The United Kingdom of Great Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales) and Northern Ireland that together makeup the United Kingdom is almost universally considered part of Europe. Although not part of the European mainland, many, if not most, people in the UK are descendants of people who originally came from the mainland. The UK is also inextricably linked with the rest of Europe from a historical standpoint. However, the UK does have a history of distinguishing itself from the rest of Europe in politics and economics. In other words, although the UK has strong political and economic links with the rest of Europe, it has traditionally been reluctant to cede its sovereignty on both fronts to institutions that promote the greater integration of Europe, especially the European Union.
Ethno-Linguistic Links With Europe
In the 5th century CE, three Germanic peoples, the Anglos, Saxons, and Jutes began migrating from what is now northern Germany to the island of Great Britain. The term “Anglo-Saxon” is derived from the eventual blending of these Germanic peoples with native Celtic Britons and subsequent Viking and Danish invaders. Today, most of the population in the UK descends from these Anglo-Saxons. Thus, the origins of the British people and the English language lie on the European mainland.
Historical Links With Europe
England, and later on, the United Kingdom, have always played a major role in shaping the history of Europe. English involvement in European affairs dates back to the 11th century when the English controlled Denmark and Norway as part of what was known as the North Sea Empire. In 1066, England was invaded and conquered by the Normans, who were people from Normandy, a northern region of present-day France. Between the 13th and 15th centuries, England controlled significant amounts of territory in France. England’s struggles with France alone lasted until the 19th century.
Countries on the European mainland have also had a major impact on English and British history. In 1588, for example, Spain’s King Philip II sought to overthrow England’s Queen Elizabeth I, along with the nascent Protestant Church of England. The defeat of the Spanish Armada was a turning point in European history as it marked the emergence of England as a great naval power. A century later, the Netherlands’ William of Orange became the king of England following the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688.
The UK played a very pivotal role in shaping the politics and international relations of Europe from the 18th century onward. Arguably, if not for the efforts of the British during the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon Bonaparte may have maintained his conquest of Europe. The British again helped prevent the conquest of Europe by other European powers in World War I and World War II.
Despite the relentless efforts of the Nazis to conquer the UK, the British were able to prevent a full-scale German invasion of Great Britain, which would likely have ended the war and made Hitler the master of Europe. In 1944, the UK became the staging point for the eventual liberation of Europe, which began with the storming of the beaches of Normandy by Allied forces.
The UK’s Aversion To European Integration
In one of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s speeches following the end of WWII, he spoke about the prospect of a United States of Europe in the future. In a way, the speech was prophetic as the Western European countries have been on a path of integration since the 1950s. This integration began with the founding of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. However, this first step in integrating the economies of Western Europe did not include the UK, nor did the subsequent formation of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1958.
The seeds of distrust between the UK and the rest of Europe on the matter of integration were arguably first sewn in the 1960s when French President Charles De Gaulle vetoed the UK’s application to join the EEC twice. It was not until 1972 that the UK was allowed to join the emerging economic bloc, two years after De Gaulle resigned the French Presidency. During the 1980s, the Labor Party, one of the two main political parties in the UK, advocated strongly for withdrawing from the EEC. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher largely snubbed the EEC and preferred to maintain close relations with the United States.
In 1992, the EEC became the European Union. A so-called social chapter for the EU was established, as were the criteria for joining a future single European currency. The UK opted out of both these facets of the EU. In 1994, the Schengen Agreement allowing for seamless, customs-free movement between EU member countries was signed. Again, however, the UK decided to opt out, maintaining customs barriers between itself and other EU countries. In 2002, the new single European currency, known as the Euro, went into circulation, but the British maintained the use of their own currency, the Pound Stirling. The year 2011 saw the passage of a law in the UK mandating that a country-wide referendum be held in the event that the UK was to transfer any further powers to the EU.
During the 2010s, opposition to the EU in the UK grew with the rise of right-wing, anti-EU politicians, like those of the UK Independence Party. This opposition culminated in a referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU, which took place in 2016. In this referendum, 51.9% of British voters opted to leave the bloc. Thus, the wheels of the UK’s exit from the EU, nicknamed Brexit, were set in motion. Finally, on January 1, 2021, the UK officially left the EU, its single common market, and its customs union.
The UK And Europe Today
Today, the UK is one of the few European countries that are not part of the EU. Nevertheless, the UK continues to maintain strong political and economic ties with the bloc. For example, the EU remains the UK’s biggest trading partner. Furthermore, the UK continues to be part of international governmental organizations that are of great importance in Europe, including NATO and the Council of Europe, the latter of which oversees matters concerning human rights. It should also be noted that although the UK as a whole has historically been skeptical of European integration, most of this so-called Euroscepticism is concentrated in England and Wales. In contrast, most people in Scotland and Northern Ireland are generally supportive of European integration.