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Post UK and the EU: A Historical Summary
Created by John Eipper on 12/30/20 5:12 AM

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UK and the EU: A Historical Summary (Arturo Ezquerro, -UK, 12/30/20 5:12 am)

I wish to thank WAISdom's fellow contributors for your intellectual food during this tricky mid-winter, Covid period.

I would also like to give my special thanks to three people: Tor Guimaraes for your fascinating insights into the Universe as a deity and for your appreciation of my previous Brexit post; Timothy Ashby for your authoritative and excellent analysis of the Brexit trade deal; and John Eipper for putting themes together and formulating food-for-thought questions, such as: "Are there calls in the UK for another referendum, especially given the 45-billion euro exit invoice coming due soon? Is it already too late for reconciliation?"

Off the top of my head:

As an EU member, like any other member, the UK had agreed to a share of financial obligations and commitments to existing projects, which should be honoured. The frequently used metaphor of an exit invoice or divorce bill is not adequate. Brexit is not a divorce between two parties, but a member leaving the club. During the negotiations the UK threatened not to pay its debt to the EU, in case of a no-deal scenario. That would have certainly triggered legal action by the EU, taking the UK to the International Court of Justice. And, I think, the EU would most likely have won.

If you or I went to a restaurant and ordered a full meal, which were then cooked for us, but decided to leave halfway, I can imagine the waiter would present us with a bill for the whole meal (although he may not expect us to give a tip). If we didn't pay, we may in turn have to face the legal consequences. The Brexit trade deal is thin and far worse than EU membership, but it has saved the UK (and all of us living in it) from a potential huge embarrassment.

Regarding your question, John, about another referendum, it seems obvious that it is not going to happen (at least in the foreseeable future). However, if the British Government had had enough honesty and courage to put the deal to the people on a new referendum (together with the options of no-deal and remain), it would have been an exercise of more advanced democracy.

Depending on how the new relationship between the UK and the EU unfolds, the younger generations may push future British governments for a popular vote on re-entry. But I cannot see this happening within the next 20 or so years, at least. (The 2016 Brexit referendum occurred 41 years after the first one).

There might be earlier calls in Scotland for a referendum on independence and, later perhaps, in Northern Ireland for a referendum on reunification with the Republic of Ireland. But I leave the forecast for Timothy Ashby to disentangle.

I do not feel confident enough to make predictions. Maybe, after the UK's departure from the EU is completed, the ideological impetus for anti-European sentiment would dissipate and the pendulum might swing back the other way. Meanwhile, let's try to learn from history--from both its pendular and non-pendular movement.

Strange bedfellows?

From a geopolitical, cultural, religious and historical perspective, the UK is an integral part of Europe. However, there is a sense of England's separation from continental Europe that runs deep. It can be traced back at the very least to King Henry VIII, who defied the authority of the Pope and established the Anglican Church in 1534, soon after his request to divorce Catalina of Aragón had been refused.

The defence of Anglicanism under the threat (real or imagined) from the forces of Rome and the Catholic nations of Europe, symbolised by the failed attempted invasion of the powerful but poorly organised Spanish Armada in 1588, entrenched itself in the collective unconscious of England, as an idiosyncratically independent nation. In the 18th and 19th centuries, a now united Great Britain fueled by the Industrial Revolution built a vast empire--which gave her a sense of superiority over its European neighbours.

I think this deeply rooted mix of feelings of separateness and superiority has played an important part in the development of a highly ambivalent relationship between the UK and the EU. This unsureness was already present, right from the outset, when six Western European countries (France, West Germany, Italy, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg) assembled the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951--the predecessor of the European Economic Community (EEC), which was created in 1957.

Robert Schuman (one of the architects of the project) believed European unity was essential for survival and declared that solidarity in production would make war between France and Germany not merely unthinkable but materially impossible.

The UK was invited to join the ECSC but, first, Labour PM Clement Attlee and, then, Conservative PM Winston Churchill declined. They seemed to be more preoccupied with the loss of the British Empire and with strengthening the association of Commonwealth countries, which, following the London Declaration of 1949, had seen the term "British" dropped from the title.

