After more than 10 years of negotiating, in 1973 the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC) – also known as the Common Market. The Daily Mail described the EEC as “a free association of nations drawn together by a common will to bury the sword”. Joining the founder members Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany, the UK became a member on 1 January 1973 alongside Denmark and Ireland.
The EEC had been created in 1957 to eliminate trade barriers and allow a common trade policy across its member states. It was also intended to reduce tensions that had arisen up to and during World War II. It was hoped that by countries collaborating with each other, further war in Europe would be avoided. The UK initially declined to join but, when it became apparent that members of the EEC were enjoying greater prosperity in the post-war years, the UK backtracked.
Before it finally became a member in 1973 under Prime Minister Edward Heath, the UK had applied to join twice before – both in the 1960s, and both attempts were vetoed by French President Charles De Gaulle. He believed the UK relied too heavily on the US, to the detriment of mainland Europe.
One year after the UK joined, Heath’s Conservative government was replaced by a Labour one under Harold Wilson. The Labour party was divided over Europe and wanted the terms of membership renegotiated, so on 5 June 1975, the UK held a referendum. A landslide victory saw the campaign to remain win with more than two-thirds of the vote.
The Maastricht Treaty, signed in 1992, renamed the EEC (by then 12 member states – Greece, Spain and Portugal joined in the 1980s) as the European Community (EC) to reflect that it covered a wider range than economic policy. This treaty also founded the European Union (EU) into which the EC countries were incorporated. The EU grew to 28 states with a single currency, the euro, adopted by 19 of them.
In March 2017, the UK became the first member state to trigger its exit from the EU.
This article was taken from the April 2019 BBC History Revealed magazine