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Basics: The awkward partnership

Video by Anthony Salamone (The University of Edinburgh) exploring the background of the UK's EU relationship.
The UK has never had a particularly easy relationship with the European Union. From its opt-outs and special arrangements in the EU to its persistent and passionate debates at home, the UK has been described as the ‘awkward partner’ in Europe. When considering the UK’s relationship with the EU, we should ask ourselves to what extent Britain is an awkward partner and what the reasons for this might be. One factor often mentioned is that the UK was not there at the beginning. The UK declined to be a founding member of the European Coal and Steel Community, which later evolved into the European Economic Community.
Some suggest that this absence in the early years meant that Britain missed out on the chance to shape how European integration has worked. This leads some to say that the UK has been playing catch-up ever since. Despite the delay, the UK did eventually decide to join, in 1961. However, France was not willing to support British membership at the time. The UK finally joined the then European Communities on 1 January 1973. Unlike Ireland and Denmark, which joined at the same time, the UK didn’t hold a referendum before signing up. This was the subject of great debate and, following a manifesto pledge, Prime Minister Harold Wilson called a referendum on whether to stay in or to leave the EC.
This was the first-ever nationwide referendum to be held in the UK. Called the Common Market Referendum, it took place on 5 June 1975. The result was 67% to stay in and 23% to leave. This referendum did little to settle the UK’s debate on Europe. Some parts of the EU have been easier to accept than others. The UK has long been supportive of the EU’s Single Market, which provides for the free movement of goods, services, people and capital. While some EU members may consider the euro to be the heart of the EU, for Britain it’s always been the Single Market. Successive British governments have championed the development of the market to include new areas of the economy.
The UK has also traditionally been a supporter of enlargement - the expansion of the EU to new countries. Other EU policies have found less favour in Britain. The result has been that the UK has a number of opt-outs from policies which most of the other members have decided to pursue. The UK has an opt-out on the euro (the common currency), Schengen (the borderless travel area) and some police and crime measures. It also has other special arrangements. Since 1984, following negotiations by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the UK receives a partial rebate on its contribution to the EU budget. In 2005, Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed to reduce the rebate in exchange for reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.
Overall, the UK has been more supportive of economic integration and less in favour of political integration. This brings us back to the question of whether the UK is an ‘awkward partner’ in the EU. It is certainly not the only member to have had issues with the EU or to have special arrangements. Countries such as France, the Netherlands and Ireland have all rejected EU treaties in referendums in the past. Denmark also has an opt-out on the euro, as does Ireland on Schengen. Other countries even get their own rebate on the EU budget - though in much smaller amounts than the UK. In reality, every Member State has its own challenges with the EU.
The UK’s European debate has simply been particularly high-profile and longstanding.
What is the history of the UK’s relationship with the EU? Anthony Salamone explores the background.
(Video/Design by Tim Askew. Voice/Script by Anthony Salamone.)
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