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Looking Back on Britain’s European Journey


People celebrate Britain leaving the EU on Brexit day at Parliament Square in London, Britain January 31, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Looking Back on Britain's European Journey
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As February begins, Britain is no longer a member of the European Union (EU). The British withdrawal from the EU comes 3 and a half years after the country’s voters decided to leave the union.

The move, known in news reports as Brexit, was one of the biggest issues in the history of the 62-year-old political and economic partnership.

Britain was never a full EU member. It always had its own national currency, but no one actually believed it would ever leave the EU. But the idea grew within Britain’s Conservative Party, which had a small group of people who opposed EU membership.

In 2016, Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to hold a nationwide referendum, saying he wanted to settle the issue. Most people believe he wanted kill the idea.

It did not happen. In 2016, a majority of voters decided to leave, shocking Britain’s political class. It has taken several years to work out the details of the break-up, and the British people are still as divided as they were on the day of the referendum.

The city of London is home to more than 1 million EU citizens. People there voted by a large majority to stay in the union. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has linked the decision to a rise in racist and anti-immigrant abuse. He said Britain’s capital would remain “a truly…European city.”

“We will continue to welcome people from around the world, (without concern for) the color of their skin, the color of their passport or the colors of their national flag,” he added.

People in the United Kingdom (U.K.) will notice few changes immediately. The U.K. and the EU will have an 11-month ‘transition’ period. During this time, the country will continue to follow the EU’s rules while it organizes new agreements on trade, security and other issues. It is all likely to be difficult.

Many people are celebrating Brexit. However, few remember just how difficult it was for Britain to join in the first place. After World War II, Britain’s worldwide empire was dying. Its economy was failing. In 1957, it looked over at the European continent, where the newly created European Economic Community (EEC) brought in industry and investment.

In the 1960s, the British government pushed to join the EU, but was stopped two times by French President Charles de Gaulle, who had veto power.

De Gaulle had spent much of the war in London when France was under occupation. He warned the EEC members that Britain had a “deep…hostility” to Europe that could bring about the end of what was then called the “common market.” He worried that in times of trouble, Britain would always agree with the United States over its European neighbors.

The French kept the British out of the EU until 1973. Every British political party agreed with the decision to join what was now called the EU. The British government would follow the laws and the rules of the EU’s leadership on trade, security and other areas.

Soon, in March, British politicians will start the work of pulling their country out of those regulations when they begin negotiating new agreements. Already, it does not appear it will be easy.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government hopes to negotiate a deal with the EU, as well as a free trade agreement with the United States. That is likely to be unpopular with many Britons. There are already questions and worries about American food-safety issues and drug prices.

Still others remain certain that Brexit holds a better future for Britain.

In the English port of Dover, just 32 kilometers from France, retiree Philip Barry welcomed the new reality.

“My expectation is that there may be a little bump or two in the road but in the end it will even out,” he said. “Somebody once said short-term pain, but long-term gain.”

I’m Susan Shand.

The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

currency – n. the money that a country uses

transition – n. a time when change takes place

referendum – n. a special election

empire n. a large grouping of states under a single leadership

bump – n. a small raised area on a surface

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