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Why is the UK’s relationship with the rest of the EU so difficult? Essay


European countries have witnessed great political and economic integration with a Union of 27 European countries being currently in existence. This vibrant European Union can trace its roots to the post World War II years when integration among European nations was seen as necessary to end the devastating wars between neighbours.

The European Union has achieved significant growth from an initial membership of 6 nations to the current membership of 27 nations. It has emerged as a major political and economic force in the world, even threatening to compete with the traditional superpower, the United States of America.

Of the 27 members making up the European Union, the UK has set itself apart as the nation that has a problematic relationship with the EU.

While the other nations have a good relationship within the union and mostly support its policies, the UK continues to have a mostly adversarial relationship with the union. This paper will set out to discuss the major reasons for the difficult relationship between the UK and the rest of the EU.

Reasons for the Difficult Relationship

The UK is more concerned with the economic aspect of the EU than the political dimension. From the onset, the UK has been reluctant to foster stronger political ties with other European countries instead emphasizing on the economic dimension of the union. This is in contrast with the view of the other EU countries that view political goals as being equally important for the union (Chalmers 23).

The main motivation of the UK to join the union was economic and the country never strived for political integration. Margaret Thatcher who served as the British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990 expressed the concerns that Britain had regarding political integration.

Thatcher stated that British was constantly losing her independence and sovereignty as more decision-making power was transferred from the British Parliament to Brussels. The UK’s lack of commitment to political integration, which is a core aspiration for the other EU member states, has increased the difficulty in relationship between it and the EU.

Britain’s relationship with the EU is complicated by the fact that Britain was not involved in the founding of the European Union. When the six European countries, France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg, founded the EU, Britain choose to isolate herself from this union.

British did not feel the need to engage in a union with other European countries since her economy was larger than that of countries such as Germany or France. Therefore, Britain disregarded the opportunities she was given to participate in the process of establishing the EU during its formative years.

Watts and Pilkington note that because of this disregard, Britain had excluded itself from the decisive events taking place on its doorstep (21). This created a hurdle for the UK since it did not have a part in the setting up of the basic rules that govern the EU (Watts and Pilkington 127).

The formation of the Union led to an acceleration in economic growth for the member states and the six member states were going from strength to strength.

This growth persuaded Britain to finally join the Union but by then, the six founding states had shaped the community to serve their best interests. As a new arrival to the Union, Britain had to be content with adapting itself to the rules that had already been put in place by the founding club of states.

When a country chooses to be a member of the EU, it gives up some of its national sovereignty and agrees to be bound by some policies that dictate the policies of countries within the union on social, economic, and political matters. Unlike other EU countries, which are ready to give up their local powers and accept the authority of the European Court of Justice, the UK wishes to repatriate power back to Westminster.

The UK currently feels exposed to EU integration and is therefore looking for ways to limit this exposure and therefore protect itself (Chalmers 132). The UK has tried to remove itself from some of the agreements of the EU in order to increase its autonomy.

Britain’s move towards limiting the authority of EU bodies can be seen from the Conservative Parties 2009 election manifesto, which clearly highlighted their commitment to limiting the power of the European Court of Justice over Britain’s courts (Brady 3).

In line with this ambition, Britain intends to pull out of most of the EU’s crime and policing co-operation in order to avoid having the European Court of Justice undermine Britain’s common law traditions.

Brady observes that the UK wants to remain part of specific elements of EU crime and policing while disregarding those that are deemed unfavourable for the UK (2). This move has made many EU member states hostile to the UK.

Britain’s politicians have played a significant role in making the relationship between the UK and the EU difficult. Begg observes that there is little support for the EU among British politicians with the anti-Europe politicians commanding a substantial political base while those in favour of the EU having little influence in the political system of the country (1).

British parliamentarians are constantly calling for a referendum in the country to decide on whether the UK should maintain its EU membership. Public support for the European Union has always been low among Britons and this makes the relationship with other EU member states difficult since Britain is perceived to be an undedicated member.

From the onset, the British did not unanimously favour membership to the European Community and legislation in support of the European integration was voted into Britain through a small majority in favour.

The UK is constantly renegotiating the terms of its membership to the EU, an action that is frustrating the other members of the EU.

Begg notes that the UK government is carrying out an audit of its relationship with the EU with the aim of making changes to suit the interests of Britain (1). This need for renegotiation has been necessitated by the alleged disenchantment of Britons with the EU. For EU member states, such actions are seen as a move towards more exceptional ism by British instead of fostering deeper integration.

The special relationship between the UK and the US has made Britain’s relationship with the rest of the EU difficult since UK foreign policy traditionally started out by trying to build an Anglo-US position.

Britain has for decades developed a close and special bilateral relationship with the US and the two governments have constantly sort to cooperate with each other and engage in deep consultation. Niblett notes that the UK and the US has many common foreign policy objectives that they collaboratively pursue (637).

These strong bilateral relations tend to make the EU a secondary party to the US as far as UK policy makers are concerned.

The negative perception of deep US-UK relationships by EU member states can be seen by the historical attempt by French President Charles de Gaulle to veto Britain’s application to join the community in 1961 where President de Gaulle asserted that Britain’s ties with the US would be hindrance to the UK’s dedication to the European Union.

Nationalism acts as a major undermining force for Britain’s involvement in the EU. Watts and Pilkington states that Britain is the EU member that has mostly employed euroscepticism to defend national sovereignty against the encroachment of an alien Europe (110).

In 1994, Leon Brittan, a former British Commissioner expressed the unease about Brussels due to the perception that it was interfering where it should not do so and the belief that Brussels lacked sufficient democratic legitimacy.