The British Army humiliation of the Suez Crisis of 1956 badly hurt the UK's national pride. In addition, the country's economy was so weak that the once mighty nation could no longer be considered to have a global role military or financially. In the circumstances, following years of heated debate, in 1963, Conservative PM Harold Macmillan launched the UK application for membership of the EEC, which had been developing healthily since its inception in 1957.

The outcome was that, on two occasions, the French President Charles De Gaulle refused to back UK membership of the EEC as, he thought, the British Government lacked commitment to European integration (déjà vu?). De Gaulle resigned in 1969 and the new French President Georges Pompidou started three years of hard negotiations with Conservative PM Edward Heath, which ended in the accession of the UK to the EEC in 1973, together with Ireland and Denmark.

In order to win the general election in 1974, Labour PM Harold Wilson had promised a referendum on whether to leave or to stay in the EEC (a strategy that David Cameron would exploit conspicuously several decades later). In this first "Brexit" referendum, on 5 June 1975, remain was supported by 67.2% of the voters.

Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party had campaigned for remain by and large, while many senior members of the Labour Party pushed for Brexit, as they felt the EEC was primarily a club of wealthy capitalist nations.

In the early and mid-1980s, three not-so-wealthy new members joined the EEC: Greece, Portugal and Spain. And a Single European Act was created in 1986. This was the first major revision of the 1957 foundational Treaty of Rome. The Act set an objective of establishing a single market by 31 December 1992.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Margaret Thatcher positioned herself against German re-unification. She also opposed the European exchange rate mechanism and the forthcoming changes that the Maastricht Treaty would introduce on 1 January 1993. These included a Social Chapter, progressive workers' rights, and a common European citizenship, which de facto established the European Union as a new legal and political entity.

Margaret Thatcher was forced to resign in 1990, chiefly due to her hostility towards the idea of an integrated social Europe. She was replaced as PM and Party leader by John Major, who was openly pro-European. But the division within the Conservative Party, which has stayed until the present day, led to the creation of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in 1993, the very same year that the Maastricht Treaty came into force.

Interestingly, after decades of being predominately pro-European, the Conservative Party became largely Euro-sceptic--while the majority of Labour Party members, to some extent reassured by the new Social Chapter of the EU, gradually changed their mind and became friendlier towards the European project.

Austria, Finland and Sweden joined the EU in 1995. Subsequently, the Labour governments of Tony Blair (1997-2007) and of Gordon Brown (2007-2010) supported the massive entry of ten new members, most of them from Eastern Europe. In 2004, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia joined the EU in only one shot. Not long after, Bulgaria and Romania (in 2007) and Croatia (in 2013) also joined.

Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown decided not to use the protective breaks stipulated in the EU Treaties, which ignited further anti-immigration and anti-EU sentiments in the Conservative Party, let alone UKIP.

The global financial crisis that started in 2008 (putting the economies of many European countries on the verge of collapse) created an unprecedented existential watershed in the EU, and pushed it to the limit. Immigration into the UK increased exponentially, particularly from Eastern Europe, with all the pros and cons inherent in it. A fundamentally pro-Brexit British media mendaciously blamed the EU for all the ills. And here we are.

Some personal reflections:

Although Brexit is essentially an English (rather than British) issue, in terms of larger group dynamics, it can also be interpreted as a failure of the EU itself. Immigration is not only a UK problem but a gigantic ethical miscarriage of the EU as a whole. If a group of more than 500 million Europeans cannot absorb two or three million underprivileged migrants, how can the EU overcome other global group challenges? Covid-19 and the rise of artificial intelligence are creating enormous social and economic problems--far bigger than the desperate journey of a few million refugees to the shores of affluent Europe or the free movement of workers from Eastern Europe to the UK.

Indeed, the massive eastern enlargement of 2004 significantly increased inequality between Member States within the EU, but the treaties allowed for long transitional arrangements to accommodate change. Isn't it paradoxical that the UK was the only big EU country not to use the transitional-period break, but to open its labour market to Eastern Europeans seven years before the EU required it? Furthermore, in 2007, the UK pushed hard to allow Rumania and Bulgaria to join the EU, initially even against the wishes of the European Commission!

