Britain’s problem with the EU goes back decades. From the 1957 Treaty of Rome to the present day, Europe has been both the opportunity Britain cannot embrace and the problem Britain cannot solve. In the 1950s, Britain stood aloof from the increasingly integrated Continent as it clung to the remnants of its empire. In the 1960s it applied, twice, to join; both times its application was scuttled, twice by the implacable, but arguably correct, French President Charles de Gaulle. In 1973 Britain finally succeeded in joining the club, but euroskepticism was already so strong in British politics that the country held a referendum on leaving in 1975. Remain won that round, but British ambivalence over Europe has never gone away.
De Gaulle—the leader of the Free French resistance in World War II who went on to found the Fifth Republic under which France still lives today—understood the problem best. He thought Britain would never truly be at home in a European union. “England in effect is insular, she is maritime,” he said in his remarks blocking Britain’s entry into what was then called the Common Market in 1963. “She has in all her doings very marked and very original habits and traditions.” He added that “the nature, the structure, the very situation that are England’s differ profoundly from those of the continentals.”
Moreover, from de Gaulle’s point of view, admitting Britain into Europe was like letting a Trojan horse through the gates. He believed Europe faced a choice between pursuing its original goal of a deep integration of the original six members and opting for a larger, looser association that included Britain. A larger and looser Europe, he believed, would be a weaker Europe. It would be unable to develop into a true world power that could face Russia and the U.S. as an equal.
Today de Gaulle looks like a prophet. EU membership has left Britain miserable and divided. The rest of the 28-member EU is overextended, stressed and geopolitically weak.
Yep. Though honestly, going beyond the Common Market was always more for the benefit of the political class than the citizenry. The Common Market brought prosperity, but the EU offered more opportunities for graft. And for the self-importance that is as important to the political class as graft. Well, almost as important.