This article was written before the 2016 Brexit vote about whether the U.K. should stay in the EU. The history of Brexit helps give perspective on today.
“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
On June 23, 2016, how will voters answer this question? Polls suggest that the referendum outcome is too close to call, but the large, early lead for staying has evaporated, and a British exit—or “Brexit”—is a distinct possibility.
The “sceptred isle” has long had a checkered relationship with the Continent. Five centuries ago Henry VIII’s version of a “Brexit” was to renounce Roman Catholicism and divorce Catherine of Aragon. Sheltering in “splendid isolation” behind the protection of the English Channel, Britain has always resisted continental threats, from the Spanish Armada to the German Luftwaffe.
At other key moments in history the British intervened in continental affairs by landing armies across the channel and paying a dear price in lives and resources to tip the scales against Philip II, Louis XIV, Napoleon, the kaiser and Hitler.
Britain joined the European community, but not right away
French foreign minister Robert Schuman promoted the idea of a European community as a means to make war between France and Germany “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible.”
Britain was not among the six Western European nations that formed the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, and in the 1960s French President Charles De Gaulle vetoed its membership, accusing Britain of a “lack of interest” and “deep-seated hostility” toward European construction.
With its post-war economy in shambles and its empire shriveled, Britain was widely perceived as “the sick man of Europe.” But in 1973 the United Kingdom was allowed to join the expanding union, then called the European Economic Community (EEC), and, in a referendum two years later, approved staying in the EEC by a two-to-one margin.
The bloc has since ballooned in scale and ambition, morphing from 12 member states in the EEC to a 28-nation bureaucratic behemoth (now called the European Union or EU) with its own currency, constitution, law, court and parliament. Though Britain opted out of the single European currency, or euro, the EU’s regulatory machinery is tightly woven into just about every aspect of national life in Britain.
Different visions for Europe
“Eurosceptics” mourn the loss of freedoms and the imposition of burdensome EU economic rulings, but this has all been by design toward an “ever closer union.”
The architects and visionaries of the European Union, according to Jeremy Rifkin, author of The European Dream, had a strategy “to move incrementally with technical and economic measures designed to increasingly bring member states together in a seamless, interdependent, commercial web of relationships. Each small step of economic integration would result in a slight, sometimes imperceptible erosion of their national sovereignty. None of the steps alone, they figured, would be enough to arouse the ire of member states and threaten the furtherance of the Union. The upshot of this piecemeal strategy would be that ‘one day the national governments would awaken to find themselves enmeshed in a “spreading web of international activities and agencies,” from which they would find it almost impossible to extricate themselves’” (pp. 203-204).
Echoes and warnings from Churchill and Thatcher
As Britain grapples with its yes/no decision, many are referring back to the haunting words of its two greatest 20th-century political figures, Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill.
Churchill, who coined the term “United States of Europe,” envisioned the common market as the only way to prevent a repetition of war. But as early as 1930, writing in the Saturday Evening Post, Churchill declared that “we have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe but not of it. We are linked, but not comprised. We are interested and associated, but not absorbed.”
Margaret Thatcher was also gifted with a keen understanding of the unchanging character of human nature and geopolitics. Though a pragmatic proponent of European trade, she predicted that the European Union would end in tears.
In her final book, Statecraft, she wrote: “That such an unnecessary and irrational project as building a European superstate was ever embarked upon will seem in future years to be perhaps the greatest folly of the modern era. And that Britain, with her traditional strengths and global destiny, should ever have been part of it will appear a political error of historic magnitude” (p. 410).
The crisis behind the Brexit referendum question
Even following the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels, European togetherness is a chimera, a fair-weather construction, unable to cope when the storms strike. The twin issues of soaring immigration and security have replaced finance and sovereignty concerns as paramount.
“The flood of migrants,” according to a Wall Street Journal editorial, has “reinforced British perceptions of a Continent that has lost control of its borders, lost sight of its European identity, and allowed itself to be overrun by dangerous foreigners. Add decades of European economic mismanagement and a broad sense that the euro has been a costly failure, and it makes for a potent political case for the U.K. to leave.”
While the U.K. is not a member of the 26-country, border-free Schengen Area, the mishandling of the migrant crisis leaves Britain exposed to immigration orders from Brussels.
Reasons for Brexit: is Britain better off outside the EU?
It is difficult to work out a balance sheet of losses and gains to Britain’s membership in the world’s largest trading bloc. Britain hands over a net contribution of £9.8 billion annually to the EU—a small fraction of its gross domestic product (GDP)—and in turn receives zero-tariff access to a market of 500 million people.
Chancellor George Osborne’s Brexit forecast of “an economic shock” is underpinned by a Confederation of British Industry (CBI) analysis that leaving the European Union could blow a £100 billion ($144 billion) hole in the U.K. economy and cost up to 950,000 jobs by 2020.
Brexit proponents say the choice is either subjugation or sovereignty, predicting virtually no economic consequences other than what former chancellor Nigel Lawson dismissed as “some short-term hassle.”
Reasons for Brexit: an escape from jail?
