Euroscepticism in the United Kingdom

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The United Kingdom (dark green) in the European Union (light green).

Euroscepticism, the opposition to the policies of supranational EU institutions and/or opposition to membership of the European Union, has been a significant element in the politics of the United Kingdom (UK) since the inception of the European Communities—comprising the European Economic Community (EEC), the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC) and the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC)—the predecessor to the European Union (EU).


Before 1975[edit]

Hugh Gaitskell, a staunch opponent of European integration.

Although at present a significant proportion of Conservatives are hostile to the European Union, it was the Conservative Party that took the United Kingdom into what then was the European Community. Nevertheless, certain groups of Conservatives still opposed British accession to what was then the Common Market. One of the earliest groups formed especially against British involvement in Europe was the initially Conservative Party-based Anti-Common Market League, whose president Victor Montagu declared that opponents of the Common Market did not want to "subject [themselves] to a lot of frogs and huns".[1] Conversely, much of the opposition to Britain's EU membership initially came from Labour politicians and trade unionists who feared bloc membership would impede socialist policies, although this was never the universal Labour Party opinion.

Although the British government was favourable to the creation of the European Communities, the United Kingdom was not a founding member. However, trade with the European Communities ended up accounting for more of Britain's trade than that with the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which had been established partially as an alternative to the European Economic Community. This led the UK to reconsider its policy, moving closer to the EEC and opening accession negotiations in 1961. French president Charles de Gaulle strongly resisted, arguing that the UK was closer to American policies than European ones,[2] and would therefore attempt to "sabotage" the community. Consequently, France vetoed the UK's first attempt at achieving membership in 1963.

The Labour Party, then in opposition, spoke against the European Community. The party leader Hugh Gaitskell once declared that joining the European Communities would mean "the end of a thousand years of history".[3] Some Gaitskellites though (including the later founders of the SDP) were favourable to British involvement. Labour changed from its initial opposition towards the European Community and began to support membership. The second attempt was made in 1967, but it was again rejected by a French veto. When de Gaulle stepped down from power, British membership of the EEC became feasible. Britain applied to join for a third time in 1969, and joined the EEC under Heath's Conservative government in 1972.

Despite the decision to join the European Community, internal Labour divisions over EEC membership prompted the Labour Party to propose a referendum be held on the permanence of the UK in the Communities. Originally proposed in 1972 by Tony Benn[4] (known as Anthony Wedgwood Benn at the time), Labour's referendum proposal led the anti-EEC Conservative politician Enoch Powell to advocate a Labour vote (initially only inferred) in the February 1974 election,[5] which was thought to have influenced the result, a return to government of the Labour Party. The eventual referendum in 1975 asked the voters:

"Parliament has decided to consult the electorate on the question whether the UK should remain in the European Economic Community: Do you want the UK to remain in the EEC?"

British membership of the EEC was endorsed by 67% of those voting, with a turnout of 64.5%.

From 1975 to 1997[edit]

The debate between Eurosceptics and EU supporters is ongoing in British political parties, whose membership is of varied standpoints. The two main political parties in Britain, the Conservative Party (in government) and the Labour Party (in opposition) both have within them a broad spectrum of views concerning the European Union.

Unlike Heath, Margaret Thatcher (PM 1979-90), shown here with President Ronald Reagan at Camp David in 1986, favoured stronger ties with the US over the European Community.

