How on earth did we get to this?
It could hardly be said we had fallen out of love with all things “European”. Over the 45 years of our European Union membership (Common Market as was) we have bought millions of continental cars, eaten more continental food, had millions more European holidays, watched millions of hours of European football, bought ever more properties on the continent, shared European tastes in fashion. We have adopted European interior design and filled our homes with Ikea furniture, German kitchens and Italian coffee makers.
And then we voted Leave?
The result was narrow – 51.9 per cent for Leave. And there were wide variations. A majority of Scots voted to Remain, as did London. But across the UK 17.4 million voted Leave – in defiance of stern warnings from the Treasury and Remain campaigns run by all major political parties, business organisations and civic bodies.
Was it immigration? Brussels regulation? Fears over loss of sovereignty? Or did we simply grow bored of those German cars, French wine, holidays in Spain and Italian espresso makers?
Argument will rage as to why the UK voted as it did. But a clue may be found 43 years ago, in the referendum vote of 5 June 1975. This was less on membership of the European Community which we had joined two years earlier (the words “Common Market” were inserted by way of explanation on the ballot paper) than on the terms as re-negotiated by the Harold Wilson government.
The result looked emphatic enough. This was the first national referendum to be held across the UK. Voters expressed hefty support for staying in. While the turn-out was lower than for the 2016 referendum (64 per cent compared with 72 per cent in 2016), 67 per cent voted in favour. And while the vote was non-binding, it was widely accepted that it was the final say on the matter and would be politically binding on all future Westminster parliaments.
Or so we thought. After all, many in the UK yearned for a break-out from dogged industrial disputes and a sense of insular failure. The poll followed a painful recession, coincided with unemployment climbing above one million and inflation raging to more than 20 per cent. “Stagflation” was the manifest fear of this period. “Europe” was seen to offer a way out.
But while the result was incontestable, it by no means settled the issue in UK politics. In fact, deep divisions were evident from the start and formed the basis of later Euro-sceptic opposition and campaigns.
Then, as now, the Labour government was split. Both the National Executive Committee and the party conference disapproved of membership, and seven out of 23 Labour Cabinet members were opposed. All told, 148 Labour MPs opposed their own government’s measure, against 138 who supported it.
Other parties opposed to membership included the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and the Democratic Unionists. There were also divisions within the Conservative Party, though not as vociferous as they were later to become.
Put simply, there were vocal Euro-sceptic minorities deeply embedded across the political spectrum from the start, ranging from Left wing concerns over the pro-capitalist nature of the EU to those on the Right fearing the loss of our island sovereignty. And the more the EU pushed for economic and political union, the more this opposition grew. An early flashpoint was the battle over the UK rebate negotiated by Margaret Thatcher. While EU farming and regional aid benefitted Scotland, Wales and the south west, enthusiasm for the EU waned as “Brussels” became the butt of jokes about straight bananas and the circumference of cucumbers. UK turn-out for European parliamentary elections tanked, while support for anti-EU candidates gathered pace.
With the treaties of Maastricht, Nice and Amsterdam, the greater the unease that “Europe” had morphed from a Common Market – which was what millions thought they had voted for – into a full-blown European Union, where many felt no consent had been given. And during this period, the economic case for membership came under challenge. It was hard to point to knock-out examples where UK economic growth had benefitted from membership, while the EU’s share of total UK trade entered a gradual decline and our trade with non-EU countries advanced.
Now there are intense negotiations over the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU – a process far more complex than Brexiteers imagined. Some progress appears to have been made on the “transition stage” due to last until 1 January 2021. During this, the UK will take over EU rules in order to keep access to the EU single market.
On the plus side, Britain will be able to negotiate and sign trade deals with third countries during those 21 months, although deals cannot enter into force until after the transition, unless approved by the EU.
The UK looks to have secured an opt-out from EU foreign policy decisions during the transition phase, with the right to opt in to new justice and security measures.
But concerns persist that the UK will be a so-called “vassal state” during this time when it won’t be able to vote on the EU regulations it will be bound to apply.
We will have no “right to delay rules”, as enjoyed by Norway.
As for immigration, freedom of movement will broadly continue during the transition: any EU citizen who wants to move here has time to make such a decision until the end of 2020.
And controversy rages over fishing. Under the transition arrangement, Britain will only have the right to be consulted, not to vote during the annual haggling on fishing quotas.
Scottish politicians and the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation fear we will leave the Common Fisheries Policy, “but hand back sovereignty over our seas a few seconds later” as EU rules will persist for another two years.
And still to be settled is the Irish border issue.
“Leaving the EU” in short has proved infinitely more fraught than the initial signing up, raising searching questions as to whether the final deal could be scuppered by a parliamentary vote – or another referendum.
In everyday tastes and choices, we will always retain a sweet tooth for EU goods and services. But opting out of “ever closer union”? Truly, breaking up is proving the hardest thing to do.