On January 24th, historian Robert Saunders spoke on the history of Britain’s complex relationship with Europe from the British empire onwards. Saunders has published several renowned works. His work The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain (2018) won the American Historical Association’s Morris D. Forkosch Prize in 2019. Both faculty of Georgetown University’s BMW Center for German and European Studies and Birkbeck University were active in hosting the event in London.
The recent withdrawal agreement, now officially signed off by the EU Commission, brings to a close a critical part of British history, European membership. Since joining in 1979, EU membership has affected law, trade, tourism and any other major area of British policy.
Proponents of this idea could be found in niches and often had experienced the trauma of World War II. Their sentiment was backed by the idea that the EU had potential to bring lasting peace to Europe. Even imperialists in the 1960s backed European membership with fantasies that Europe could become the new British empire. But joining was not exactly met with popular enthusiasm and few British prime ministers since have espoused the sort of idealism of a united Europe that was popular in the rest of Europe.
The lecture also touched on the reasons for joining pre-1979: a decline in exports, a faltering relationship with the U.S., and the remarkable recovery of West Germany. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a big proponent of gaining access to a single market. Even when criticizing the European community, withdrawal was never on the table. Thatcher saw potential in the European community as a unifying force, an entity that would curb the influence of communism.
Fast forward to the 1990s, there was a collapse of conservative support of Europe. The narrative of Brexit campaigns found their roots in some of the messages spread during this collapse: that Britain is a slave to the European system and that remaining in the EU could have a disastrous effect. The conservative support for an anti-European narrative reached its apex in 2016 when David Cameron’s conservatives voted 60% in favor of leaving. Even David Cameron, a proponent of remaining, was powerless in the face of this growing sentiment.
Saunders warns against analogies to pre-Europe days, reminding everyone that Britain was not in fact quite as independent pre-Europe, but part of the British empire. While there is merit in the opinion that Europe did not solve Britain’s long-standing issues, Brexiteers should find better alternatives and search for new answers in the wake of this political revolution.
The withdrawal shows that Britain’s disillusionment with Europe has reached its absolute breaking point. Saunders lecture highlighted that time and time again, history is invoked with varying degrees of accuracy in political campaigns on both isles. The debate of whether EU membership does more good than harm has been a hot topic since the 70’s and will continue to shape public discourse in Britain as the country transitions into a phase of newfound independence.