A Short History of Brexit
Kevin O’Rourke

A Short History of Brexit - Book Summary

From Brentry to Backstop

Duration: 32:55
Release Date: November 28, 2023
Book Author: Kevin O’Rourke
Category: Politics
Duration: 32:55
Release Date: November 28, 2023
Book Author: Kevin O’Rourke
Category: Politics

In this episode of 20 Minute Books, we're delving into "A Short History of Brexit" by Kevin O'Rourke, a riveting exploration of the United Kingdom's tumultuous affair with European integration. This insightful narrative crafts a comprehensive timeline, from the immediate post-war era that kindled concerns over sovereignty, to the fraught Brexit negotiations that gripped the modern world.

O'Rourke, a distinguished professor of Economic History at the University of Oxford and a former research director at the Centre for Economic Policy Research, wields his expertise to dissect complex economic agreements and political divisions. With acumen sharpened through noteworthy publications, including the co-authored "Globalization and History" and the co-edited "The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Europe," O'Rourke offers a sobering analysis that resonates with historians and economists alike.

Listeners eyeing a clearer perspective on the bewildering Brexit saga, Europeans seeking to grasp the historical nuances between Britain and the EU, and both Leavers and Remainers trying to pinpoint where things may have faltered, will find "A Short History of Brexit" indispensable. Join us as we unravel the historical threads that have woven the contentious yet pivotal narrative of Brexit, forever altering the geopolitical fabric of Europe.

Embarking on a Brexit journey: Understanding the past to navigate the present

In the heartbeat of modern Britain, one topic has taken center stage, creating ripples across the fabric of society — Brexit. This monumental decision has cracked dinner table conversations wide open, turned neighbor against neighbor, and sent shockwaves through the halls of Parliament. The quest to comprehend how Britain reached this point is more than a curiosity; it's essential for piecing together the nation's present state. "A Short History of Brexit" is your compass in this tangled historical web, providing insights without political jargon, accessible to us all.

At its core, this book posits that the path leading to the Brexit referendum in June 2016, and the tangle of negotiations that ensued, can only be truly grasped if we rewind and examine the events that paved the way. Whether you're a concerned citizen or an avid history buff, you'll discover:

The perspective of British governments on European unity through the ages;

The stark differences defining a soft Brexit in contrast with a hard Brexit; and

The unforeseen emergence of the Irish border dilemma as a pivotal point in determining the future of UK-EU relations.

Britain's historical hesitation towards European bonds

On the historic day of June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom took a decisive leap — opting to sever its ties with the European Union, stirring a mixture of jubilation, despair, and outright astonishment. For so many in Britain, the EU was not merely a political entity, but part of their identity, and the pivotal move to exit incited visions of both grand opportunity and impending gloom.

Yet, the seeds of Brexit were not sown overnight; they were cultivated over years of political unease and deep-rooted ambivalence. At the crux of it all is Britain's historical approach to European integration — always at arm's length, with a wary eye cast upon any institution that might dilute its sovereignty.

The European Union symbolizes a collective governance, requiring members to relinquish a degree of autonomy to institutions like the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice, a bargain that naturally raises eyebrows regarding national independence. While all EU member states grapple with this trade-off, the UK's resistance has been particularly marked throughout history.

Consider the birth of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951, which laid the groundwork for the EU as we know it. Six nations agreed to put their coal and steel production into the hands of a centralized authority — a concept Britain found unnerving due to its supranational character.

Why the cold feet? For starters, the British government at the time, helmed by the Labour Party, fretted over potential encroachments on coal and steel imports from its once sprawling empire. Plus, after the hefty expense of nationalizing the coal industry, surrendering any control was the last thing they desired.

Britain's absence from the ECSC signaled two things: their hesitation would keep them on the fringes of Europe's march toward unity, and their influence on this integration would be strikingly minimal.

Thus, the tale of Brexit begins with this early worry over sovereignty — particularly over Britain's trade ties with its now crumbling empire. This pivotal trade relationship saga, as we're about to explore, is vital for deciphering the Brexit conundrum.

How the British Empire shaped the UK's European dilemma

The British Empire, a tapestry of history that evokes varied sentiments, remains a profound element in the UK's collective memory — a source of both discomfort and nostalgia. After World War II, Britain recognized the twilight of imperial rule and gracefully handed over the reins of autonomy to its colonies. This diplomatic handover birthed the Commonwealth, a partnership of independent states united by history, fostering a robust trade network that benefited all involved.

