The United Kingdom of Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and Northern Ireland which together form the United Kingdom are almost universally considered to be part of Europe. Although they are not part of the European continent, many, if not most, of the inhabitants of the United Kingdom are the descendants of people from the continent. The UK is also inextricably linked with the rest of Europe from a historical perspective. However, the UK is used to distinguishing itself from the rest of Europe in politics and economics. In other words, although the UK has close political and economic ties with the rest of Europe, it has traditionally been reluctant to cede sovereignty on both fronts to institutions that promote greater integration of the UK. Europe, in particular the European Union.

Map of United Kingdom.

Ethnolinguistic links with Europe

In the 5th century AD, three Germanic peoples, Anglos, Saxons and Jutes began to migrate from what is now northern Germany to the island of Great Britain. The term “Anglo-Saxon” is derived from the eventual mixing of these Germanic peoples with the native Celtic Britons and subsequent Viking and Danish invaders. Today, most of the population of the United Kingdom is descended from these Anglo-Saxons. Thus, the origins of the British people and the English language lie on the European continent.

Historical links with Europe

England, and later the United Kingdom, have always played a major role in European history. English involvement in European affairs dates back to the 11th century, when the English controlled Denmark and Norway as part of what was known as the North Sea Empire. In 1066, England was invaded and conquered by the Normans, who were people of Normandy, a region in present-day northern France. Between the 13th and 15th centuries, England controlled significant amounts of territory in France. Only England’s struggles with France lasted until the 19th century.

The countries of the European continent have also had a major impact on English and British history. In 1588, for example, the King of Spain Philip II sought to overthrow the Queen of England Elizabeth I, as well as the fledgling Protestant Church of England. The defeat of the Spanish Armada was a turning point in European history as it marked the emergence of England as a great naval power. A century later, William of Orange of the Netherlands became King of England following the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688.

The UK has played a crucial role in shaping European politics and international relations from the 18th century onwards. Arguably, without the efforts of the British during the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon Bonaparte could have maintained his conquest of Europe. The British again helped prevent the conquest of Europe by other European powers during WWI and WWII.

People gathered in Whitehall to hear Winston Churchill’s victory speech and celebrate victory in Europe on May 8, 1945

During World War II, the United Kingdom was the last outpost of Western democracies in Europe after the conquest of France by Nazi Germany in 1940. However, despite the relentless efforts of the Nazis to conquer the United Kingdom, the British succeeded in preventing a full-scale German invasion of Britain, which would likely have ended the war and made Hitler ruler of Europe. In 1944, the United Kingdom became the starting point for the eventual liberation of Europe, which began with the capture of the Normandy beaches by Allied forces.

UK aversion to European integration

In one of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s speeches after the end of World War II, he spoke of the prospect of a future United States of Europe. In a way, the speech was prophetic because the countries of Western Europe have been on the road to integration since the 1950s. This integration began with the founding of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. However, this first step in the integration of Western European economies did not include the United Kingdom, nor the subsequent formation of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1958.

The seeds of mistrust between the UK and the rest of Europe on the question of integration were arguably first sown in the 1960s, when French President Charles De Gaulle vetoed the UK’s request to join the EEC on two occasions. It wasn’t until 1972 that the UK was allowed to join the emerging economic bloc, two years after De Gaulle resigned from the French presidency. During the 1980s the Labor Party, one of the two main political parties in the UK, strongly advocated for a withdrawal from the EEC. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher largely snubbed the EEC and preferred to maintain close relations with the United States.

In 1992, the EEC became the European Union. A so-called social chapter for the EU has been established, as have the criteria for joining a future single European currency. The UK has withdrawn from both sides of the EU. In 1994, the Schengen Agreement allowing smooth and customs-free movement between EU member countries was signed. Once again, however, the UK has decided to pull out, maintaining tariff barriers between itself and other EU countries. In 2002, the new European single currency, known as the euro, entered into circulation, but the British maintained the use of their own currency, the Stirling pound. 2011 saw the passage of a law in the UK requiring a nationwide referendum in case the UK transfers other powers to the EU.

Brexit supporters in central London holding banners campaigning to leave the European Union. Editorial credit: Ink Drop /

During the 2010s, opposition to the EU in the UK grew with the rise of anti-EU right-wing politicians, such as those in the UK Independence Party. This opposition resulted in a referendum on whether or not the UK should stay in the EU, which took place in 2016. In this referendum, 51.9% of UK voters chose to leave the bloc. Thus, the cogs of the UK’s exit from the EU, dubbed Brexit, were set in motion. Finally, on January 1, 2021, the UK officially left the EU, its common single market and customs union.

UK and Europe today

Today the UK is one of the few European countries that is not part of the EU. Nonetheless, the UK continues to maintain strong political and economic ties with the bloc. For example, the EU remains the UK’s largest trading partner. In addition, the UK continues to be a member of international governmental organizations of great importance to Europe, including NATO and the Council of Europe, the latter of which oversees human rights issues. It’s also worth noting that although the UK as a whole has historically been skeptical of European integration, most of this so-called Euroscepticism is concentrated in England and Wales. In contrast, most Scots and Northern Irish are generally in favor of European integration.