In the 1970s and early 1980s the Labour Party was the more Eurosceptic of the two parties, with more anti-European Communities MPs than the Conservatives. In 1975, Labour held a special conference on British membership and the party voted 2 to 1 for Britain to leave the European Communities.[6] In 1979, the Labour manifesto[7] declared that a Labour government would "oppose any move towards turning the Community into a federation" and, in 1983,[8] it still favoured British withdrawal from the EEC. Under the leadership of Neil Kinnock after 1983, however, the party dropped its opposition to the European Communities and instead favoured greater British integration into European Economic and Monetary Union. Since the speech by Jacques Delors, then President of the European Commission, at the TUC conference in 1988 the Eurosceptic inclination in the Labour Party as a whole has become less pronounced.[9] In the context of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative premiership, when policies to reduce the power of the trade unions were pursued, Delors' advocacy of a "social Europe" became attractive to many.[10] In late October 1990, just before her premiership ended, Mrs Thatcher reacted strongly against Delors' plans for a single currency in the House of Commons;[11] her stance contributed to her downfall a few weeks later.[12]

Since 1997[edit]

UKIP leader Nigel Farage is arguably the United Kingdom's most famous Eurosceptic campaigner and wants the UK to leave the European Union.

The financier Sir James Goldsmith had formed the Referendum Party as a single-issue party to fight the 1997 General Election, calling for a referendum on aspects of the UK's relationship with the European Union. It planned to contest every constituency where there was no leading candidate in favour of such a referendum, and briefly held a seat in the House of Commons after George Gardiner, the Conservative MP for Reigate, changed parties in March 1997 following a battle against deselection by his local party. The party polled 800,000 votes and finished fourth, but did not win a seat in the House of Commons. The United Kingdom Independence Party, advocating the UK's complete withdrawal from the European Union, had been founded in 1993 by Alan Sked, but initially had only very limited success.

Many commentators [13] believe over-interest in the issue to be an important reason why the Conservative Party lost the General Election of 2001. They argue that the British electorate was more influenced by domestic issues than by European affairs.

After the electoral defeat of the UK Conservatives in 2001, the issue of Eurosceptism was important in the contest to elect a new party leader. The winner, Iain Duncan Smith, was seen as more Eurosceptic than his predecessor, William Hague. As opposition leader, Iain Duncan Smith attempted to disaffiliate the British Conservative Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from the federalist European People's Party group. As MEPs must participate in a transnational alliance to retain parliamentary privileges, Duncan Smith sought the merger of Conservative MEPs into the Eurosceptic Union for a Europe of Nations (UEN) group. Conservative MEPs vetoed this move because of the presence within the UEN of representatives of neo-fascist parties who do not share similar domestic politics. In 2004, Duncan Smith's successor, Michael Howard, emphasised that Conservative MEPs would remain in the EPP Group so as to maintain influence in the European Parliament. However Michael Howard's successor David Cameron pledged to remove Conservative MEPs from the EPP Group and this has now been implemented.

In 2005, Nigel Farage MEP requested that the European Commission disclose where individual Commissioners had spent their holidays, which the Commission rejected on the basis that they had a right to privacy. Eurosceptics have also criticised the President of the European Commission, José Barroso, for spending a week on the yacht of the Greek shipping billionaire Spiro Latsis only a month before the Commission approved €10.3 million of Greek state aid for Latsis' shipping company.[14] However, this decision had been made by the previous Commission body, before Barroso had been appointed.[15]

UKIP received 16% of the vote and gained 12 MEPs in the 2004 European Election. The party's results improved in the 2009 UK European Election, coming in second, above the incumbent Labour Party.[16]

Criticism of the European Union[edit]

Individual complaints about the EU made by Eurosceptics include rising costs of membership,[17] a negative impact of the EU regulatory burden on UK business (including pointing out that this also affects those businesses engaged in purely domestic trade or exporting to non-EU markets) and claimed corrosive effects on democracy within all EU member states, including Britain.[18]

Democratic deficit[edit]

Many British Eurosceptics believe that the supremacy of EU law overly restricts national parliaments' freedom to legislate. They also object to provisions that EU legislation must be proposed by the European Commission, which they claim lacks democratic legitimacy because it is elected by the European Parliament[19] and not directly by voters.