Yet the blossoming Commonwealth relationship didn't simplify Britain's stance on European integration — it complicated it. As the nations on the continent began to draw closer, Britain's desire to retain special ties with its former colonies tugged at its sleeve.

The year was 1955, and the UK faced a significant crossroads in negotiations with the European Coal and Steel Community. Britain's proposal was a free trade zone — a tariff-less haven for goods and services amongst members, where each country could freely craft trade deals with the wider world, say with Canada or Brazil.

However, the nature of free trade zones sparked a quandary. Disparate external trade policies among members risked muddying the waters regarding tariffs on merchandise coming from beyond the zone's borders.

Let's envision Australian beef entering the UK duty-free, then facing a 10 percent tariff upon its arrival in France. To prevent duty-free Australian beef from flooding the French market, meticulous checks would need to be conducted on all UK-imported beef to ascertain its true origin — a burdensome and costly endeavor.

The alternative to this predicament, favored by the ECSC nations, was the establishment of a customs union. Here, internal tariffs would be eliminated just as in a free trade zone, but a unified external tariff would be imposed. With both France and the UK levying an identical tariff on Australian beef, there'd be no need for rigorous checks. This approach promised simplicity and economic efficiency.

Yet, this notion didn't sit well with British lawmakers, who were reluctant to relinquish the special trade status enjoyed by the Commonwealth. Thus, when the Treaty of Rome cemented the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957, the UK was notably absent. The EEC members embraced their customs union, while Britain grappled with its Commonwealth loyalties and a yearning for increased European trade — a balancing act that proved unsuccessful.

Britain’s strategic maneuver: From exclusion to the birth of EFTA

Left on the European economic sidelines, Britain realized the consequences of its absence from the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community. It was a moment that called for quick thinking and strategic reshuffling. British leaders huddled over maps and charts, seeking to forge an alliance that would tilt the balance back in their favor.

Their answer was the European Free Trade Association, or EFTA, a concept they pitched to a broad European audience. Key to this pitch was EFTA's industrial focus, as Britain's industrial might stood in contrast to the agriculture-centric economies of its European counterparts. The British idea of EFTA would strip away tariffs only on industrial goods, retaining the protective veil over its cherished agricultural imports from the Commonwealth.

Adhering to their preference for national control over international mandates, the UK proposed an EFTA that emphasized government collaboration over supranational regulation. Yet, in aiming for a deal that sang to a domestic audience, the British ignored the chorus of international concerns. Their European neighbors saw little benefit in a deal that left out agriculture and felt Britain was playing for its own team rather than for Europe's collective good. France, sensing an erosion of EEC cohesion, flatly rejected the concept.

Undeterred by European skepticism, Britain rerouted its energies to Geneva, courting the likes of Scandinavian nations, Austria, Switzerland, and Portugal. The outcome was the 1960 Stockholm Convention, which officially minted EFTA — heavily infused with British industrial interests.

Now Europe sat at a crossroads, hosting two distinct economic factions: the EEC with its customs union and the industrially-slanted EFTA. A trade rift loomed — an outcome neither desirable nor sustainable. But Britain harbored no dreams of EFTA outshining the EEC. Instead, it envisioned a more collaborative future, one that could bridge the gap between these blocs and forge a Europe that could cater to both its own and Britain’s ambitions. As we'll soon explore, this vision would set the stage for yet another dramatic turn in Britain's European journey.

Britain's quest for European trade hits a wall and leads to an EEC membership bid

The game of European politics is akin to a high-stakes sugar rush — everyone wants the sweetest deal possible. The British pursuit of economic sweetness without the bitter aftertaste of compromise has been dubbed by observers as "cakism," an approach with roots deeply embedded in the country’s past.

The free trade sanctuary Britain had crafted in EFTA was grand, yet it wasn't the key to the larger European market. Dealing with EEC-imposed tariffs wasn't part of the UK's plan, so it sought a sweeping free trade agreement encompassing both blocs. This was essentially Britain's way of striving for comprehensive European trade without the constraints that the EEC's customs union imposed.

However, such a strategy was transparent to the continent's diplomatic community, and it became abundantly clear that the EEC was not going to bend to accommodate the EFTA in the way Britain had hoped. In an unexpected move, the UK pivoted and in 1961 applied for EEC membership, tossing a proverbial political grenade into the heart of Europe.

Several stark realities fueled this application. Trade with EEC states was far more significant to the British economy than EFTA's limited market. Moreover, with Commonwealth nations pivoting towards self-sufficiency, their trade ties with Britain weakened. Topping off these concerns was the EEC’s economic surge, raising alarms that without entry, Britain might be left in the dust of a booming Europe.

