EU Withdrawal

What is EU Withdrawal?

Since the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community under the Treaty of Paris in 1951, no member state has ever left the European Union or its predecessor bodies.

Although in 1982, Greenland – an overseas territory of Denmark and not a member state as such – did leave the EU, following massive opposition to the common fisheries policy and growing demands for home rule.

A draft treaty establishing a constitution for Europe, published in June 2003 by the convention on the future of Europe, made explicit provision for how a member state could go about leaving the EU.

Article 59 stated that a member state must first inform the European council, which will produce guidelines under which the "Union" (the EU Commission) will negotiate a withdrawal agreement. This agreement is then subject to approval by the European parliament and the council of ministers.

That member state would then cease to be subject to EU law either from the date stated in the withdrawal agreement or two years after the notification date.

A former member state seeking to rejoin the EU would be obliged to go through the same admission process as any wholly new candidate country.

Article 59 was not a controversial element of the draft treaty, but this constitutional treaty was never ratified. However, the Lisbon Treaty which came into force on 1st December 2009 does contain a voluntary withdrawal clause, which recognises for the first time that the member states may always withdraw from the Union if they so wish.


The UK joined the European Union, then the European Economic Community (EEC) in January 1973. The decision, taken by Conservative prime minister Edward Heath, was extremely controversial and caused widespread division.

Labour's 1974 election manifesto promised a referendum on membership of the EEC. The party itself was deeply divided on the issue. A party conference held in April 1975 voted by a majority of around two to one to leave the EEC, with almost 3.7 million votes cast against membership (including the bloc votes of 39 of 46 affiliated unions). Those on the left of the party, notably Tony Benn and Michael Foot, were at the forefront of the anti-EEC campaign.

In the event, prime minister Harold Wilson, who proclaimed a pragmatic support for membership, committed the government to campaigning for a "yes" vote to the referendum question, "'Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?" Acknowledging the extent of divisions, he allowed ministers to campaign against the government line, and seven members of his cabinet did so.

Nonetheless, on June 6th 1975, 67 per cent of those participating voted in favour of the EEC. The majority of those who had campaigned against the UK's membership admitted defeat, and undertook to accept the decision. However, by the end of the 1970s, the anti-EEC faction had achieved dominance in the party, and it would be well into the 1990s before Labour's current pro-EU stance reasserted itself, although many on the "old left" are still deeply opposed to EU membership.

The introduction of the Common Fisheries Policy was a highly divisive measure, which many sceptics argued showed the true nature of the EU, insofar as the disputes surrounding coastal waters and "quota hopping" that soon followed demonstrated the degree to which UK sovereignty had been subjected to EU law. For the Danish territory of Greenland, however, it was intolerable. The territory had voted in a 1972 referendum against entry by more than 70 per cent, but had since obtained home rule in 1979. Provisions for Greenland to withdraw from the EU were negotiated following a second narrow "no" referendum result in February 1982. Following agreement of the Greenland Treaty of withdrawal on March 13th 1984, Greenland formally ceased to be part of the EU in early 1985, but retains trade privileges under its "overseas country and territory" status.

From the late 1980s, a new strain of hostility to the EU began to develop. The EU had made very little progress during the 1970s and early 1980s in carrying out trade and economic unification, due to weak decision-making. The series of treaties from the 1987 Single European Act have addressed this, with the result that economic, monetary and political union have proceeded rapidly.

In this context, many of the same fears expressed by the left in the early 1970s have re-emerged as concerns of the right. The Maastricht treaty proved to be intensely divisive for the Conservative party, with many, including the future leader Iain Duncan Smith, refusing to support the highly vulnerable Major government in ratifying it. Although many "eurosceptics" remained within the Conservative party, others left. This issue remains the deepest fault-line in the party, and many grassroots and even parliamentary members are known more or less publicly to desire withdrawal.

In 1997, the Referendum party, financed and led by Sir James Goldsmith, put up many candidates in the general election in protest at official Conservative line, and demanded a referendum on British EU membership. Although no candidates were successful, it is widely accepted that the party took votes away from the Conservatives, contributing to Labour's victory. In the aftermath of the election, however, which was followed shortly afterwards by Sir James' death, the party fragmented, with many of its supporters and candidates moving to the UK Independence party (UKIP).

