The UK was not a signatory of the three original treaties that were incorporated into what was then the European Communities, including the most well known of these, the 1957 Treaty of Rome, establishing the European Economic Community (EEC). The UK's applications to join in 1963 and 1967 were vetoed by the President of France, Charles de Gaulle, who said that "a number of aspects of Britain's economy, from working practices to agriculture" had "made Britain incompatible with Europe" and that Britain harboured a "deep-seated hostility" to any pan-European project.
Once de Gaulle had relinquished the French presidency in 1969, the UK made a third and successful application for membership. The question of sovereignty had been discussed at the time in an official Foreign and Commonwealth Office document. It listed among "Areas of policy in which parliamentary freedom to legislate will be affected by entry into the European Communities": Customs duties, Agriculture, Free movement of labour, services and capital, Transport, and Social Security for migrant workers. The document concluded (paragraph 26) that it was advisable to put the considerations of influence and power before those of formal sovereignty.
The Treaty of Accession was signed in January 1972 by the then prime minister Edward Heath, leader of the Conservative Party. Parliament's European Communities Act 1972 was enacted on 17 October, and the UK's instrument of ratification was deposited the next day (18 October), letting the United Kingdom's membership of the EC come into effect on 1 January 1973.
In 1975, the United Kingdom held its first ever national referendum on whether the UK should remain in the European Communities. The opposition Labour Party, led by Harold Wilson, had contested the October 1974 general election with a commitment to renegotiate Britain's terms of membership of the EC and then hold a referendum on whether to remain in the EC on the new terms. All of the major political parties and the mainstream press supported continuing membership of the EC. However, there were significant divides within the ruling Labour Party; a 1975 one-day party conference voted by two to one in favour of withdrawal, and seven of the 23 cabinet ministers were opposed to EC membership, with Harold Wilson suspending the constitutional convention of Cabinet collective responsibility to allow those ministers to publicly campaign against the government.
On 5 June 1975, the electorate were asked to vote yes or no on the question: "Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?" Every administrative county and region in the UK returned majority "Yes" votes, apart from the Shetland Islands and the Outer Hebrides. With a turnout of just under 65%, the outcome of the vote was 67.2% in favour of staying in, and the United Kingdom remained a member of the EC. Support for the UK to leave the EC in 1975, in the data, appears unrelated to the support for Leave in the 2016 referendum.
In 1979, the United Kingdom opted out of the newly formed European Monetary System (EMS), which was the precursor to the creation of the euro currency.
The opposition Labour Party campaigned in the 1983 general election on a commitment to withdraw from the EC without a referendum. It was heavily defeated; the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher was re-elected. The Labour Party subsequently changed its policy.
In October 1990—despite the deep reservations of Margaret Thatcher, who was under pressure from her senior ministers—the United Kingdom joined the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), with the pound sterling pegged to the deutschmark.
Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister in November 1990, amid internal divisions within the Conservative Party that arose partly from her increasingly Eurosceptic views. The United Kingdom was forced to withdraw from the ERM in September 1992, after the pound sterling came under pressure from currency speculators (an episode known as Black Wednesday). The resulting cost to UK taxpayers was estimated to be in excess of £3 billion.
As a result of the Maastricht Treaty, the European Communities became the European Union on 1 November 1993. The new name reflected the evolution of the organisation from an economic union into a political union. As a result of the Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force on 1 December 2009, the Maastricht Treaty is now known, in updated form as, the Treaty on European Union (2007) or TEU, and the Treaty of Rome is now known, in updated form, as the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (2007) or TFEU.
The Referendum Party was formed in 1994 by Sir James Goldsmith to contest the 1997 general election on a platform of providing a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU. It fielded candidates in 547 constituencies at that election, and won 810,860 votes or 2.6% of the total votes cast. It failed to win a single parliamentary seat because its vote was spread out across the country, and lost its deposit (funded by Goldsmith) in 505 constituencies.
The UK Independence Party (UKIP), a Eurosceptic political party, was also formed, in 1993. It achieved third place in the UK during the 2004 European elections, second place in the 2009 European elections and first place in the 2014 European elections, with 27.5% of the total vote. This was the first time since the 1910 general election that any party other than the Labour or Conservative parties had taken the largest share of the vote in a nationwide election. UKIP's electoral success in the 2014 European election has been documented as the strongest correlate of the support for the leave campaign in the 2016 referendum.
The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) was drafted in 1950, largely under British leadership, and its court (ECtHR) was established in 1953. EU institutions are bound under article 6 of the Treaty of Nice to respect human rights under the Convention, over and above for example the Law of the United Kingdom. The Court was criticised especially within the Conservative Party for ruling in favour of British prisoners obtaining the right to vote. During the referendum the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, had called for the UK to leave the ECHR
In a statistical analysis published in April 2016, Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University defined Euroscepticism as the wish to sever or reduce the powers of the EU, and conversely Europhilia as the desire to preserve or increase the powers of the EU. According to this definition, the British Social Attitudes (BSA) surveys show an increase in euroscepticism from 38% (1993) to 65% (2015). Euroscepticism should however not be confused with the wish to leave the EU: the BSA survey for the period July–November 2015 shows that 60% backed the option "continue as an EU member", and only 30% backed the option to "withdraw".
Since 1977, both pro- and anti-European views have had majority support at different times, with some dramatic swings between the two camps. In the United Kingdom European Communities membership referendum of 1975, two-thirds of British voters favoured continued EC membership. The highest-ever rejection of membership was in 1980, the first full year of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's term of office, with 65% opposed to and 26% in favour of membership.
After Thatcher had negotiated a rebate of British membership payments in 1984, those favouring the EC maintained a lead in the opinion polls, except during 2000, as Prime Minister Tony Blair aimed for closer EU integration, including adoption of the euro currency, and around 2011, as immigration into the United Kingdom became increasingly noticeable. As late as December 2015 there was, according to ComRes, a clear majority in favour of remaining in the EU, albeit with a warning that voter intentions would be considerably influenced by the outcome of Prime Minister David Cameron's ongoing EU reform negotiations, especially with regards to the two issues of "safeguards for non-Eurozone member states" and "immigration". The following events are relevant.
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