Why bother to join the European Union if you’ll eventually leave?

Several weeks after Great Britain voted to leave the European Union (EU), the world is still wondering what it will mean for the future of the world economy. Now that Great Britain plans on leaving, it’s a good time to wonder: Why did it join the EU in the first place?

In An Economic History of the World since 1400, a video lecture series from The Great Courses, economic historian Donald J. Harreld spends time discussing why (and how) Great Britain joined the EU.

The EU unites 28 member states under a single market with standard laws that allow for the free movement of people, capital, goods, and services. As it stands, the EU requires member states to give up some of their sovereignty and includes mandates to make sure they follow rules.

According to Professor Harreld, a state like Great Britain would consider joining the EU to

  • eliminate the threat of war;
  • promote a stronger voice in world affairs;
  • tap into larger markets on an equal footing with other states;
  • allow for greater economic competition; and
  • improve access to raw materials and trade networks.

“Great Britain had been invited to join the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community (EEC) from the very outset,” notes Professor Harreld, referring to the European Union’s early post-WWII predecessors. “But it declined to do so because it wanted to focus on its own empire, and because it opposed the creation of any power bloc on the European continent. Besides, Britain was reluctant to give up any of its own sovereignty, no matter the potential benefit.”

That was the 1950s. But in the early 1970s, Great Britain’s economic outlook wasn’t so positive. The nation’s former colonies (which it had hoped to keep within its commercial orbit) were too poor to afford British goods.

Great Britain’s initial membership application to the EEC was vetoed by French President Charles de Gaulle. Later, French President Georges Pompidou supported Britain’s membership because it could balance the growing German influence within the EEC. On January 1, 1973, Great Britain joined the EEC.

More than 20 years later, on November 1, 1993, the EU as it is known today was formed, largely fulfilling a dream of peaceful coexistence in Europe. A few years later saw the creation of a common currency, the Euro—which Great Britain elected not to join.

Discover more about the implications of Great Britain both joining and leaving the EU with An Economic History of the World since 1400. Or further your knowledge in history with courses covering ancient, medieval, and modern topics, and expanding from Europe to South America, China and Japan to the Middle East, and of course, dozens on American history, PLUS, so much more. Check out The Great Courses Plus and get a full month for free when you use this link.

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