After World War II, Britain played a key role in protecting western Europe, keeping troops in West Germany and helping to set up Nato. The foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, was also an early supporter of European integration. In 1951 he said: “My policy is to be able to take a ticket at Victoria station and go anywhere I damn well please!”
However, Britain declined the opportunity to join the European Coal and Steel Community that same year, because of fears it would break up Britain’s steel industry, which had been nationalised.
As a result, Britain was not among the six countries that signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957, setting up the European Economic Community. Strong European growth led the UK to submit an application in 1961, along with Denmark, Ireland and Norway. However, the French president, Charles de Gaulle, vetoed all four applications in 1963, arguing that Britain didn’t agree with the core ideas of integration. So the UK formed the European Free Trade Association with six other nations. In 1967 Britain again attempted to join, and de Gaulle vetoed it again.
But in 1969, de Gaulle departed in favour of the more conciliatory Georges Pompidou, and French attitudes softened. After the 1970 election, the British prime minister, Ted Heath, pursued a third round of talks, and Britain joined in 1973 (as did Ireland and Denmark). A referendum in 1975 confirmed UK membership, with two-thirds of voters backing a slightly renegotiated deal. But tensions between Britain and Europe’s institutions have continued over the decades – and another referendum on Britain’s membership is now planned for 2017.