luxembourg
  • France
  • The Netherlands
  • Italy

Together, the Six formed the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), aiming to simplify and facilitate trade between the six member countries. From the beginning, the experiment proved a success, and it was decided to expand the concept, and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), as well as the European Economic Community (EEC), were established.

The EEC and Euratom joined forces to become the European Communities, or EC, in 1967 as the benefits of free trade became increasingly clearer and more countries wished to join the newly-formed EC. Even the United Kingdom was keen to join in the single market project and lodged applications in 1963 and four years later in 1967. However, both attempts came to nothing as then-French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed the membership applications.

Two years after President de Gaulle’s resignation, in 1971, the possibility of joining the (then) EEC was discussed in the British parliament with the members overwhelmingly voting in favour of EEC membership. After much debate over the following year, the British parliament finally passed the European Communities Act in 1972, and Britain finally joined the EEC on the 1st of January 1973 alongside Denmark and the Republic of Ireland.

Trouble and Strife

Although the economic benefits of EEC membership were clear, many British politicians and members of the public were not entirely happy with the situation. Many believed the terms of European membership were less favourable than they should be, and more people resented the fact that European law often took precedence over British law. Perhaps in an act of defiance, Britain refused the common European currency, the Euro, and opted to retain its own pound sterling. An act that did not sit well with many European bureaucrats.

Almost from the outset, Britain divided into two camps: those in favour of European membership and those against it. This division basically adhered to political parties, with the Conservative Party being largely in favour of EEC membership (Europhile) and the Eurosceptic Labour Party predominantly against it. In 1983, the Labour Party even included a promise to leave the EEC in its election manifesto.

A national referendum on whether to remain in the EEC was held in 1975 and, despite much protesting on the streets, almost 70% of the electorate voted in favour of remaining. In spite of the favourable vote for the Europhiles there still remained a strong feeling of mistrust and dislike across Britain for the EEC. As the decades passed, the positive attitude towards EEC membership began to diminish as more and more British citizens began to believe the United Kingdom would be better off going it alone and not being a part of a European super-state.

47 and Out

No further public vote on leaving the European Union (as it is now known) was carried out after the 1975 positive outcome, but Euroscepticism was on the rise throughout the United Kingdom and particularly in England. As part of the Conservative Party’s election campaign, England’s prime minister David Cameron promised the electorate a second referendum if his party was successful. When the Conservatives won the election, a referendum on EU membership was duly held in 2016 with a somewhat unexpected outcome.

In a very tight contest, 51.9% of voters elected to leave the European Union. So began the process of leaving the EU in a seemly manner, and Britain’s Exit became known across the world as Brexit. With many loose ends and legalities to be tidied up before the United Kingdom was finally able to leave, the Brexit process floundered to be completed as deal after deal was rejected or had to be renegotiated. After much toing and froing between the British government and the EU hierarchy, it was finally agreed that Britain would leave the European Union, thus ending 47 years of membership.

Change of Mind?

Almost immediately following the vote to leave the European Union, questions were raised as to the legality of the result, with many opinion polls showing strong majorities in favour of remaining in the EU. In 2019, just three years after the referendum, independent polls were showing that 53% of the electorate wanted to remain in the EU while the narrow majority of 51.9% for leaving had decreased to 47%.

Many people across the United Kingdom (particularly in Scotland and Northern Ireland) now believe that Brexit was a mistake, and an estimated 14% of those who voted to leave the EU would now vote the other way.

Opinion and concern were expressed that the vote to leave had been won by mainly older people who saw no benefit in the single market or visa-free access to Europe. In 2019, there were an estimated 2.5 million people in the United Kingdom who had not voted or were too young to vote in the 2016 referendum. Political analysts estimate that if the vote had taken place in 2019, there would have been a swing in favour of remaining, and the UK would still be a member of the European Union. This would seem to be a highly probable supposition as, in early 2019, an online petition with over six million signatures requested the government to remain a European Union member state.

Brexit Effects on the United Kingdom

Many economists predicted that Brexit would negatively impact the United Kingdom and see a reduction in the per capita income for the population. This proved to be the case in the years immediately following the 2016 referendum, as uncertainty over what would happen after Brexit adversely impacted the British economy as foreign investors were reluctant to risk their capital in an uncertain future.

A leaked British government analysis revealed an expected reduction in the economic growth of between 2 and 8% in the fifteen years after Brexit. Supporters of Brexit proposed negotiating new trade agreements with Canada, Australia and New Zealand (CANZUK) to replace lost European revenue but economists believe that such deals (though necessary) will not be anywhere near as valuable as those lost with the European Union member states.

While there is no doubt the British economy has suffered as a result of Brexit, the damage is not as severe as was predicted. A case of better than expected but not as good as hoped is the opinion at present, but these are still early days, and what happens in the coming years remains to be seen!