The greater fervor and determination is certainly being shown by those wanting out. Six cabinet ministers and more than 100 Conservative Party parliamentarians are supporting the “leave” campaign. The charismatic London mayor, Boris Johnson, has become the galvanizing standard bearer, mocking the “merchants of gloom” for drip feeding a diet of apocalyptic horror stories of Britain’s future outside the union.
Johnson trumpets the message of a “fantastic new future” outside the EU—one removed from haggling with 27 different capitals, from Paris to Prague—where Britain could be the hub of new trading arrangements around the world.Johnson trumpets the message of a “fantastic new future” outside the EU—one removed from haggling with 27 different capitals, from Paris to Prague—where Britain could be the hub of new trading arrangements around the world.
He stresses that Britain’s continued presence in the dysfunctional EU would lead to an erosion of sovereignty and has compared an exit from the EU to a prison escape.
London’s mayor is not the only one with a rosy perspective of a Brexit. “Within a few years,” according to a business editorial in The Telegraph, “Britain could be at the head of a network of at least six or seven self-governing but closely integrated countries; these would surely include Norway, Switzerland and Iceland, but others would join in too, including perhaps some non-euro nations such as Denmark and even the Netherlands, an increasing anti-EU country.”
Brexit: a giant “leap in the dark”?
Prime Minister David Cameron is spearheading the “remain” campaign, declaring “a vote to leave is the gamble of the century” and a giant “leap in the dark.”
If it leaves, Britain would need to cobble together more than 100 new trade agreements while still being enmeshed in European rules. As reported in The Telegraph, German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble warned that Britain would have to pay for the privilege of accessing the single market. “It would be extremely hard or even impossible to negotiate a special deal in a post-Brexit atmosphere.”
Voting to stay, according to Cameron, would give Britain more leverage and rulemaking authority from the inside, rather than leaving Britain shut out of key European markets that accounted for 45 percent of U.K. exports and 53 percent of imports in 2014.
Another risk that has business leaders panicked is London’s status as a global financial capital. The city of London accounts for 10 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, 12 percent of the treasury’s tax receipts, and is the largest exporter of wholesale financial services in the world. Any loss to the financial sector—home to over 250 foreign banks, all of whom use London as a springboard to the single market via Britain’s EU membership—would send tremors throughout the U.K.
In addition to strong business backing, Cameron is counting on voters in their 20s and 30s—the so-called EasyJet generation—who are more pro-EU because they take much greater advantage of cheap flights, easy communication and the ability to live and work across Europe. A recent YouGov poll shows 75 percent of under-25s would vote to remain. By contrast, almost 70 percent of over-65s wanted to leave the EU.
First Brexit, then breakup of the EU or the U.K.?
What would Brexit do to the EU? According to The Guardian, “The Italian finance minister, Pier Carlo Padoan, said that Britain’s departure could cause a domino effect in which Eurosceptic parties and electorates feel emboldened, while the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, claimed an out vote would be ‘poison’ to the British, EU and world economies.”
The referendum could lead to endless other referendums. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair says it “would completely change the dynamic around Scottish independence” since the Scots are more supportive of EU membership than the English. The peace process in Northern Ireland and the status of Gibraltar might also be imperiled in a Brexit chain of events.
The future of Europe
The Brexit vote will not be the end of the story. British departure would shave the GDP of every nation in the bloc for years to come. Even with a vote to stay, tensions inherent in Britain’s membership will remain and leave scars that may never heal.
Britain has long been a counterweight to Germany, with London the seat of the European financial system and Berlin the economic capital of Europe. The U.K. is the second largest contributor to the EU after Germany, and it is a magnet for foreign direct investment.
Following a Brexit, German dominance of the EU would further intensify, shifting the center of Europe farther east, perhaps to include the newer markets and the military might of Russia.
“Whatever happens,” observed Timothy Ash in The Guardian, “the result is likely to be a triumph of fear over fear. The question is: which fear will prevail? The fear of being dragged further into a nascent European superstate, with the attendant loss of sovereignty, democracy, identity and control of national borders? Or that of being left out in the cold, like Norway or Switzerland, with the rules set by an EU in which you have no voice?”
The sure words of the Bible—concerning both history and prophecy—give insight into where all this is headed.
Bible prophecy shows an end-time economic and military colossus composed of 10 core nations (Revelation 17:12-15; 18:9-19) that will be of one mind (Revelation 17:13). Other prophecies show this will not include Britain.
This power will actually take many Israelite-descended nations (see “12 Tribes of Israel Today: Who Are They?”) into captivity during a time known as “Jacob’s trouble” (Jeremiah 30:3-9, 14-15; see “Jacob’s Trouble: What Is It?”) just prior to the end of this age.
Watching sobering world events unfold should motivate each of us to examine our spiritual condition in the light of God’s Word.
Learn more about end-time events and how we should respond in our free booklet The Book of Revelation: The Storm Before the Calm.
For Brexit news since the 2016 vote, see out blog posts:
- “The British Chose ‘Brexit’” (June 23, 2016).
- “Could Brexit End the United Kingdom?” (Jan. 7, 2019).
- “After Brexit: Is the European Dream Still Possible?” (updated Jan. 3, 2020).