Following the EU enlargement, the UK’s influence in the Union has reduced considerably and it is no longer able to moderate the EU debate or easily mediate with the majority of EU members. This lack of significant power in the union has increased nationalistic tendencies at the expense of involvement in the EU.

Britain’s idea of her role in the world also contributes to making the relationship between the country and the rest of the EU difficult. George suggests that due to her impressive historical legacy, the British population and its politicians feels superior to the other European countries and are therefore unwilling to relate on an equal footing with them (42).

For centuries, the British Empire significantly influenced the world with Britain having colonies on every continent at the height of her imperial era. With such a legacy, entering the EU for Britain meant a loss of some of its worldwide influence. This has created a psychological barrier that has greatly strained Britain’s relationship with the rest of the EU.

The UK has always conducted itself as an independent party to the EU instead of a member state. This perception was best articulated during Margaret Thatcher’s rule, which was characterized by increased political isolation. During this period, the UK sort to highlight her sovereignty and opposition to political and social integration with the rest of Europe.

Barely 3 years after UK’s entry into the EU, the Britons were calling for a renegotiation of their terms of entry (Bideleux 143). This move had the support of the political establishment of the country and its citizenry therefore demonstrating the outsider status that UK aspired for.

Financial considerations have made the relationship between the UK and other EU member states problematic. The UK has sort to reduce its financial responsibilities in the Europe and ensure that its financial well-being is not tied up with that of the other European nations (Eudey 15).

This stance is best demonstrated by the refusal of the UK to give up its currency, the British Pound in favour of the common currency of the EU, the Euro (Tavlas 37). The Eurozone crisis, which nearly triggered the collapse of the EURO currency, has increased the difficulty of the relationship between the UK and the rest of the EU.

This crisis has been costly to the union’s big economies with countries such as Germany and France having to shoulder enormous financial responsibilities in order to preserve the integrity of the common currency since its collapse would be devastating.

Instead of taking on a more helpful approach, Britain has continually pointed to this event as justification for her scepticism about deep economic integration in the union. Most of the EU members have perceived Britain as being unhelpful during the crisis and this has reduced the goodwill that the UK enjoys with the EU.

British officials are not very open with their EU counterparts and this has led to some of their actions been regarded as adversarial. Brady reveals that when taking actions that influence the EU, British ministers have not taken the time to articulate their position and enable the other EU members to better understand them (3).

This lack of openness has antagonized many EU member states who are at times irritated by the actions of the Britons. Without open communication between British national officials and their EU counterparts, the EU officials can only guess at the motivation behind the actions of the UK government.


Due to the numerous troubles that the UK has been having with the EU, there have been talks of Britain opting out of the union. Such a move would be detrimental to both the UK and the EU. The UK is important to the EU’s continued political and economic growth. Without its involvement, the EU would lose some of its global powers and its ability to develop a more dynamic economy.

Exclusion from the EU would also see Britain reduce itself to a second-class status in Europe and lack the power to influence the future decisions of the Union. Britain’s role in the EU is crucial to her economic well-being.

Cottret states that while most of Britain’s foreign investment comes from outside the EU, the country is regarded as the most suitable launch pad for entry into the European market (192). Britain’s withdrawal from the EU would therefore seriously damage her advantage and lead to a significant decline in foreign investment.

It is therefore in the best interest of Europe for the UK to continue being a member of the EU. However, the difficulties experienced in the relationship between the EU and the rest of the Union need to be mitigated.

For the to occur, the UK will have to concede that it cannot maintain its identity entirely and accept to adopt a European identity.

The nation will also have to accept the fact that the sovereignty of the British Parliament will be challenged and surpassed by the European Court of Justice from time to time. While this will be an infringement on the fundamental principle of the British community, it will be a small price to pay for the advantages of being in the EU.


This paper has discussed the difficult relationship between Britain and the EU. It has highlighted the many reasons that make Britain’s involvement in the EU difficult. The UK’s historical legacy makes it difficult for the country to accept narrowing its political interests primarily to the European continent.

The lack of involvement in the formative years of the Union also means that Britain did not have a say in the establishment of the core policies and rules that govern the EU.

These difficulties have mitigated the role of the UK in the union and led to speculations about its future membership to the EU. This paper has noted that if the UK leaves the EU, there will be significant loses especially for the UK. Action therefore needs to be taken to make the relationship between Britain and the EU less problematic.

Works Cited

Begg, Iain. It is entirely possible that Britain could leave the European Union within the next decade. Feb. 2012. Web.

Bideleux, Robert. European Integration and Disintegration: East and West. NY: Routledge, 1996. Print.

Brady, Hugo. Britain’s 2014 justice opt-out: Why it bodes ill for Cameron’s EU strategy. Brussels: Centre for European Reform, 2013. Print.

Chalmers, Daniel. European Union law: text and materials. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Print.

Cottret, Bernard. Civilization of Modern Britain. Vienna: Breal Publishers, 2004. Print.

Eudey, Greg. “Why Is Europe Forming A Monetary Union.” Business Review 3.1 (1999): 13-21. Web.

George, Stephen. An awkward Partner: Britain in the European Community. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.

Niblett, Robin. “Choosing between America and Europe: a new context for British foreign policy.” International Affairs 83.4 (2007): 627–641.

Tavlas, Grant. “Benefits and costs of entering the Eurozone.” CATO Journal 24.2 (2004): 34-54. Web.

Watts, Duncan and Pilkington, Colin. Britain in the European Union Today. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005. Print.

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