Brexit: The end of a loveless marriage

Ouerdya Ait Abdelmalek, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Mar 21 2017 01:35 AM

A demonstrator holds a placard during a protest in favor of amendments to the Brexit Bill outside the Houses of Parliament in London on March 13. Britain said on Monday it would begin the Brexit process on March 29 with a formal notification by letter to EU President Donald Tusk. Neil Hall, Reuters File

Britain's relationship with the European Union was always an awkward marriage of convenience rather than a case of love at first sight.

And after 44 years — during which trade ties always took precedence for Britain over closer integration — London has said it will file for divorce next week.

Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at King's College London university, said the relationship was always "transactional" and therefore the break-up is "pretty logical."

"It's been a utilitarian relationship since 1973 and the emphasis was always on the economic dimension, not on the political one," said Pauline Schnapper, professor of contemporary British history at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

"The sentimental dimension is near-inexistent," she said.

The path toward today's European Union began after the Second World War, as the shattered continent tried to rebuild and deepen integration as a way of bolstering the peace.

The project did not immediately appeal to Britain.

"I think we didn't feel vulnerable enough to join, quite simply," Menon said.

Britain preferred to focus on its special relationship with the United States and the remains of its empire.

London nevertheless supported the push for closer integration on the European continent: wartime prime minister Winston Churchill called for the creation of a "United States of Europe" in his 1946 Zurich speech.

But in the early 1960s, Britain's fortunes changed for the worse.

Its economic growth started lagging behind that of France and Germany, making the European single market on its doorstep seem an appealing option.


Club of 'others'

Britain said on Monday it would begin the Brexit process on March 29 with a formal notification by letter to EU President Donald Tusk.

Joining the European fray in the first place was not an easy task.

In 1961, France's then-president, Charles de Gaulle, vetoed Britain's first application, seeing it as a "Trojan horse" for the United States and doubting Britain's European spirit.

Another French veto followed in 1967 and the UK was only finally welcomed into the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973.

Unfortunately for Britain, the first oil crisis struck that same year and so the much-hoped-for economic boost failed to materialize.

Nevertheless, 67% of the British people voted to remain in the EEC in a 1975 referendum.

"The fact that we joined late is one of the reasons there are suspicions because obviously there is a sense that we joined a club that others had set up to suit themselves," Menon said.

Britain and the EEC soon locked horns and London began opting out of the major attempts to step up European integration.

In 1979, London refused to participate in the European monetary system, defending its national and fiscal sovereignty.

Six years later, it refused to ratify the Schengen Agreement — abolishing internal border checks — and in 1993, it opted out of the European single currency.

Britain's anti-federalist approach was spelled out by prime minister Margaret Thatcher during a 1988 speech at the College of Europe in Bruges.

In it, she rejected the idea of a "European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels."


Not mutually beneficial

In the 1990s, Britain's defiance toward Brussels accelerated further with the creation of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which campaigned for the country's exit from the EU.

The opposition party's successes, particularly in the 2014 European Parliament elections when it topped the polls, pushed the government to harden its rhetoric.

The eurozone crisis, large-scale immigration from the EU and the refugee crisis of the past few years stoked the discontent, pushing prime minister David Cameron to call the June 2016 referendum.

In the end, 52% of voters opted for Brexit.

Neither side is likely to end up the happier after the divorce, said John Springford, director of research at the Centre for European Reform in London.

"I am not convinced that Britain leaving the EU will help Britain or help the EU," he said.