This article is the English version of : Jolyon Howorth and Vivien A. Schmidt, « Brexit : Que s’est-il passé ? Que va-t-il se passer ? », published in Politique étrangère, Vol. 81, Issue 4, 2016.

Brexit was, in many ways, an accident waiting to happen. For decades, the British people had been fed a diet of Eurosceptic untruths by a media and a political leadership that never attempted to explain the positive features of the European project. The referendum campaign itself involved one side explaining why the UK should leave the EU, and the other side explaining why it should not leave. The reasons for remaining, the positive aspects of the EU, were lost in the debate. Yet the outcome of this vote could prove immensely consequential both for the UK and for the European Union, as well as for transatlantic relations – and indeed for the liberal international order itself.

On 11 November 1944, Winston Churchill paid a symbolic “Armistice Day” visit to Charles de Gaulle in Paris. The general suggested that, although France and the UK had had very different experiences in the war, they were nevertheless, as it neared its end, objectively in exactly the same situation: former empires and robust civilizations, yet medium powers and financially bankrupt. Why not, de Gaulle urged, join forces and jointly lead a European superpower? Churchill agreed with de Gaulle’s analysis but noted that the UK, unlike France, had an alternative – the Atlantic connection.  Britain missed the boat on that occasion and continued to miss it repeatedly ever since. Brexit is the latest – but arguably the most dramatic – manifestation of the UK’s tortuous and ultimately failed relationship with Europe.

In the mid-1950s, a high-level committee was established to design the embryonic European Economic Community (EEC). The UK sent a mid-career official, Russell Bretherton, an economist, to represent Her Majesty among the foreign ministers of the founding Six. Bretherton, on realizing that the discussions were intensely political and in no way restricted to economics and trade, is reported to have left his last meeting of the committee with the words: “Gentleman, you are trying to negotiate something that cannot be negotiated. If negotiated, it will not be ratified. And if ratified, it will not work.” Nevertheless, largely as a result of the foreclosing of alternative options in the early 1960s (decolonization was in full swing and the Commonwealth an increasingly powerless framework for Britain’s global ambitions), the conservative government of Harold Macmillan applied for membership of the burgeoning EEC. Macmillan was also responding to intense pressure from Washington, where President Kennedy sought a strong European pillar of the Atlantic Alliance, with the UK as a key European player. The UK’s ambivalence about Europe was highlighted In December 1962 when, in parallel with the European application, Macmillan signed the Nassau Agreement with the US, tying the UK to the American Polaris nuclear missile system. Unsurprisingly, the UK’s first European gambit was vetoed by de Gaulle in January 1963 on the grounds that the UK had no interest in creating a European political project. That lack of interest continued for the following five decades.

When Prime Minister Edward Heath successfully took Britain into Europe in 1973, after de Gaulle’s death, the plan was “sold” to the UK public overwhelmingly as a great market opportunity – although Heath always denied having misled the public on this issue. During the 1980s, with the launch of the project to complete the Single European Market, Margaret Thatcher briefly became an enthusiastic European. As such, she arguably gave away more sovereignty (in exchange for a larger and more liberalized market) than any Prime Minister before her. But she baulked at the idea of a single currency and rejected any notion of deeper political integration.  At the 1991 foundational conference of the embryonic European Union in Maastricht, the UK secured an “opt-out” from the single currency and later refused to join the borderless scheme known as Schengen. The UK simply never embraced the deeper political, cultural, and identity ambitions of her European partners. […]

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