LONDON – Britain officially leaves the European Union on Jan. 31 after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Difficult negotiations setting out the new relationship between Britain and its European neighbors will continue throughout 2020.
This series of stories chronicles Britain’s tortured relationship with Europe from the post-World War II years to the present.
Margaret Thatcher was a keen backer of the “yes” campaign in the 1975 referendum on whether to stay in the European Economic Community. She even ventured to wear a sweater with the flags of the member countries sewed in.
However, her 11 years in Downing Street were marked by a growing opposition to European integration that contributed heavily to her downfall.
Her first visible sign of frustration with the EEC related to Britain's budget contribution. Because Britain was absent at the EEC's birth, in 1957 and only joined in 1973, it did not set up the financial rules of the game, which gave an inherent advantage to those countries with big agricultural sectors, such as France.
At a summit of leaders in Fontainebleau, France, in 1984, Thatcher secured an agreement whereby the U.K., which has a relatively small agricultural sector, got a rebate.
An “us and them” narrative had been set and was gleefully picked up by the U.K.'s right-wing tabloids, which endlessly lambasted the inequities and waste of the Common Agricultural Policy. Wine lakes and butter mountains were constant gripes through the 1980s.
Though her government backed the creation of the single European market, which removed all barriers to trade, in the mid-1980s, Thatcher became increasingly hostile to further integration between the European countries.
The appointment of French socialist Jacques Delors to head the executive European Commission in 1985 arguably provided the euroskeptics their first real European bogeyman. Thatcher was aghast at Delors’ ambition for the creation of a single currency and a European central bank. The EEC, to her, was venturing into areas that would significantly dilute the sovereignty of individual nation states to set economic policy.
“Up Yours Delors,” right-wing tabloid The Sun famously declared on its front page in November 1990, just before Thatcher was ousted for her increasingly trenchant approach to Europe.
It was in the 1980s that euroskepticism really embedded itself within the Conservative Party. The EEC was increasingly seen as morphing from an economic construct into something far more political, raising questions about how Britain would be governed in the future and of the nature of democracy itself.
For many who voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum, those were the questions at the forefront of their minds.
Thatcher certainly started ramping up her opposition to the so-called federalists in Brussels beyond just the monetary considerations that had marked her early years in power.
“We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels," she said in a 1988 speech in the Belgian city of Bruges.
Not everyone in her party then was as vexed as Thatcher about European questions. Her growing antipathy to Europe prompted the 1990 resignation of her foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe. His stinging resignation speech prompted a leadership battle.
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