Winning three European parliament seats in 1999, and nine seats in 2004, and putting up large numbers of candidates in subsequent elections, UKIP is today the only mainstream political party in Britain actively calling for withdrawal from the EU.

The Coalition on coming to power in May 2010 pledged to ensure that the British government would be a "positive participant" in the EU, playing a "strong and positive role", with the goal of ensuring that all European nations were "equipped to face the challenges of the 21st century – global competitiveness, global warming and global poverty."


The UK's withdrawal from the EU is a major political issue, but like capital punishment, it remains steadfastly popular with large sections of the public despite being something of a "dirty word" in Westminster-based political circles. The extent to which the notion is viewed as being on the margins of mainstream political debate is evidenced in the Labour party's frequent accusations that the Conservatives' sceptical or hostile position with regard to EU integration masks a desire to leave the EU, used as a slur. Both sides in this debate are prepared to use negative polemics about the other, given the seriousness with which each treats their case.

The debate, in some ways, goes to the heart of the question of the UK's future place in the world – either as an independent power or as part of a larger bloc of powers. What each of these states would involve is hotly contested by the disputants.

Supporters of withdrawal claim that the EU is on an inexorable path towards full political union, in which the UK would be subsumed as simply a region, to the detriment of British freedom, democracy, history and culture. Many also object to Franco-German domination of the union, its apparent hostility to the USA, its alien legal system, its apparent resistance to the "Anglo-Saxon" economic model and its high-cost, strongly social-democratic social model.

They argue that the UK would be impoverished politically, economically and culturally by being part of an EU "superstate". UKIP claims that leaving the EU would generate a £25 billion "independence dividend" in reduced contributions to EU funds.

Supporters of the UK's membership of the EU argue that Britain would have little or no influence in the world on its own, and point to substantial economic benefits accrued and accruing from membership. They also deny claims made by their opponents about freedom, democracy and culture, pointing to the experience of EU integration to date.

In September 2011, a petition calling for a referendum on EU membership, signed by 100,000 people, was handed into Downing Street. The Commons subsequently debated a motion proposing that a national referendum be held on whether the UK should stay in the EU, leave the EU, or re-negotiate the terms of its membership.

All three of the main parties urged their MPs to vote against the proposal, arguing that the middle of an economic crisis was not the right time to hold a referendum. The motion was defeated by 483 votes to 111.

However, a campaigning group called the People's Pledge has said it aims to "force a referendum on Britain's EU membership" and to this end is planning to stage a series of public votes on the issue across the UK during 2012.


Between 1977 – 2011, when asked ‘If there were a referendum now on whether Britain should stay in or get out of the European Union, how would you vote?’ those saying ‘stay in’ ranged between 26% in 1980 and 63% in 1991, our most recent indicator shows 49% say ‘get out’.

However, when asked ‘which of these — Europe, the Commonwealth or America — is the most important to Britain?’ – Europe has been the clear winner, peaking at 57% in 1993 compared with the USA which achieved a high point of 34% (2003), and the Commonwealth which reached 26% in 1986.

When the 27 EU member states were polled in spring 2010, distrust of the EU was most prominent in the United Kingdom (64%) compared with Germany (51%) and France (50%).

With regard to perceptions of the EU, in the 27 EU member states asked, the UK was also the only country whose “negative” image scores outweighed “neutral” or “positive” scores (negative image: 39%, neutral image: 38% and positive image: 19%).

In September 2011, when asked if ‘as a citizen would you say that you would be better protected in the face of the current crisis if the UK adopted measures and applied them individually?’ 60% in the UK said yes compared with France 34%, Italy 29%, Germany 27% and Spain 22%.

Source: Ipsos MORI – December 2011


"Commissioners in Brussels dictate 75% of our laws. None can be repealed by Parliament. We cannot vote for those who make these laws – we cannot remove them.
"The British people must decide through an immediate referendum if we stay in the EU or to come out and claw back independent power over our national life. We do not have to be ruled by this regime to work with our European neighbours who depend on us for their markets."

UKIP – 2012

"The Government believes that Britain should play a leading role in an enlarged European Union, but that no further powers should be transferred to Brussels without a referendum. This approach strikes the right balance between constructive engagement with the EU to deal with the issues that affect us all, and protecting our national sovereignty."

The Coalition: Our programme for government.