You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Britain’s Long, Tortured Relationship With Europe

Given their long history of mutual suspicion, maybe a divorce was inevitable.

Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images

If Great Britain leaves the European Union, it will be the end of a particularly tormented relationship, one bedeviled by passive-aggressive hostility. Britain has never really loved the EU. As the European Union was forming in the 1950s, Britain looked on from the outside as an arrogant and ambivalent partner. It ultimately found itself forced by circumstances to join a club it felt it was too good for.

The roots of Britain’s wariness of Europe are manifold. It is an island nation at the periphery of the continent with a historical mythology that emphasizes thwarting continental invasions, from the Spanish Armada to Napoleon to Hitler. Britain has never really thought of itself as being a part of Europe. Major British holidays, notably Guy Fawkes Day, celebrate the resisting of continental plots against the island’s splendid freedom.

Winston Churchill is sometimes regarded as a pro-European English leader, but even he was careful to say that a union with Europe did not mean becoming European: “We are with Europe but not of it.” For Churchill, Britain’s empire and special relationship with the United States were as important as its ties to Europe.

Churchill’s dream of a Britain that could maintain its empire while advising the United States on global affairs fell apart in the 1950s and 1960s. As the empire fell apart, John F. Kennedy told Churchill’s successor Harold Macmillan that, if forced to choose between a united Europe and a British-led trade union, America would go with the continent.

Under duress, Macmillan became a reluctant aspirant to European status. But even so, in his 1973 memoirs he insisted there was a vast “temperamental and intellectual” difference between “Anglo-Saxons” and Europeans. According to Macmillan, “[T]he continental tradition likes to reason a priori from the top downwards, from the general principles to the practical application…The Anglo-Saxon likes to argue a posteriori from the bottom upwards, from practical experience.”

Given this attitude, it’s not surprising that Charles de Gaulle twice vetoed British entry in the EU, in 1963 and 1967, arguing that the Anglo-Saxons were incapable of becoming “good Europeans.” De Gaulle also gave expression to a fundamental difference between England and the continent: “England in effect is insular, she is maritime, she is linked through her interactions, her markets and her supply lines to the most diverse and often the most distant countries; she pursues essentially industrial and commercial activities, and only slight agricultural ones. She has, in all her doings, very marked and very original habits and traditions.”

In rejecting Britain, De Gaulle took the brutal line: “It’s not me, it’s you.”

There has also been a counter-tradition of seeing Britain as part of Europe. Prime Minister Edward Heath, who led the UK into the EU in 1973, said, “We are part of Europe by geography, tradition, history, culture, and civilization. We shall continue to work with our friends in Europe for the true unity and strength of this continent.”

The roots of the current crisis lies in the fact that Heath’s views have never taken hold. The older suspicion of Europe has not gone away. Most citizens of the United Kingdom don’t think of themselves as Europeans. Even David Cameron, the outgoing prime minister who was the most prominent campaigner to keep Britain in the EU, sees the relationship as largely a transactional one: “Our geography has shaped us, and shapes us today. We are special, different, unique. ...We have always seen the European Union as a means to an end—the way to boost our prosperity and help anchor peace and stability across the European continent—but we don’t see it as an end in itself.”

Whatever happens to Britain, this fact will mean that the relationship between it and the continent will be tortured for many years to come.