Britain and EU: the breakdown of a decades-long marriage

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Its no surprise the divorce may get messy – its the end of a 60-year love-hate relationship and the UKs commitment was always ambivalent

It had been on the rocks for years. But on a memorably stormy night last June, Britain decided its decades-long marriage with the EU had finally and irretrievably broken down. Today, it files for divorce.

As is often the way, the nine intervening months have seen a lot of posturing. Britain has threatened to walk away if it does not get what it wants which looks like most of the benefits of wedlock without any of the obligations.

The EU has warned, repeatedly, that whatever settlement the two parties do reach on dividing up the property, sorting out the money, agreeing access to the children the future relationship must be worse for the UK than marriage.

It could all get quite messy. But the course of true love between Britain and the EU has rarely run smoothly. What plays out over the coming months will, after all, be the end of a lovehate relationship that has lasted 60 years.

When the six founding members of the European Economic Community (France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) signed the treaty of Rome in 1957 and first asked for Britains hand, it said thanks, but no thanks.

Mayor of Rome Umberto Tupini, addresses delegates of the six nations (France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) signing the treaty of Rome in 1957. Photograph: AP

Buoyed by a confidence in its own exceptionalism, by memories of a great empire and a glorious war, the UK was, after all, a major power: it had a seat on the UN security council, a special relationship with the US, a Commonwealth.

Detached from the continent both physically and culturally, it did not need Europe and showed it, by sending a mid-ranking trade official, one Russell Bretherton, to the treaty signing as a mere observer.

But by the early 1960s, prime minister Harold Macmillan had realised the mistake (it came down to trade, of course) and begun making overtures towards Brussels. This time, the brush-off came from Europe, or more specifically France.

In 1963, Charles de Gaulle said non. Britain had very special, very original habits and traditions, the French president said, and was different from continentals it would only be an Anglo-Saxon Trojan horse in a European stable.

The observation was certainly prescient, but for Britain still upsetting. Macmillan, literally, wept. It was not until 1973 that Britain by now headed by a convinced European, Ted Heath finally tied the knot with Europe.

Sadly, the honeymoon was barely over before the bickering began. Within a year, the UK was calling for wholesale reform to the common agricultural policy (CAP) and in 1975 Harold Wilsons Labour government called an in/out referendum.

British prime minister Margaret Thatcher chairs the 1986 EEC economic summit in London. Photograph: Steve Wilkinson/AFP/Getty Images

Seven Labour cabinet ministers campaigned for Brexit, but Maggie Thatcher shone for remain and two-thirds of the country voted to stay. The Labour partys 1983 election campaign was fought on breaking up up with Europe but it lost.

The following year, though, Britain won its first serious spat with Europe: Thatcher argued that the iniquities of the CAP meant the UK was contributing way more than its fair share of the bill, and she wanted her money back.

Britain got its rebate although it was not as big as it wanted and Thatcher earned an early European reputation as Britains Iron Lady. Gradually, the dynamics on Britains side of the relationship were shifting.

Realising that European commission president Jacques Delorss idea of a social Europe might protect workers from the worst effects of Thatchers free-market capitalism, Labour started to quite like the idea.

But the notion was born in the Conservative party that far from being a cooperative multinational venture in which Britain had its fair say, Europe was, in fact, a fiendish continental plot bent on robbing it of its sovereignty.

In 1988, barely two years after she signed the 1986 Single European Act that swept away many of the national vetoes barring the way to the single market, Thatcher stood up in Bruges and lashed out at Brussels.

She had been betrayed, she said: Europe was not just a common market, but a federalist superstate in the making. Slowly but surely, the UK especially the Conservative party, and the anti-European press began hardening its heart.

This was, they argued, at root an abusive relationship: France controlled the institutions; Germany dominated the economy; continental idealism ran counter, everywhere, to sensible Anglo-Saxon pragmatism.

In 1992, the UK crashed calamitously out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). And although John Major won opt-outs on the single currency and the social chapter on workers rights at Maastricht, the Eurosceptic genie was out of the bottle.

Sterling traders at NatWests foreign exchange department, as the pound still remained in the danger zone on Europes ERM in 1992. Photograph: James Jim James/PA

There were harsh words, fierce rebellions, and incendiary headlines (few matching the Suns iconic Up Yours Delors from 1990). In the end, not even the early charm of a properly pro-European Tony Blair, elected in 1997, could squeeze it back in.

He did his best. The row over beef exports during the BSE crisis aside, these were happy days in the Anglo-EU marriage: Blair opted back in to the social chapter and was applauded from Brussels to Berlin. He even got on with Jacques Chirac.

But throughout the Blair years, most of the press and a hard core of Conservatives, spurred on by a new-ish anti-EU party called Ukip, continued to demand a divorce. Brussels was bureaucratic, arrogant, wasteful, undemocratic, unreformable.

It also wanted to control our judges, our soldiers, our farmers. We were ruled by unelected Eurocrats, barmy Brussels officials and po-faced EU pen-pushers who wanted to ban pounds and ounces, bendy bananas and doubledecker buses.

Nigel Farage speaks to Ukip supporters outside the House of Commons. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

In a clear sign of acrimony ahead, a key factor in David Camerons victorious 2005 bid to lead the Conservatives proved to be his isolationist pledge to pull the party out of the main centre-right group in the European parliament.

And with the Anglo-EU relationship rapidly deteriorating once more, it took Cameron barely a year after becoming prime minister in 2010 before he deployed the ultimate weapon the veto at a high-stakes 2011 summit.

Two years later, Cameron increasingly alarmed at the prospect of losing Eurosceptic Conservative voters (and MPs) to Ukip promised an in/out vote on Britains EU membership if he won the 2015 general election.

As if to confirm his fears, Ukip, making hay on EU immigration, finished top in the 2014 European elections, winning 28% of the vote. There was a final, bruising tiff as Cameron tried desperately to negotiate a new EU deal and that was it.

We know the rest, of course. Cameron out, Theresa May in, the Department for Exiting the European Union created. Heated debates over the single market, customs union, European court of justice, great repeal bill.

We know all about hard Brexit, soft Brexit, and Brexit means Brexit, and have become leavers or remoaners (plus some enemies of the people). And after 44 years of a tempestuous marriage, Britain and the EU are very nearly over.

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