This bid for membership came with a twist — a resounding "non" from across the English Channel. Charles de Gaulle, the formidable French president, feared losing influence within the EEC and suspected the UK would open the door for American interests into the heart of Europe. His dual vetoes in 1961 and again in 1967 put a temporary halt to Britain's aspirations.

Yet, opposition to de Gaulle's staunch stance built up, and his eventual resignation in 1969 shifted the political winds. Britain's persistence finally paid off, and on the dawn of a new year in 1973, the UK, along with Ireland and Denmark, secured their spots within the European Economic Community.

This monumental alliance marked a new epoch in Britain's dance with the continent — a union that decades later, would once again be put to the test as the nation reconsidered its place within the European fold.

Thatcher: From Europe’s free market champion to a harbinger of British Euroscepticism

As with an ill-fated voyage, Britain's entry into the European Economic Community in 1973 coincided with economic tides that were about to turn tumultuously. The looming global recession crashed onto shores with unrelenting force, pummeling the UK’s economy and sinking it to near the bottom of the EEC's wealth chart. It was these dire straits that necessitated an IMF bailout in 1976, setting the backdrop for the ascent of Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher, a fervent free-market advocate, ascended to power in 1979, armed with a vision to rejuvenate the British economy. With her gaze fixed on the European horizon, she championed the idea of a barrier-free European Single Market — dreaming of a space where goods could flow as freely as the Thames. To carve out this vision, a 1985 white paper outlined the obstacles: physical checkpoints at borders, technical standards not fitting like pieces of a continental puzzle, and disparate VAT rates tightening the noose on trade.

Like a conductor orchestrating a symphony, Thatcher rallied the twelve EEC states to heed the white paper's call, resulting in a chorus of agreements to dismantle these hurdles. The crescendo came in 1993 with the birth of the Single Market and the evolution of the EEC into the European Union.

Yet, as Thatcher pushed for an integrated market, her once Europhilic tune began to sour. The centralization of power in Brussels grated against her sovereign sensibilities and her skepticism towards Germany's rising influence gnawed at her. Thatcher's rousing speeches revealed a deepening Germanophobia at a time when rapprochement between East and West Germany was in the world's hopeful gaze.

As Thatcher veered towards a more hardline Europe stance, the political ground beneath her started to quake. Those once loyal began to step back, distancing themselves from her extremities. Her transformation from architect of integration to a standard-bearer for British Euroscepticism did not go unnoticed, or unchecked. In 1990, amid rising dissent from her own party ranks, the Iron Lady's grip on leadership finally rusted, leading to her political downfall.

David Cameron's pivotal gamble: Renegotiating EU membership and the fateful referendum promise

The tides of British EU relations ebbed and flowed through history until we reach another significant chapter: the tenure of Conservative leader David Cameron, elected in 2010. The stage was set for a direct link between the past and the Brexit phenomenon we witness today.

The EU's enlargement in 2004, marking a historic expansion eastward, catalyzed a surging wave of immigration into the UK. From this undertow emerged the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a vehemently anti-EU torchbearer led by Nigel Farage, capitalizing on public sentiment that soon swelled into political clout.

As Cameron geared up for the 2015 reelection campaign, the UKIP's rising influence shadowed his every move. In a strategic gambit, Cameron committed to renegotiate the UK's membership with the EU and then let the people decide its fate through a referendum — a move aimed at attracting UKIP sympathizers.

Victory was his, but victory brought with it a perilous pledge, one that would haunt his leadership: Cameron had assured voters he would bring an end to the free movement of people into Britain. However, free movement is the bedrock of the EU's founding freedoms, making Cameron's promise a near-impossible feat.

Yet, he did walk away from negotiations with a few concessions. An "emergency brake" could pause in-work benefits for EU migrants for up to seven years under exceptional circumstances; child benefits for offspring residing outside the UK were to be aligned with the cost of living in their actual country of residence; and, crucially, the UK was granted freedom from the pursuit of an "ever closer union," soothing a long-standing British fear of overcentralization in Brussels.

Armed with these concessions, Cameron returned to campaign for a 'Remain' vote in the fated referendum. But the allure of these diplomatic wins paled against the potent promises he had made — particularly the unfulfilled vow to curtail the free movement of people, bolstered by UKIP's impassioned anti-immigration narrative.

The referendum's verdict came swift and stern: a 52 to 48 percent vote in favor of leaving the EU rang out. In the aftermath, as dawn broke on a UK divided, David Cameron tendered his resignation, his political legacy indelibly marked by the seismic shockwaves of Brexit.

