EU country briefing: UK and Brexit

The following article is a part of a series of brief country profiles for the EU-28 ahead of the European elections in May.

Britain was never supposed to participate in the European Parliament (EP) elections as its planned exit from the European Union was originally to be concluded on March 29, well ahead of the May poll.

Unlike many other member states, the UK never held a referendum before joining the EU (or the European Community) but it organised two afterwards.

The first was held after a change in government two years after accession, in 1975. It was easily won, by over two in three votes. The second referendum, which took place in June 2016, appears to have changed the country’s fate decisively, although exactly how remains unclear.

The current Conservative government of Prime Minister Theresa May has repeatedly failed to secure parliamentary backing for her EU exit deal, in the end winning another deadline extension until 31 October 2019.

This extension necessitated participation in the European elections, despite prior plans to redistribute a reduced number of MEP seats to other member states upon Britain’s exit.

Before the referendum, Britain was one of the more diligent member states in terms of thoroughly implementing EU legislation. It scored ahead of various typically esteemed exemplars of European integration such as Spain, Germany or Belgium. Indeed, Britain did a better job of implementing EU decisions than its own Brexit vote.

Regardless, with its and opt-outs, Britain always struggled to shake off Winston Churchill’s description that “Britain is in Europe,  but not of it”.

However, other member states have arguably had more tense relations with the EU (at least prior to the Brexit vote). French recalcitrance culminated in the “Empty Chair Crisis” in 1965 under President Charles de Gaulle, whereby France simply abstained from the pre-EU EEC institutions.

De Gaulle, through the Fouchet Plans, then suggested scrapping the European institutions and setting up a looser confederation instead.

The UK’s population of around 66 million is the EU’s third highest, corresponding to 73 MEPs. These could tip the EP balance of power towards any major grouping.

Historical overview

In his history of post-war European integration, the British economic historian Alan Milward described how only Britain and West Germany had the potential to become Western Europe’s manufacturing hubs in 1945.

Reluctant to accept the status of being merely a European power, Britain opted out of the post-war European Communities (EC). Instead, it attempted to utilise its decrepit imperial authority to remain a global power.

As Churchill put it: “If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea”. This is reminiscent, for example, of some Brexiteers’ appeals for a post-Brexit “Global Britain”.

Throughout the ensuing decades, the British Commonwealth registered anaemic economic growth. Meanwhile, the EC boomed as capitalist Germany became Western Europe’s workshop,  taking over the role of mid- and late nineteenth century Britain.

In 1950, Britain’s manufactured exports estimated 25% of the world share. By 1970, the figure was under 11%. British GDP grew at 2.7% per year over this period, versus France’s 4.6%, Italy’s 5.85% and West Germany’s average of 7.75%. This culminated in the Italian economy temporarily overtaking Britain’s in the 1980s.

However, while Britain’s rulers initially chose not to join the European project, and instead formed the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), they quickly changed their minds. Apart from wanting to profit from the EC’s economic prosperity, there was also a strong political argument for joining the European project, following Britain’s international humiliation in the 1956-57 Suez Crisis.

Aware of its decline, and the increasing importance of the EC, it was then Prime Minister Harold Macmillian who stated in 1959 that “for the first time since the Napoleonic era, the major continental powers are united in a positive economic grouping, with considerable political aspects, which might cut Britain out of Europe’s main markets and decisions”.

Thus, Britain wanted to avoid political marginalisation by joining the EC and influence its course instead. However, it was locked out for a decade by France’s President de Gaulle through two vetoes in 1963 and 1967.

After opting out and then being locked out, Britain finally joined in 1973 under Conservative leadership. Membership was confirmed by the 1975 referendum held under a Labour government, with the mainstream of both the Conservatives and Labour backing membership. Together with fringe right-wing figures like Enoch Powell, most anti-Europe sentiment came from the left of the Labour party.

Today’s Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is still reluctant to campaign to stay in the EU: in 1975 he dubbed the then EC and common market a “capitalist conspiracy against workers”. Nonetheless, most of the mainstream left has long been converted to the pro-European cause – dating back to Jacques Delors wooing of the British trade union movement in the late 1980s –  with Euroscepticism now largely a preserve of the right.

In any case, following Britain’s EC membership in 1973, the European economy stalled as Brexiteers claim. After missing out on Western Europe’s phenomenal decades-long boom, Britain bound itself up with the EC just as Europe’s share of the world economy started its march towards relative decline.

A key product of this historical process is the structure of EU trade, with Britain and Germany standing out in terms of their balance of payments. The former typically registers a huge trade deficit (consistently the largest in absolute terms) with the EU, while the latter registers a gargantuan surplus with the EU.

Germany has among the world’s largest trade surpluses, with two-thirds derived from its EU trade. In the post-war era, Germany has only registered a deficit in the decade between national unification and the launching of the euro, in the 1990s. This explains some of Britain’s historic unease within the EU, having predominantly viewed the European project through an economic lens.

