© Getty

In just a few short months’ time, Britain is set to take one of the most important choices since the second world war — whether to leave or remain in the EU.

The referendum follows not just the recent negotiations between the UK and the 27 other EU member states but also more than half a century of controversy, dating back to Britain’s initial decision to stay out of the bloc’s forerunners and the French vetoes that prevented it from joining in the 1960s.

Each of the decades that came after Britain’s 1973 accession has been characterised by vast changes: the 1980s push to set up the bloc’s single market; the 1990s introduction of the euro; large scale enlargement in the 2000s; and, in the 2010s, a succession of crises. 

These included pressure on the eurozone as the Greek economy tottered; an unprecedented wave of migrants and refugees; and the prospect of Brexit itself.

During all that time, the Financial Times has reported on and analysed the story of Britain and Europe, an issue of overwhelming importance for economics, finance, business and ordinary citizens.

From the day the UK joined, when a leader anticipated European monetary union, to the 1980s, when Joe Rogaly wrote of the “potential schism” that ran through the Conservative party on Europe; to the 1990s, when Lionel Barber foresaw a two-speed Europe, FT coverage has encompassed not just the news but the much bigger picture.

During this century, the FT has examined an even more tumultuous era that has raised doubts not just about Britain’s place in the EU but the bloc’s future itself. Philip Stephens charted tensions within Europe from the Suez crisis to the Iraq war; Janan Ganesh celebrated Britain’s talent for half-measures; and George Parker and Alex Barker followed David Cameron in the battle he had once sought to avoid — for a Britain in Europe, if not at the very heart.

Here is a sample of how the FT has chronicled this hugely important story, from the beginning of Britain’s membership to this year’s historic vote.

1973: Britain finally enters EEC

Lord Soames, prime minister Edward Heath, foreign secretary Alec Douglas-Home and Anthony Barber during talks on Britain's entry into the EEC in Paris in 1972
© Getty

UK joins 18 years after spurning the Messina conference that kicked off the bloc’s creation — and a decade after France first vetoed British membership.

1975: Referendum backs membership

Results of the Common Market referendum being tallied the London headquarters of the “Keep Britain In” campaign on June 6, 1975
© Getty

Labour prime minister Harold Wilson honours his election pledge and secures two-thirds support for membership on renegotiated terms.

1984: Fontainebleau budget deal

Margaret Thatcher secures a rebate that reduces UK net payments to the bloc and which remains in place more than three decades later

1986: Single European Act

Cameramen during the signing of the Single European Act on February 17, 1986, in Luxembourg.

The Single European Act paves the way for the establishment of a single market by 1992.

It both advances Britain’s business-friendly agenda and scraps an array of national vetoes.

1988: Thatcher’s Bruges speech

In a high point of Euroscepticism, the British prime minister declares: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”

1989: Splits widen among Conservatives

Chancellor Nigel Lawson at work with his budget box on March 8, 1989.
Chancellor Nigel Lawson at work with his Budget box on March 8, 1989. © Getty

Mrs Thatcher’s stance on Europe creates dissent within the Conservative party; Nigel Lawson resigns as chancellor of the exchequer.

1990: Thatcher toppled


Despite three election victories, the prime minister loses power after her deputy Sir Geoffrey Howe resigns, warning that her stance on Europe posed “increasingly serious risks for the future of our nation”.

1991: Maastricht treaty

French foreign minister  Roland Dumas and French economy minister Pierre Bérégovoy sign the Maastricht  Treaty, which led to the creation of the euro, on February 7, 1992.

Landmark accord sets up the euro but provides the UK with opt outs.

1992: Britain forced out of ERM

Devastating devaluation pushes the UK out of the ERM, the forerunner of the euro, and damages the government politically, while paving the way for years of economic success.

1995: Mad cow disease

In May, a young British man becomes the first to die of a degenerative brain disease. Within a year, the government links the outbreak in such cases to an ailment in cattle. This leads the EU to ban all exports of British beef.

1996: Tories and Labour debate euro

The youngest-ever Labour leader, Tony Blair, makes a point in January 1996
© Getty

As it becomes clear that the large majority EU states will join the euro, the FT writes that in principle the UK should take part. British prime minister Sir John Major declares a “beef war” on Brussels in response to the export ban.

1999: The single currency arrives

The euro is officially launched — although notes and coins are introduced only three years later. Britain remains outside.

2000: Nice summit

EU leaders meet to agree a new treaty to streamline the bloc ahead of the entry of a host of new members. The deal is immediately criticised for falling short of its goals.

2004: EU enlargement

The expansion long-championed by the UK takes place as the bloc admits 10 mainly ex-communist states.

2006: Referendum averted

Prime minister Tony Blair had promised a referendum on the proposed EU constitution — a vote pencilled in for spring 2006. But the British government avoids such a perilous electoral test after the French and Dutch vote against the charter in 2005 — to the evident relief of London, which also shelves plans to join the euro.

2007: Lisbon treaty introduces exit clause

Prime minister Gordon Brown signed the Lisbon Treaty at the Coche museum on December 13, 2007

Article 50 of the treaty — agreed instead of the failed EU constitution — establishes for the first time a mechanism for countries to leave.

2011: Britain isolated at crisis summit

Britain vetoes new fiscal rules; other countries back the measures regardless, as tensions mount between the UK and other EU members.

2012: Pressure builds on David Cameron for referendum

David Cameron, UK prime minister
David Cameron, UK prime minister © Getty

Both Conservative Eurosceptics and the UK Independence party call for a vote on Britain’s membership; the UK prime minister ultimately agrees in 2013 to hold a referendum in the next parliament

2015: Conservatives win election

Mr Cameron’s surprise election victory — which delivers an outright Conservative majority that even the prime minister had doubted he would secure — makes a referendum inevitable.

2016: Referendum set for June 23

EU leaders strike a final deal in February on Britain’s revised terms of membership, allowing Mr Cameron finally to announce the June referendum. But his party is split.

Letter in response to this article:

Free trade deals will need to resemble single market / From Hew Donald, London W5, UK

Get alerts on Philip Stephens when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article