Claims of corruption[edit]

Opponents of the EU have accused its politicians and civil servants of corruption and failing to get the EU's accounts signed off by the European Court of Auditors.[20]

Excerpts from the report and accounts on 2011[21] include:

  • The 2011 accounts present fairly the financial position of the European Union and the results of its operations and its cash flows for the year. Revenue and commitments were free from material error. In contrast, payments were affected by material error, with an estimated error rate of 3,9 % for the EU budget as a whole. The level of error remained similar to 2010 when it was 3,7 %.
  • All individually assessed areas of EU spending were affected by material error with the exception of external relations, aid and enlargement and administrative expenditure. This shows that improvements are needed in the management of EU funds.
  • Overall, the control systems examined were only partially effective in ensuring the regularity of payments and are not realising their potential to prevent or detect and correct errors. Many instances of control failure were identified.

A minority of Labour MPs, and others such as Lord Healey, formed the Labour Against the Euro group in 2002, opposing British membership of the single currency.[22] The TUC remains strongly pro-EU,[23] but some of Labour's opponents in the media claim Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, is privately a Eurosceptic.[9][24] Opposition to the European Union is generally more marked in the Conservative Party, with all leaders from John Major (1990–97) onwards having to placate the Eurosceptics in the party.

Eurosceptic political parties[edit]

The political party with representation in the European Parliament seek to remove the United Kingdom from the European Union, is the United Kingdom Independence Party. Unrepresented parties and electoral alliances have included the Referendum Party, Alliance for Democracy (UK), We Demand a Referendum, which was launched by Nikki Sinclaire MEP in June 2012.[25]

Senior figures in both the Labour Party and Conservative Party have held strongly contrasting views on European integration ever since it became a contentious issue back in the 1970s. Neither party currently advocates the formal withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU, although both have put forward proposals for the reform of European institutions. However, pro-European reformers, such as the Conservative former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, are resolutely opposed to any moves towards a European superstate.[26]

The Liberal Democrats, the UK's third-largest parliamentary party, are strongly pro-EU but advocate institutional reform to advance European federalism, with a greater role for national parliaments in scrutinising EU legislation though with less power (through the raising of Qualified Majority Voting blocking thresholds as in the Lisbon Treaty) to block or amend it.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) has tended to be pro-EU since the 1980s. As the SNP's heartlands tend to be in fishing and farming areas of Scotland, they have been seen as a real threat to the pro-European SNP. However, this has not yet emerged.[clarification needed]

The Green Party of England and Wales does not seek to remove the United Kingdom from the European Union, but supports a referendum on the country's membership and is also highly critical of the EU's structure.

Media attitudes[edit]

Among Britain's main national newspapers, those that take a broadly Eurosceptic line are the Daily Mail, Daily Express, The Daily Telegraph, The Sun and The Times,[27] as well as their respective Sunday sister publications. These newspapers tend to oppose further European integration and have called for ratification of the Lisbon Treaty to be subject to a referendum. In November 2010, the Daily Express became the first British newspaper to formally call for withdrawal from the EU.[28]

The Daily Telegraph and The Times are widely seen as belonging to the "quality press".[29] On the other hand, the Daily Express, The Sun, and the Daily Mail are widely considered tabloids. The Daily Express withdrew from the PCC's self-regulatory system in early 2011.[30]

The hard-left daily The Morning Star takes an international-Marxist Eurosceptic position.[citation needed] Under the editorship of Mark Seddon, Tribune, the journal of the Labour Movement, tended to give space to Eurosceptic contributors, including controversially Marc Glendening of the Democracy Movement.[citation needed] This position was defended by other centre-left Eurosceptics who also spoke on platforms with the Democracy Movement.[citation needed]

The European Union has accused the British Press of circulating inaccurate stories which it calls "Euromyths".[31] Although they usually have a grain of truth in them, they sometimes arise from misunderstandings or erroneously attribute the actions of a different European organisation, such as the Council of Europe, to the EU.[31]

The Better Off Out campaign, run by Simon Richards, is a non-partisan organisation campaigning for EU withdrawal and lists its reasons for EU withdrawal as freedom to make trading deals with other nations, control over national borders, control over UK government spending, the restoration of the British legal system, deregulation of EU laws and control of the NHS among others.[32]

Opinion polling[edit]

The assessment of attitudes to the European Union and European Parliamentary Election voting intentions is undertaken on a regular basis by a variety of opinion polling organisations, including ComRes, ICM, Populus and Survation.