Unraveling the intricate tapestry of Brexit's causes

Typically characterized by their stoic pragmatism, the British populace's unexpected leap towards Brexit left the international sphere reeling in disbelief. To untangle the profound shock of this decision, one must delve into a complex web of factors, each contributing a thread to the final pattern.

The fissures began with the Great Recession of 2007-2008, which plunged nations into economic turmoil. While the United States and the United Kingdom commenced a steady ascent to recovery in 2010, courtesy of aggressive quantitative easing measures, the European Central Bank's tepid response prolonged the Eurozone's slump (Germany excepted) until 2016. In Britain, where full recovery was achieved by 2012, this sluggishness provided fertile ground for Eurosceptic perspectives to germinate.

Globalization, the accelerating engine of international trade, serves as another critical piece of the puzzle. The seamless transit of goods around the globe has indeed propelled economic prosperity and lifted millions from poverty. However, it presents a double-edged sword as it simultaneously sidelines those in less skilled labor, particularly in affluent nations. When factories shut down in the UK and jobs migrated to lower-wage countries, a sense of alienation took root among the affected workers.

Sascha Becker, Theimo Fetzer, and Dennis Novy, in their 2017 study, pointed out a palpable trend: UK regions hit hard by unemployment and with a deep-seated manufacturing lineage were more likely to cast their lot with Brexit.

The domestic canvas of the UK, too, holds significant brushstrokes of influence. David Cameron's austerity measures, introduced in 2010, aimed to curb government debt through substantial cuts exceeding £14.3 billion in the budget for public services. Consequently, a narrative unfurled among anti-EU campaigners who argued that the British were funding Brussels at the expense of domestic needs.

As the confluence of these complex factors converged, the British public stood at the crossroads and chose a path towards EU departure. What remained was the daunting yet crucial task of carving out an exit strategy — a negotiation that would mold the future contours of the UK's relationship with Europe and the wider world.

The British pursuit of a definitive split from the EU

The UK's history of trying to bake its cake and eat it has manifested yet again in its approach to Brexit negotiations, marked by a peculiar blend of ambition and ambiguity. The path Britain would take seemed initially unclear, with many anticipating a gentle uncoupling — a so-called "soft Brexit," which would keep the nation in close proximity to EU institutions, either within the Single Market or the customs union.

Yet, when Theresa May succeeded David Cameron as prime minister, any notions of a mild parting of ways evaporated. In January 2017, she took a formidable stance, her vision of Brexit unwavering: a full departure from the Single Market, rejecting free movement of people, and an exit from the customs union to independently forge global trade deals.

This "hard-line" Brexit, whilst stirring excitement amongst staunch Brexiteers, spelled complexity for several British economic sectors. Take London's financial services, a powerhouse of EU exports reliant on a regulatory harmony that a hard Brexit would disrupt. The UK government's plea for special treatment in this sphere met with the EU's stern reminder that cherry-picking is not an option for the Single Market.

May faced a conundrum: Norway's model of Single Market membership was off the table due to mandatory free movement, while a Canadian-style free trade agreement fell short of providing the privileged market access she desired. Her "red lines" all but eliminated the prospect of seamless trade with the EU.

In an effort to consolidate her position, May embarked on a bold move: a snap general election in April 2017. She posited that a Conservative landslide would fortify her Brexit bargaining stance and sideline naysayers. The outcome, however, was far from her expectations — the Tories' majority in Parliament vanished, and May's tenure hinged on a coalition with Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

This alliance brought Northern Ireland into sharp focus within the Brexit dialogue, underscoring the region's significance in the intricate tapestry of negotiations that would shape the future of the UK’s relationship with the European Union.

The Irish border conundrum in the Brexit saga

Brexit’s complexities took on new dimensions when the thorny issue of the Irish border emerged as a pivotal element in negotiations. The historic division of Ireland into the predominantly Catholic Republic of Ireland (ROI) and the Protestant-majority Northern Ireland (NI), still part of the UK, set the stage for decades of sectarian strife, culminating in the Troubles — a bloody conflict over the island's future.

The hard-won peace, enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, bridged divisions and established a framework for coexistence and possible future reunification. It granted those born in Northern Ireland the right to dual citizenship — British or Irish — without the need for a choice. Central to upholding this peaceful accord was the dismantling of security checkpoints and the softening of the border — a direct product of both nations' EU membership, sharing the customs union and Single Market privileges.

