United Kingdom–European Union relations

Bilateral relations
European Union–United Kingdom relations
Map indicating locations of European Union and United Kingdom

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United Kingdom
Diplomatic mission
European Union Delegation, LondonUnited Kingdom Mission, Brussels
Ambassador João Vale de AlmeidaAmbassador Lindsay Croisdale-Appleby

Relations between the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) are governed, since 1 January 2021, by the EU–UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA).

Relations trace back to the foundation of the European Communities, the European Union's predecessor, in 1957. The UK was a member state of the bloc after joining it in 1973 (which was confirmed in a referendum on membership in 1975) until it became the first country to voluntarily end its membership on 31 January 2020 after a second referendum on membership was held in 2016 which resulted in 51.9% of voters opting to leave. The history of the UK membership in the bloc could be outlined as one of "mutual dissatisfaction", with the British stances often hindering steps towards the deepening of European integration.[1]

The Brexit withdrawal agreement now plays a significant role in relations between the two entities, especially for Northern Ireland (which continues to apply EU rules relating to goods, VAT in respect of goods, excise, agricultural and fisheries product and electricity, as well as applying the EU customs code and effectively acting as the EU customs border with Great Britain while legally remaining in the UK's customs territory), and during the transition period which lasted until 31 December 2020. The United Kingdom borders EU member state Ireland.



The UK failed to take part in the diplomatic discussions that led up to the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), likewise later withdrawing from negotiations for the constitution of the European Economic Community (EEC).[2]

The United Kingdom's failed applications to join the European Communities (EC) in 1963 and 1967 were vetoed by the president of France, Charles de Gaulle, who said that "a number of aspects of Britain's economy, from working practices to agriculture" had "made Britain incompatible with Europe" and that Britain harboured a "deep-seated hostility" to any pan-European project.[3] Once de Gaulle had relinquished the French presidency in 1969, the UK made a third and successful application for membership.

UK membership in the bloc (1973–2020)

Following the UK accession to the EC in 1973, the former got to renegotiate membership terms, vied for budgetary rebates and requested opt-outs from the single currency and other common policies.[4] The protectionist Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in particular was often at the centre of the UK conflicts with the rest of the EC, underpinning its reputation as an "awkward partner" within the bloc.[5]

Since 1977, both pro- and anti-European views have had majority support at different times, with some dramatic swings between the two camps.[6] Conservative and Labour parties alike usually pandered to the prejudices towards the EC espoused by the Britons, who rather than commit to a European idea, generally preferred to hanker for the bygone days of British world hegemony.[7] In the United Kingdom European Communities membership referendum of 1975, two-thirds of British voters favoured continued EC membership. The highest-ever rejection of membership was in 1980, the first full year of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's term of office, with 65% opposed to and 26% in favour of membership.[6] As a member of the EU, the United Kingdom never adopted the use of the euro or joined the Schengen Area, which, bringing down border controls in a number of countries, thereby allowed for free movement of citizens.[8] Likewise, the UK government adhered to a long-standing policy of enthusiasm for EU enlargement, under the premise that the addition of more members would undermine any federalising drive (deepening) of the union.[9][4]

Vis-à-vis Gibraltar, a British Overseas Territory whose defence and foreign policies are handled by His Majesty's Government, the Spain's accession to the European Communities in 1986, negotiated with the UK inside the bloc from a position of strength, made the former country to renounce its power, recognised by the Treaty of Utrecht, to close its land border with Gibraltar at its discretion.[10] The then Conservative UK government acquiesced to the 1992 Maastricht Treaty (by which the European Union came into existence) as it aligned with its vision of the bloc as essentially a free market.[11]

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement pertaining the end of the ethnonationalist conflict in Northern Ireland was signed under the context of the shared membership of the UK and Ireland in the EU.[12]

UK Prime Minister Theresa May meets with President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker with in Brussels, Belgium, 21 October 2016

Following the result of the 2016 United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, when 52 percent of those who voted supported 'Brexit' (a portmanteau of "British exit"), the UK negotiated its withdrawal from the European Union. After the vote, British Prime Minister David Cameron, who supported staying in the EU, resigned. Theresa May became the prime minister after his formal resignation. Although she also supported remaining in the EU, she committed to negotiating Britain's exit.[13] The United Kingdom formally left the bloc on 31 January 2020.

Post-Brexit relations (since 2020)

On 30 December 2020, after eight months of negotiations, the EU and the UK signed the EU–UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement,[14] which governs bilateral relations since its provisional entry into force two days later and which was later ratified by both parties. The UK government attempts to reject the terms of the agreed Northern Ireland Protocol have proven a thorn in Post-Brexit relations.[15]

Although the United Kingdom maintained strong relations with some EU member states, the decision to withdraw sparked criticism of the United Kingdom across the union and especially in the German press.[citation needed] However, the British response to the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine is thought to have "restored relations to pre-Brexit levels".[clarification needed][undue weight? – discuss][16][17]

Scotland independence and EU membership

The Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 was the first occasion the EU was faced with the potential breakup of a member state, and one where a potential newly independent state wished to retain its EU membership. While the UK's withdrawal from the EU also took Scotland out of the EU, the debates in the referendum campaign may inform other future scenarios.