Support for withdrawal[edit]

A YouGov poll in 2010 found that 47% of voters in the United Kingdom would vote to leave the European Union, while 33% would vote to stay in (with 14% undecided and 5% unwilling to vote).[33] Support and opposition for withdrawal from the Union are not evenly distributed among the different age groups: opposition to EU membership is most prevalent among those 60 and older (57%) and decreases to 31% among those aged 18–24 (with 35% of 18-24 year olds stating that they would vote for Britain to remain in the EU). Those most likely to vote for continued EU membership were those aged 25–39, at 38%, though the same percentage of 25-39 year olds would vote to leave it.[33] Finally, the results of the poll showed some regional variation: support for withdrawal from the EU is lowest in London and Scotland (at 40% and 44% respectively) but reaches 49% across the rest of mainland Britain.[33]

Whereas overall the majority of EU citizens (56%) believed that membership of the EU had benefited their country (with a significant minority (31%) believing that their country had not benefited),[34]:95–6[35]:QA7a, in Britain only 34% believed that Britain had benefited from membership, on balance.[34]:95–6 Overall, about 48% of EU citizens tended to trust the European Parliament, and about 36% did not tend to trust it,[34]:110–2[35]:QA 13.1 but in Britain trust was lowest, at 22%.[35]: QA 14.1

General attitudes to the European Union[edit]

A survey in 2009 showed that attitudes toward the European Union vary greatly between countries. Overall, the majority of EU citizens supported their country's membership: over 50% thought their country's membership was "a good thing", and only 15% thought it was "a bad thing".[34]:91–3[35]:QA6a; but while support was very high in Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain and Ireland, with about 70%–80% thinking that membership was a good thing, scepticism was high in Latvia, the United Kingdom, and Hungary, with only 25%–32% viewing membership as a good thing. In Britain, those who view the UK's membership of the EU negatively and those who view it as neither positive nor negative each constitute 32% of the population. Those who view EU membership positively make up 28%.[34]:91–3

