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How Politics Shaped Britain’s Opinion on EU?

The European Union was officially formed in 1993 but a similar union between Europeans countries existed since the 1950s in the form of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). As the year passed by, more and more countries joined the pact. The goal behind this integration was to prevent the rise of nationalism in different countries across the continent – as it once had. However, Britain didn’t see becoming a part of such union as particularly beneficial. Especially after World War II when its GDP was seeing growth. The UK held different trade agreements and felt that it was sufficient. However, after the decolonization of Africa and India getting its independence, the previous trade agreements were no longer sufficient. So in the midst of a significant decline, the United Kingdom finally able to join the other countries in 1973 after being turned away once before. 

Unlike other countries, the UK made it clear to the world again and again that it wasn’t losing any bit of its sovereignty. In fact, Winston Churchill was famously quoted saying “We are with Europe but not of it”. The UK has always measured the impact of EU integration in economic terms – opportunities lost and opportunities gained. 

Debates between the government and opposition have been an almost fundamental feature in Britain’s political system. This meant that the views on the UK’s integration into the EU were equally controversial, especially among politicians. Most of the public was actually in support of the EU and the number of these people increased in later years. The Prime Minister of the UK in 1961, Harold Macmillan sold the EU membership to the public as commercially beneficial and required for economic growth. But not everyone agreed. Critics of the membership included the likes of Enoch Powell from the right-wing of the Tory Party, Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell and the left-wing of the Labour Party. Integration of the UK into the EU for a short time meant that the party unity was compromised as a majority of the party members were against the integration while a few influential members were all for it. Another thing to note is that most of the critics were influenced more by their gut feeling more than anything else. This no doubt had an impact on how they viewed the practical advantages and disadvantages of the membership. 

Another influential political figure, Margaret Thatcher’s views on the membership changed throughout the years. In the beginning, Thatcher was in support of the membership and felt that Britain’s integration into the EU was not a threat to Britain’s sovereignty and would have a number of economic benefits. Unlike the French government under Mitterrand, Thatcher’s government wasn’t interested in becoming a part of the European Union to create something greater. Instead, Thatcher’s government was more interested in keeping its own separate identity. Something which was made clear by the language by the government during this period. Phrases like ‘standing up for our interests’ and ‘safeguarding our interests’ and ‘fight tenaciously for British interests’ were used. Thatcher was often quoted saying that Europe was the source of a majority of Britain’s problems. Despite all this, Thatcher did take to make Britain more involved in the EU. However, Thatcher seems to have to change opinions on the EU. During her early years, it was all for protecting the sovereignty of the UK and not all that much for the EU but as the years passed by, she became more welcome of the EU and wanted to cooperate with the EU in order to make Europe more liberal. However, the discourse changed once again during her last years in office, concerned with matters of the UK’s sovereignty. Also during this time, the Tory Party started seeing a divide among its members. Some members like Kenneth Clark were pro-European while others like Nigel Lawson were called Euroskeptics. Like the Tory Party, the cabinet was also split during Thatcher’s final years in office. Thatcher lost her seat as Prime Minister when her policies started making it difficult for Britain to negotiate deals with the rest of Europe.

During the coming years, pro-Europeans lost power of the government and Euroskeptics took over. During this period, the Labour Party whose members once opposed EU membership were now more convinced of the benefits that would come with EU. The late 1990s saw increased cooperation with the EU under Prime Minister Tony Blair who never seemed to have addressed the issues of sovereignty and identity like some of his predecessors. Instead, Blair focused mainly on the economic benefits that would be gained as a part of the EU.

The beginning of the 21st century increased Euro-skepticism and the majority of people wanting to vote “no” in a referendum so they could leave the euro. Prime Minister Blair gave a speech that increased hopes that the UK could stay as an EU member by changing some of the ways in which the EU works. However, those hopes were shortlived as Blair in his second term didn’t do much. In fact, some say his second term had even a lesser of a positive impact than his first time.

The impact of the European Union on the UK’s politics was mostly negative unlike other countries like France and Italy as the members of the government became divided. The issues of lost identity and sovereignty fueled and escalated the negative discourse on the EU for almost twenty years. Not only did this lead to increased Euro-skepticism, but it also damaged Britain’s relationship with the EU (and played a major role in Britain ultimately leaving the EU). 

In conclusion, the negative discourse on the EU shaped public opinion negatively which was made evident by polls that indicated growing public disapproval. People believed too many important decisions were taken on EU-level rather than in Parliament. Ultimately, Britain’s influential politicians (from Churchill to Thatcher) never saw a future where Britain and the rest of Europe would come together to create one greater entity, instead, they focused only on economic gains and brought the compromises and disadvantages of an EU membership in front of the public. This lead to differences arising in inter-party philosophies as well as the public’s increasingly negative opinions of the EU. 

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