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A Short History of Brexit

From Brentry to Backstop

By Kevin O’Rourke
18-minute read
Audio available
A Short History of Brexit: From Brentry to Backstop by Kevin O’Rourke

A Short History of Brexit (2019) explains the United Kingdom’s complicated relationship with Europe from a historical perspective. Beginning with post-war anxieties over integration and ending with the chaotic Brexit negotiations, this book tells a tale of economic agreements and political divisions that are shaping Europe as we speak.

  • Anyone trying to understand the confusing Brexit process
  • Europeans wanting to understand British-EU history
  • Leavers and Remainers wondering what went wrong

Kevin O’Rourke is a professor of Economic History at the University of Oxford and former research director of the Centre for Economic Policy Research. In 1999 he coauthored the book Globalization and History, and in 2006 coedited The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Europe.

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A Short History of Brexit

From Brentry to Backstop

By Kevin O’Rourke
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 11 key ideas
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A Short History of Brexit: From Brentry to Backstop by Kevin O’Rourke
Synopsis

A Short History of Brexit (2019) explains the United Kingdom’s complicated relationship with Europe from a historical perspective. Beginning with post-war anxieties over integration and ending with the chaotic Brexit negotiations, this book tells a tale of economic agreements and political divisions that are shaping Europe as we speak.

Key idea 1 of 11

The UK’s attitude toward European integration has always been ambivalent.

The UK voted to leave the European Union on June 23, 2016. The decision delighted some, horrified others, and shocked many – Europeans and non-Europeans alike. For a great many Britons, a UK inside the EU was the only UK they’d ever known, and leaving the Union represented either a brave new world or a much dimmer future.

But this decision didn’t appear spontaneously like a bolt from the blue. Instead, Brexit’s root causes stretch back decades. And there’s something at the very heart of it: a long-term ambivalence toward tight European integration, stemming from a tradition of disliking supranational institutions.

The EU is supranational, because member states agree to pool some of their sovereignty in institutions like the European Parliament in Brussels and the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg. This causes tensions in every country because some politicians and members of the public perceive it as giving away national power to Brussels bureaucrats. But some EU countries have felt this more keenly than others – and historically, this has been the case in the UK.

Just take the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951. This was the first step toward the establishment of the EU as its members – Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Italy and West Germany – agreed to pool their coal and steel production together and have it administered by a higher authority.

And while the UK was generally in favor of cooperating with its European neighbors, it disliked the ECSC because of its supranational nature.

What exactly didn’t it like? For one, the then-Labour government feared the Community would interfere with coal and steel imports from around the British empire, and they’d be powerless to prevent it. Also, Labour had just paid a king’s ransom to nationalize the coal industry and bring it under government control.

In the end, the UK didn’t become a member of the ECSC. And although this Community didn’t accomplish much, it did set two important precedents: First, closer European integration through supranational institutions; second, a marginalization of British influence within the process of integration.

So British attitudes toward European integration were ambivalent right from the beginning. Central to this feeling was an anxiety over losing national sovereignty – especially over Britain’s trade relationship with its disintegrating empire. And, as we’ll now see, this relationship is crucial to understanding Brexit.

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