The UK Government's legal advice on the issue was that 'Since the [remainder of the UK] would be the same state as the UK, its EU membership would continue',[18] while speculating that 'On the face of it, Scotland would be required to accede to the EU as a new state, which would require negotiations on the terms of its membership ...', but that 'Scotland's position within the EU is likely to be shaped more by any agreements between the parties than by pre-existing principles of EU law.'[19] Without any formal process for handling the breakup of any member state, the European Commission offered, if requested by a member state, to provide an official view on the EU's position on Scottish EU membership in the event of its independence from the UK. The Scottish Government requested that UK Prime Minister David Cameron place this request, but such a request was not made.[20] Nicola Sturgeon, the then Deputy First Minister of Scotland, said that the Scottish Cabinet did not agree an independent Scotland would have to reapply for EU membership.[21]

The referendum campaigns had differing views:

  • Yes Scotland: The "Yes" campaign, led by Blair Jenkins, argued that Scotland would continue as a member state following a Yes vote as Scotland would remain compliant with all EU Principles as outlined in TEU Article 2 and there are no provisions to exclude a state in the existing EU agreements.[22] During the period between a Yes vote and formal independence, the Scottish Government could engage in negotiations, from within the EU, on the terms of their continuing membership in the EU. Several EU heads of state expressed their opinion that this position was reasonable, as did James Crawford, co-author of the UK government's legal advice on the issue.[23] In an interview on BBC Radio 4, asked if the timescale of 18 months for EU and other treaty organisation was possible, Crawford replied that he felt the timescale was reasonable.[24] However, there was no official comment on this view from the EU Commission. The Scottish Government and the Yes Campaign both declared that continuation of membership in the EU is their preference.
  • Better Together: The "No" campaign, led by Alistair Darling, argued that any vote for independence would have automatically placed Scotland out of the EU as a new state, and Scotland would have had to renegotiate entry.[25]


In 2017, exports to the European Union amounted to £274 billion out of £616 billion in total exports for the UK. The proportion of UK export to the European Union has been noted to be in decline, since exports to non-EU countries have increased at a faster rate.[26]

On the European side, according to Eurostat, exports from the EU 27 to the UK have increased from 316 euro billions in 2015 to 319 euro billions in 2019. In the same time, according to Eurostat, imports from the UK to the EU-27 have increased from 184 euro billions in 2015 to 194 euro billions in 2019.[27]

United Kingdom's foreign relations with EU member states (EU27)

Country British embassy Reciprocal embassy Notes
 Austria Vienna London British Mission to OSCE and UN Office in Vienna
 Belgium Brussels London British Mission to EU and NATO in Brussels
 Bulgaria Sofia London
 Croatia Zagreb
Consulate General: Split
 Cyprus High Commission: Nicosia High Commission: London
 Czech Republic Prague London
Consulate General: Manchester
 Denmark Copenhagen London
 Estonia Tallinn London
 Finland Helsinki London
 France Paris
Consulates General: Bordeaux, Lyon, Marseille
Consulate General: Edinburgh
British Mission to OECD and UNESCO in Paris and in Council of Europe in Strasbourg
 Germany Berlin
Consulates General: Düsseldorf, Munich
Consulate General: Edinburgh
 Greece Athens
Consulates General: Heraklion, Thessaloniki
 Hungary Budapest London
Consulate General: Manchester
 Ireland Dublin London
Consulates General: Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester
499 km of common border
 Italy Rome
Consulates General: Milan, Naples
Consulate General: Edinburgh
 Latvia Riga London.
 Lithuania Vilnius London
 Luxembourg Luxembourg London
 Malta High Commission: Valletta High Commission: London
 Netherlands The Hague
Consulate General: Amsterdam
London British Mission to OPCW in The Hague
 Poland Warsaw London
Consulates General: Belfast, Edinburgh, Manchester
 Portugal Lisbon
Consulate General: Portimão
Consulate General: Manchester
 Romania Bucharest London
Consulate General: Edinburgh, Manchester
 Slovakia Bratislava London
 Slovenia Ljubljana London
 Spain Madrid
Consulates General: Barcelona, Alicante, Ibiza, Las Palmas, Málaga, Palma, Santa Cruz
Consulates General: Edinburgh, Manchester
 Sweden Stockholm London

See also

  • flagUnited Kingdom portal
  • flagEuropean Union portal
  • iconPolitics portal
  • iconSociety portal