As the UK gave Eastern European workers instant access, in less than four years since their accession to the EU, more than one million moved to the UK, the second wealthiest European country after Germany. The English language was indeed an additional pull factor. By the time of the 2016 Brexit referendum, there were over 3.3 million non-British EU citizens living in the UK (over half of them from Eastern Europe), up from less than one million before the eastern enlargement.

One of the lies of the Leave campaign for the referendum was that many of these EU migrants were coming to the UK to have access to benefits and to exploit the welfare system. The reality is quite different.

In contrast to many British retired ex-patriates moving to sunny Southern Europe, and often making a comprehensive use of local public health resources, the immense majority of EU migrants into the UK are young, healthy, come to work hard, pay their taxes, contribute to the local economy and support local public services.

In 2017, through a thorough piece of research, Tim Shipman found out that EU citizens contribute per year £20 billion more in taxes than they take out in benefits. The facts are clear: the overwhelming majority of EU citizens in the UK are net contributors. And, yet, they were deprived of their right to cast a vote about their future, while the EU (disregarding its own treaties) was looking the other way.

Anybody else?

Happy New Year to all!

JE comments:  I learned a lot here!  It is interesting that the EU was originally a goal of the UK Conservatives, with Labour opposed.  We saw a somewhat analogous shift in the US, with Trump abandoning the traditional Republican free-trade position in favor of protectionism.

Arturo, your overview deconstructs several long-held assumptions.  For starters, the notion of who the "freeloaders" are in the EU-UK relationship.  What about the thousands of British pensioners enjoying the medical services of the Southern-tier nations?  I found a recent Guardian article that listed the number of UK seniors permanently in Spain at nearly 300,000.  This is more than double the number of Spaniards in the UK.

I assume that post-Brexit, it will be far more difficult for British citizens to retire in Spain.  I hope Tim Ashby in Mallorca can give more details.

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  • As of Today, It's Harder for British Expats in Spain (Timothy Ashby, -Spain 01/01/21 8:53 AM)
    John Eipper raised the question (December 30th):

    "I assume that post-Brexit, it will be far more difficult for British citizens to retire in Spain. I hope Tim Ashby in Mallorca can give more details."

    Yes--UK citizens will find it considerably more difficult to retire in Spain as of today, unless they are legal residents. At least 300,000 British subjects live in Spain, many of whom have been here for decades. But without legal residency permits they can only stay for 90 days within each 180-day period. They cannot simply fly to another country and return the next day to "start the clock ticking" again.

    Rosemary (who is British) and I had the foresight to apply for our residencias months ago, but many of our UK expat friends have been frantically scrambling to apply these past few weeks as realisation has sunk in that Brexit has radically changed their status. It took several months for our lawyer (a Russian woman married to to Mallorcan) to secure Rosemary's residency. In November, when Rosemary actually collected her card from the Immigration office in Palma (which incidentally had a separate line under a "Brexit" sign), there were lines of people stretching around the block.

    If the Spanish immigration authorities received an application before today, even if not yet processed, the applicant is considered "safe" until the application is is approved or denied. For new applicants from today, the process will be much more lengthy and difficult.

    Although we have excellent and inexpensive private health insurance, as part of the agreement with the EU, British travellers can continue to use their European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) until it expires. This entitles travellers to state-provided medical treatment. From January 4 travellers will be able to apply for a new UK Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC) which includes a reciprocal health scheme akin to the EHIC. The UK government will pick up the costs of any healthcare needed for its citizens holidaying in an EU state. We understand that as residents we can use the excellent public health system if we choose to do so. Several of our expat friends use the state health system and report that it is better than the NHS in the UK. Due to Covid, waiting times for seeing specialists or having medical procedures performed are much longer than in previous years, which is not the case with our local private hospital (which a doctor told us last week has never had a Covid patient in its ICU, even though they were expected).

    JE comments:  Tim, relieved to hear that you and Rosemary are safe in a foreign land!  When time permits, can you tell us about your experience with obtaining a residencia as a US citizen?  I ask somewhat out of personal interest...retirement may not be that far off.

    Happy New Year!

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