Indeed, the most forceful arguments to remain are made on economic grounds rather than on federalist appeals. A key reason that the controversial “ever closer union” clause –which Britain opted out of prior to the 2016 referendum– remains in the EU treaties is because of Britain.

When the Maastricht Treaty (1992/1993), which created the EU, was being negotiated, proposals were made to replace this with “federalism”, only to be rejected by British negotiators, leaving the “ever closer union” clause, as a legacy of Britain’s opposition.


Unlike Britain’s national electoral system, which, since the Second World War, has usually delivered a two-party system of Labour and the Conservatives, the proportional representation list system used since 1999 had provided a platform for minor parties. Ironically, the main beneficiary have been Eurosceptic parties – primarily UKIP – whose momentum, in part, led to the Brexit vote.

After strong performances in 2004 and 2009, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) came first in the 2014 EP elections. Save for a brief power struggle with Robert Kilroy Silk in 2004, UKIP  rapidly became a vehicle for Nigel Farage. Farage formed the Brexit Party earlier this year, and appears to have swallowed UKIP in the process. This explains the complex political matrix, which we will survey below.

Having presided over the failure to deliver Brexit, Theresa May’s governing Conservative Party will be severely punished at the polls. Many grassroots activists are likely to boycott the campaign in protest over the very existence of the EP elections.

The Conservatives will struggle to gain more than 10% of the vote and a handful of MEPs for the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). This resembles a dramatic fall compared to the 19 MEPs it secured in 2014, with 23.1% when it finished third behind UKIP and Labour, a poor result at the time.

Labour’s equivocation of whether to support a second referendum will hurt its performance.  This could prompt some pro-remain Labour voters to either boycott the election as well or vote for a clear(er) “Remain” party.

At the same time, it’s insistence – if the UK is to leave the EU – on a ‘soft Brexit’, will limit its appeal to Brexit supporting voters in its northern heartlands. The party will expect to obtain between 15 and 20 MEPs for the Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), on around 20% of the vote,  slightly down on its 2014 result.

Turnout in European elections has always tended to be low, favouring Eurosceptics who were more likely to vote. In 2014, 35.6% voted. Although overall turnout might now rise, in part because many regard the European polls as a proxy for a second referendum, it is hard to estimate who will benefit.

This brings us to the political parties that have a clearer stance on Brexit. The one set to profit the most is Farage’s Brexit Party, which is set to win the popular vote at 30%.

This would be a repeat of 2014’s EP elections when Farage led the UK Independence Party (UKIP) to victory with 26.6% of support.

After the 2016 Brexit referendum, Farage quit as UKIP leader, before quitting entirely in 2018 over the more overtly English nationalist and Islamophobic stance taken by new leader Gerard Batten, courting figures such as the English Defence League’s former leader, Tommy Robinson.

UKIP is currently polling at 4-5% and could be entirely wiped out.

The Liberal Democrats have long been Britain’s most prominent pro-EU political party. However, their influence diminished drastically ahead of the Brexit referendum, after they suffered heavy losses in the 2015 general election that followed five years as part of an unpopular coalition government with the Conservatives, where they were seen as having betrayed several key promises.

This has created a vacuum that has made formations such as Change UK possible. But a strong performance in local elections in early-May, where the Liberal Democrats gained over 700 local councillors has given the party fresh momentum and they are currently polling at close to 15%.

Change UK, formed by eleven defecting MPs from Labour and the Conservatives, also backs a second referendum like other pro-EU parties (which failed to form an alliance). With former Labour MP Chuka Umunna as its spokesperson, it is currently polling at around 8%, potentially enough to win several MEPs, but may struggle to appeal outside London.

Meanwhile, the Green Party has also experienced a recent surge, making strong gains in the local elections and (echoing many other Green parties across Europe) over climate change fears and its clear stance in opposing Brexit. It could score 10% support nationwide and return a handful of seats for the Greens–European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA).

In Scotland, the governing Scottish National Party (SNP) will comfortably top the poll. Welsh Nationalist party Plaid Cymru and the Northern Irish Sinn Féin, Ulster Unionist and Democratic Unionist Party are expected to gain a single MEP seat.

Except for the DUP, (Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party currently propping up the Conservatives’ minority government), all these parties forthrightly oppose Brexit. The DUP’s long-standing Euroscepticism dates back to its founder and former leader Ian Paisley.

Daniel Matthews-Ferrero is a Marie Curie PhD researcher in the POLITICO programme at the University of Aberdeen, focusing on contemporary Western European populism. He holds a Master’s degree in European Interdisciplinary Studies from the College of Europe.

Robert Steenland works as an evaluation and research consultant in EU policies, as well as an analyst in EU politics.  He holds a double degree master in European Governance.

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