The dilemmas Brexit posed threatened to unravel this tapestry of peace, with the prospect of a "hard" border — replete with customs and security checks — sending shivers through communities haunted by memories of past conflicts.

Both the UK and the ROI, keen to preserve the soft-border success story, faced a puzzle that seemed unsolvable under the constraints of May’s staunch Brexit approach. How could you maintain the invisible border once Northern Ireland exited the EU framework that had made it possible?

Fears of border tensions resurfacing prompted the ROI, backed by the EU, to insist on a "backstop" — a safeguard stipulating that Northern Ireland's regulations would stay synchronized with the EU's, thus avoiding the need for physical border infrastructure. This proposal incensed many Brexiteers, who saw it as a betrayal of UK sovereignty. Yet, given the circumstances, the proposal was arguably the lesser of two evils.

In December 2017, the UK acquiesced, albeit reluctantly, documenting that the backstop would serve as a default unless a superior solution materialized. The hope of the UK government lay in striking a trade accord with the EU that would render border checks obsolete. Yet the specter of the backstop loomed large, a reminder of the intricate balancing act demanded by Brexit — preserving peace on one hand while navigating the political minefield of sovereignty on the other.

May's Chequers blueprint ignites a storm within her own ranks

The quest for a seamless Irish border eventually led to the EU's proposition of an Irish backstop, an unpalatable notion for many in the UK, implicating internal border controls against the ethos of British sovereignty. Seeking to thwart an uprising within her party, Prime Minister Theresa May conceived a temporizing compromise: a UK-wide backstop that would bind the entire nation to the customs union until a more tailored UK-EU trade deal could be hashed out.

In July 2018, amidst the rolling fields of the Chequers estate, May gathered her cabinet ministers to carve out this fresh approach — a strategy that would form the backbone of the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement, dubbed a "Jersey-minus" option, echoing the customs mechanisms of the British Crown dependency, Jersey.

This proposed deal was set to perform a delicate balancing act. It would extricate the UK from the EU’s free movement liberties — fulfilling one of May's central promises — all the while maintaining a buffer against a physical Irish border. Trade, however, was the snag: by remaining within the EU customs union, Britain would forfeit its capacity to architect independent trade pacts.

When a draft of this Withdrawal Agreement saw the light on November 13, 2018, it seemed for a moment as though a resolution had emerged from the fog. However, the peace was fleeting. Within the Conservative party's ranks, discord surged to the forefront. The hard-line Brexiteers perceived the continued Single Market alignment for Northern Ireland as a sovereignty compromise too great to bear, and the inability to negotiate stand-alone trade deals as equally unforgivable.

As the clock ticked down to the crucial December 2018 parliamentary vote on her Chequers plan, May confronted the stark potential of a crushing defeat and postponed the vote, a move that immediately sparked a no-confidence motion within her party. Barely clutching her leadership with a 200 to 117 vote, May's afflictions offered little healing to her reputation.

At the dawn of 2019, the UK, much like a ship trapped at a navigational impasse, found itself without a clear course forward. The Brexit narrative, so entangled with the UK's identity and future, was yet unfinished — its history ink still flowing on the parchment of our contemporary moment.

Understanding Brexit: A journey through history, division, and diplomacy

To truly grasp the essence of Brexit and the seismic referendum that took place in June 2016, one must navigate through the corridors of history where Britain's relationship with European integration has wavered between desire for economic unity and a staunch resistance to relinquishing sovereignty. This ambivalence towards the EU has not only been a governmental stance but has also reflected the divided sentiment among the British populace.

The push towards an EU exit rippled through various factors, both domestic and global. The Great Recession, the double-edged sword of globalization, and contentious austerity measures highlighted the tensions within Britain and amplified Eurosceptic voices.

As the Brexit negotiation labyrinth unfolded, the complexities of the Irish border emerged as a thorn in the side of decisive progress, with the EU and UK grappling with the implications for the peace-tethered Good Friday Agreement.

Theresa May’s government, seeking a bold break from the EU, found itself ensnared in party in-fighting, an array of red lines, and the elusive pursuit of frictionless trade. The Chequers plan — May’s gambit to reconcile the jigsaw pieces of EU membership rights and British sovereignty — faced stern resistance, bringing to light the deep-set divides and unrelenting challenges ahead.

In conclusion, Brexit serves as a stark reminder of the intricate relationship the UK has had with its European neighbors — a relationship fraught with economic aspirations, cautious politicking, and the perpetual quest for autonomy. As Britain continues to chart its course, the history of its departure from the EU is one still etched in uncertainty, with significant pages yet to be written.

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