Within Europe overall, a positive to neutral opinion of the EU dominated, with about 46% of citizens having a positive opinion and only 16% having a negative opinion; about 36% had a neutral opinion.[34]:130–3[35]: QA 10 In Britain, only 22% had a positive opinion, 33% had a negative opinion, and 38% had a neutral opinion.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lieber, R. J. (1970). British politics and European unity: parties, elites, and pressure groups. University of California Press. p. 210. ISBN 978-0-520-01675-0. 
  2. ^ "Britain shut out". BBC. 2005. Retrieved 2011-08-15. 
  3. ^ "Your favourite Conference Clips". BBC. 03-10-2007. Retrieved 2011-09-17. 
  4. ^ Peter Oborne "David Cameron may have finished off the Tories – but he had no choice", Daily Telegraph, 23 January 2013
  5. ^ Simon Heffer Like the Roman: The Life of Enoch Powell, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998, p.707-10
  6. ^ "1975: Labour votes to leave the EEC". BBC News. 1975-04-26. Retrieved 2010-05-02. 
  7. ^ "Political Science Resources: politics and government around the world". 2011-05-05. Retrieved 2011-12-11. 
  8. ^ "Political Science Resources: politics and government around the world". 2011-05-05. Retrieved 2011-12-11. 
  9. ^ a b Peter Oborne "It’s taken decades, but Labour has seen the light on Europe",, 21 April 2011
  10. ^ Katwala, Sunder (2007-09-12). "Bring Back Social Europe". London: Retrieved 2008-09-04. 
  11. ^ "30 October 1990: 'No! No! No!'", BBC Democracy Live, 31 October 2009
  12. ^ Charles C. W. Cooke "How Thatcher Came to Be Euroskeptic", National Review, 23 July 2012
  13. ^ "Tories facing identity crisis". CNN. 2001-06-08. Retrieved 2010-05-02. 
  14. ^ Castle, Stephen (2005-05-26). "Barroso survives confidence debate over free holiday with Greek tycoon". The Independent (London). Retrieved 2010-05-02. 
  15. ^ Castle, Stephen (2005-05-26). The Independent (London) |url= missing title (help). 
  16. ^ "European Election Results 2009, UK Results". BBC News. 2009-04-19. Retrieved 2010-05-02. 
  17. ^ Winnett, R. & Waterfield, B. (2011-03-31). "£300 a year: the cost to each taxpayer of funding EU". London: The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 08-06-2011. 
  18. ^ "EU 'democracy' and why we always lose as its relentless expansion continues". London: Daily Mail. 2009-11-18. Retrieved 02-08-2011. 
  19. ^ Treaty on European Union: Article 17:7
  20. ^ Hannan, Daniel (2007-11-14). "Why aren't we shocked by a corrupt EU?". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 2010-05-02. 
  21. ^
  22. ^ "Labour MPs launch anti-euro drive", BBC News, 10 April 2002
  23. ^ Patrick Wintour "TUC accuses Tory Eurosceptics of trying to undermine labour law", The Guardian, 16 January 2013
  24. ^ Daniel Knowles "Labour's new Euroscepticism should worry the Coalition",, 4 November 2011
  25. ^ Richards, S. (September 20, 2012). "Is it time for UKIP to make way for a new Eurosceptic party?". Daily Mail. Retrieved September 24, 2012. "You can tell when it's UKIP Conference time, because Nikki Sinclaire, the former UKIP MEP, can always be relied upon to pull a stunt to try to steal the limelight from her old party. This time, she's set up her own party, the "We Demand A Referendum Party"." 
  26. ^ "Rifkind looks to partnership of nations as solution for Europe". The Herald (newspaper). 24 Jan 1997. Retrieved 22 May 2014. 
  27. ^ Anderson, Peter J. (2005). "A Flag of Convenience? Discourse and Motivations of the London-based Eurosceptic Press". In Robert Harmsen, Menno Spiering. Euroscepticism: Party Politics, National Identity and European Integration. European Studies. Rodopi. p. 151. ISBN 978-90-420-1946-1. Retrieved 2009-12-17. 
  28. ^ "Get Britain out of Europe: Massive support for our crusade". 2010-11-29. Retrieved 2011-12-11. 
  29. ^ Scheller, P. R. (2000). How valid is the distinction between the popular and the quality press in Britain?. Cardiff University (School of European Studies). doi:10.3239/9783638341035. ISBN 978-3-640-86409-6. 
  30. ^ "PCC statement on Northern & Shell's withdrawal from press self-regulatory system". Press Complaints Commission. 11-01-2011. Retrieved 07-06-2011. 
  31. ^ a b "Guide to the best euromyths". BBC. 2007-03-23. Retrieved 08-06-2011. 
  32. ^ Why we should leave: The top Ten reasons we would be BETTER OFF OUT…
  33. ^ a b c "YouGov Survey Results" (PDF). YouGov. 08-09-2010. Retrieved 2014-06-13. 
  34. ^ a b c d e f "Standard Eurobarometer 71 (fieldwork June–July 2009)" (PDF). European Commission. September 2009. Retrieved 2009-11-26. 
  35. ^ a b c d e "Standard Eurobarometer 71 Table of Results, Standard Eurobarometer 71: Public Opinion in the European Union (fieldwork June - July 2009)" (PDF). European Commission. September 2009. Retrieved 2009-11-01.