  1. ^ "Britain's Exit from the European Union: Implications and Possible Future Relations". Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. 11 July 2016. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  2. ^ Carolan, Bruce (2008). "The Birth of the European Union: US and UK Roles in the Creation of a Unified European Community". The Journal of Comparative and International Law. 16 (1): 62.
  3. ^ "Bulgaria Blocks North Macedonia's EU Accession Negotiations - Novinite.com - Sofia News Agency". novinite.com.
  4. ^ a b Duff, Andrew (2020). "Setting the bounds of the European Union" (PDF). European Policy Centre.
  5. ^ Seidel, Katja (2020). "Britain, the common agricultural policy and the challenges of membership in the European Community: a political balancing act". Contemporary British History. 34 (2): 1. doi:10.1080/13619462.2019.1650739. S2CID 202278086.
  6. ^ a b Mortimore, Roger. "Polling history: 40 years of British views on 'in or out' of Europe". The Conversation. Retrieved 25 October 2016.
  7. ^ George, Stephen (2000). "Britain: Anatomy of a Eurosceptic state". Journal of European Integration. 22 (1): 28. doi:10.1080/07036330008429077. S2CID 143485501.
  8. ^ Nugent, Ciara (11 April 2019). "It's Complicated: From the Roman Empire to Brexit, Britain Has Always Struggled to Define Its Relationship With Europe". Time. Retrieved 2020-03-04.
  9. ^ Whitman, Richard G. (2007). "The United Kingdom and Turkish accession: the enlargement instinct prevails". In Tocci, Nathalie (ed.). Conditionality, Impact and Prejudice in EU-Turkey Relations (PDF). p. 120.
  10. ^ Molina, Ignacio (7 May 2018). "Gibraltar, a possible solution: diffused sovereignty and shared functions". Elcano Institute.
  11. ^ George 2000, p. 29.
  12. ^ Tonra, Ben (2021). "Emotion norms: Ireland, Brexit, backstops and protocols". Global Affairs. 7 (2): 157–171. doi:10.1080/23340460.2021.1931399. S2CID 239053429.
  13. ^ "United Kingdom - The "Brexit" referendum". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2020-03-04.
  14. ^ Barr, Noah A. (2022). "The EU-UK Investment Regime After Brexit: In Search of an Equilibrium?". Global Trade and Customs Journal. 17 (4): 146. doi:10.54648/GTCJ2022020. S2CID 248611272.
  15. ^ Tidey, Alice (10 May 2022). "Sinn Fein's historic win in Northern Ireland may not change anything for the Brexit negotiations". euronews.com.
  16. ^ Castle, Stephen (4 March 2022). "How a War Helped Ease a Rift Between Britain and the E.U." The New York Times. Retrieved 7 March 2022.
  17. ^ Gallardo, Cristina (4 March 2022). "Putin blows up Brexit". Politico. Retrieved 7 March 2022.
  18. ^ Crawford, James; Boyle, Alan (10 December 2012). "Annex A - Opinion: Referendumon the Independence of Scotland – International Law Aspects" (PDF). p. 67. Retrieved 19 February 2013. Part I: Executive summary ... 6.1 Since the rUK would be the same state as the UK, its EU membership would continue. Indeed, the EU treaties implicitly preclude ‘automatic’ withdrawal by a state. There might have to be an adjustment to the UK’s terms of membership to reflect its reduction in territory and population, but this could be done without the UK ceasing to be an EU Member State.
  19. ^ Crawford, James; Boyle, Alan (10 December 2012). "Annex A - Opinion: Referendum on the Independence of Scotland – International Law Aspects" (PDF). p. 67. Retrieved 19 February 2013. Part I: Executive summary ...6. Within the EU, there is no precedent for what happens when a metropolitan part of a current Member State becomes independent, so it is necessary to speculate. ... 6.2 On the face of it, if Scotland had voted for independence it would have been required to accede to the EU as a new state, which would require negotiations on the terms of its membership, including on the subjects of the UK’s current opt-outs. The EU treaties make no provision for succession to membership. Certain provisions of the EU treaties would require amendment. If Scotland were somehow to become an EU member in its own right automatically, it is not clear how adjustments to the relative positions of Member States could be willed into being without negotiations. Nor would it be clear on what terms it would be a member. 6.3 Some have argued that the rights conferred on individuals by EU citizenship might influence the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to somehow resist this outcome. But this is a matter for speculation and does not have a clear precedent in EU law. It would also require the issue to somehow come before the ECJ, which may be unlikely. 7. In any event, Scotland’s position within the EU is likely to be shaped more by any agreements between the parties than by pre-existing principles of EU law.
  20. ^ "Unionists urged to sign EU letter". Glasgow: The Herald. 31 January 2013. Retrieved 21 November 2019.
  21. ^ Scottish independence: EC's Barroso says new states need 'apply to join EU', BBC News, 10 December 2012
  22. ^ "Scottish Independence: Blair Jenkins answers your questions". BBC. 18 January 2013. Retrieved 5 February 2013.
  23. ^ Crawford, James; Boyle, Alan (10 December 2012). "Annex A - Opinion: Referendumon the Independence of Scotland – International Law Aspects" (PDF). Retrieved 19 February 2013.
  24. ^ "Sturgeon: UK 'arrogant' over Scottish independence". BBC. 11 February 2013. Retrieved 19 February 2013.
  25. ^ "'Better Together' - Alistair Darling delivers the John P Mackintosh lecture". 10 November 2012. Archived from the original on 14 October 2013. Retrieved 5 February 2013.
  26. ^ "Everything you might want to know about the UK's trade with the EU". 28 August 2018. Retrieved 7 December 2018.
  27. ^ Eurostat, EU trade since 1988 by CN8 [DS-016890]
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