Brexit: the end of the awkward partner?

12 July 2022

Lourdes Sales-Piera - Undergraduate student, Department of Politics and International Relations, the University of Sheffield

Brexit may have come as a surprise to many commentators, but there are long-standing historical reasons why it was entirely predictable.

In May 2016, Boris Johnson said: “Let’s take back control of huge sums of money, take back control of immigration, take back control of our democracy.” As a prominent eleventh hour convert to the Brexit cause, Johnson argued that voting to leave the EU would herald a new era of British influence and prosperity. 

A month after his claim, the leave vote succeeded. Many commentators were shocked by the result of the Brexit referendum. However, if we look back at Britain’s historical relationship with the EU, we should have seen this coming.

Britain has been referred to as a long-standing “awkward partner” in Europe; never fully in, never fully out. The history of Britain’s difficult relationship with Europe goes back to the 1950s. In a Europe decimated by war, France, West Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, and the Netherlands established a supranational structure that would restore Europe and be a symbol of cooperation. In 1951, the Treaty of Paris was ratified in which the six countries founded the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), a common market for coal and steel. Britain was unopposed to the creation of the Community, but it was to its participation and membership. In March 1957, the Treaty of Rome was signed, which included the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC), a significant step towards European integration.

British politicians were initially strongly opposed to joining the EEC. While the EEC became a prominent organisation with policies such as the abolition of trade barriers and free movement of people, Britain sought to retain an independent stance through its special relationship with Commonwealth countries and the United States. However, in the early 1960s, the EC (European Community) was growing considerably faster than Britain. 

Facing economic difficulties at home, British politicians started to see accession to the EEC as a way to regain some of its past international influence and to fix its current economic issues. Applications were made by Harold Macmillan between 1961 and 1963 and by Harrold Wilson in 1967, but all of them were vetoed by President De Gaulle. In 1969, President De Gaulle was replaced by Georges Pompidou, who was in favour of Britain’s membership. In 1973, Britain joined the European Community, but given its previous veto and the difficulties that its membership presented, Britain had to accept budgetary arrangements and the Common Agricultural Policy, as well as an increase in tariffs and customs.

The accession agreement of Britain to the European Union represented the beginning of what would be a challenging relationship. Because of these fault lines, Britain’s subsequent departure was always a possibility. Some of the main issues between Britain and the EU over the years that received special attention during the Brexit negotiations were tariff trade and immigration

The Trade and Cooperation Agreement signed in the Brexit deal holds similarities to Britain’s entry agreement into the EU. Once Britain was in the EU, they benefited from a free trade agreement which eliminated tariffs and minimised the cost of trading within the EU. However, after Brexit, there is a need for proof of the British or European origin of the product when imported from Britain. Otherwise, it would be subjected to tariffs, which many businesses decide to pay to avoid the lengthy bureaucratic documentation necessary to prove the product’s origin. Moreover, before Brexit, all agricultural products did not need a sanitation certificate, but now they do, which will cause an increase in transportation costs and an increase in the VAT that will need to be paid after every purchase.

Immigration has always remained a barrier for Britain during its membership. The Schengen Treaty, which established a borderless zone across most member states, was signed in 1985, but Britain chose to abstain. When the Eurozone crisis hit, many people from eastern-European countries settled in Britain. This brought an anti-immigration feeling in British society that later in 2015 was confirmed when the immigration crisis struck in Europe and Britain did not offer its support. 

Before Brexit, European citizens were allowed to enter, work, study, and live in the UK without a visa and time-consuming bureaucratic processes. It’s stated in the Brexit deal that working or studying in the UK is now subjected to a VISA, a passport will be compulsory when entering the UK, and recognition of university and professional qualifications will not be automatic anymore, making life in Britain much more difficult and undesirable for Europeans.

Even though Britain is out of the EU, there are still ongoing discussions regarding fishing, the Northern Irish border, Gibraltar and other issues. A question that many British and European people ask is if it was all worth it. Sadly, it was not. Britain entered the EEC in the 1970s to address its underlying economic problems. Europe provided a large, tariff-free single market through which Britain could expand its economic activities. The new restrictions imposed by Brexit limit these benefits. 

Furthermore, Brexit has reopened internal wounds in Britain. The likehlihood of a second Scottish Independence Referendum has increased, in light of the fact that a majority of Scots voted ‘Remain’ in the EU referendum. The Northern Irish border arrangements with the EU – a key part of post-Brexit Britain – threaten to re-open old conflicts. Brexiteers like Johnson promised that the UK’s exit would help Britain to ‘take back control’ of its borders and laws. Instead, it might lead to the end of the UK as we know it.

This is the second part in a series of blogs by undergraduate students on the ‘Britain in the Global Economy’ 3rd year module, which is convened by Dr Scott Lavery at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Sheffield.

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