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Monday 4 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
the european ideal

A look back at the last referendum the UK had on EU membership

The British electorate were first asked if they wanted to be part of the precursor to the EU after they were already a member of it.

WE’RE NOW AT the tailend of what looks like the end of an era: the United Kingdom’s time as part of the European Union.

Whether you agree with the Brexit vote or not, it’s almost certain to still be happening, and by 29 March, it will no longer be possible to retract what the UK voted for – to leave the European Union.

So let’s look at when they first voted to join the European Union (or what was the precursor to the EU).

Rome Treaty's 60th anniversary - The Original Treaty Kept At Italian Ministry Of Foreign Affairs Vandeville Eric / ABACA The original Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community kept in the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rome, Italy. Vandeville Eric / ABACA / ABACA

The early EU

The ‘European ideal’ began as the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952. A purely economic arrangement, it was formed in the aftermath of World War II to regulate industries between six nations: Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany. 

It then developed into European Economic Community, which was an early version of the EU’s Common Market, which allows for the free movement of goods, services, people and capital.

It was overseen by authorities that would eventually become the European Commission, Parliament, Council of the European Union and Courts of Justice. 

After the UK’s first application to join the European Communities in 1963 was vetoed by France (which also stopped Ireland’s progression to membership), a friendship between British Prime Minister Edward Heath, a Conservative, and the French president Georges Pompidou saw that veto lifted.

No referendum

When the UK agreed to an accession treaty in January 1972 and when the corresponding act went through the legislative process, no referendum was held on the grounds that to hold one would be unconstitutional (it had been argued, as it had been with previous votes, that a referendum could violate parliamentary sovereignty).

The UK joined the European Communities on 1 January 1973, along with Denmark and Ireland. A referendum held in May 1972 confirmed Ireland’s entry into the European community with 83% of voters supporting membership.

But in a general election in February 1974 Labour, running on an election manifesto promising a referendum on membership, won a working majority.

Yes, there will be a referendum

Margaret Thatcher PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

After a number of legislative arguments, the referendum was called and would be held on 5 June 1975, by which time, Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservatives.

The vote would be the only nationwide plebiscite to be held in the UK during the 20th century. The question put to the people was:

Do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?

A ‘Yes’ vote was also supported by the majority of the Conservative Party, including Thatcher: 249 of 275 party members in Parliament supported staying in the European Community in a free vote in April 1975.

But there were Tories who said that the party was split over the issue, as was the Labour party. Most of the UUP, as well as the DUP and the Scottish National Party were in favour of a ‘No’ vote.

In a pamphlet Prime Minister Harold Wilson said: “I ask you to use your vote. For it is your vote that will now decide. The government will accept your verdict. The pamphlet also said: “Now the time has come for you to decide. The government will accept your decision – whichever way it goes.”

With a national turnout of 64% across the United Kingdom, the target to secure a majority for the winning side was 12,951,598 votes. It won the support of over two-thirds of those who voted (67%, or 17.4 million).

On 23 June 2016, a referendum was held in the UK on EU membership, where it was expected that the Remain vote would win. The final result saw 51.9% voting to leave the European Union (that’s 17 million people), with 48.1% voting to remain.

The populations of Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain in the EU, while England and Wales voted to leave.

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