Brexiteers see Brussels as an occupying power — but it is one crafted to a large extent in Britain’s own image.
From the EU’s signature achievement, the single market, to its eastward expansion after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and in many other areas, U.K. thinking was highly influential in determining the direction of travel. As Britain finally departs the bloc on Friday after three and a half years of bitter Brexit arguments, it leaves behind an EU that would have been very different without it.
“The U.K. had a strong influence on the EU throughout its membership and much of what the EU is today reflects a very strong British influence,” said Michael Leigh, who served as director general for enlargement at the European Commission and now teaches at Johns Hopkins University’s Bologna campus.
Neil Kinnock, a former U.K. commissioner and Labour Party leader, said there is an irony that some of the EU’s biggest critics had a strong impact on its foundations. Key policies like the single market “were conceived and developed … in the [former U.K Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher years largely, but not solely, because of the stimulus from London,” he said. “And yet the people that in all other respects are … fanatical Thatcherites were the leaders of the anti-European element in the Conservative Party.”
London joined the bloc, which was then primarily an economic union, late, in 1973, when the largest European states like Germany, France and Italy were already members. “We eventually joined the European Community 15 years too late. We have been working to catch up ever since,” wrote a group of top U.K. officials, including former Prime Minister Edward Heath, in an open letter in 1996.