Britain in Europe: a history of disharmony

27th June 2014, Comments 0 comments

As David Cameron prepares to fight the nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission chief at an EU summit Friday, AFP looks at the long history of British tensions with the rest of Europe.

- Britain first applied to join the European Economic Community in 1961, four years after its establishment by the Treaty of Rome. The bid was twice blocked by French President Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle's opposition was summed up by a single word: "Non." Britain eventually joined the EEC in 1973, after de Gaulle had left office.

- Margaret Thatcher, Britain's Conservative prime minister from 1979 to 1990, had a love-hate relationship with fellow European leaders, sparking some of the most colourful rows in British-European history. Months after being elected, she famously demanded a budget rebate at a summit in Dublin, where she is often quoted as insisting: "I want my money back!"

- Thatcher's speech in Bruges in 1988 fiercely opposing closer European ties is seen as a turning point in the history of British euroscepticism. "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," Thatcher declared.

- When the Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union, was signed in 1992, Britain under Thatcher's Conservative successor John Major secured opt-outs from the single currency and the social chapter. That same year, Britain crashed out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism on "Black Wednesday" due to pressure on the pound.

- In an echo of the Cameron/Juncker dispute, Major vetoed the nomination of Belgium's Jean-Luc Dehaene as president of the European Commission in 1994. He opposed Dehaene because he thought him too federalist. The job ended up going to Jacques Santer of Luxembourg. Santer's terms ended five years later in mass European Commission resignations after a report denouncing its responsibility for fraud.

- Tony Blair took power in 1997 vowing to put Britain at the heart of Europe. But he failed to gain support from key allies like his finance minister and eventual successor Gordon Brown for joining the single currency. Blair's support for the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 also drew suspicion from many European partners.

- In another British blocking manoeuvre, Blair stopped Belgium's then prime minister Guy Verhofstadt from becoming commission president in 2004 because he was seen as too federalist. This led to Jose Manuel Barroso's appointment. "At least he is keeping up a long British tradition," Verhofstadt wryly noted of Cameron in the Guardian this month.

- In 2011, Prime Minister Cameron vetoed a fiscal pact which aimed to tackle the eurozone economic crisis, drawing sharp criticism from within the EU. The move was described by British media as a watershed move in the country's relationship with Europe.

- In 2013, Cameron promised a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU, to be held by 2017 if his Conservatives win next year's general election. This was seen as a bid to face down eurosceptics in his own party but Downing Street has not denied suggestions that Cameron could even campaign to leave the EU in the light of the Juncker controversy.

© 2014 AFP

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