Britain's EU Journey: When the EU faced its biggest crisis

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FILE - In this Wednesday, May 5, 2010, file photo, a riot police officer is engulfed in flames from a fire bomb thrown by protesters in central Athens, during a protest against harsh new spending cuts aimed at saving their country from bankruptcy. The debt crisis in Europe and particularly in Greece raised serious questions in Britain about developments in the European Union even though Britain did not use the euro currency, contributing to the Brexit vote in June 2016. Britain is scheduled to leave the EU on Jan. 31, 2020 after 47 years of membership. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis, File)

LONDON – Britain officially leaves the European Union on Jan. 31 after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Difficult negotiations setting out the new relationship between Britain and its European neighbors will continue throughout 2020.

This series of stories chronicles Britain’s tortured relationship with Europe from the post-World War II years to the present.


With Tony Blair’s departure as British prime minister in 2007, pro-Europeans lost a key voice at the heart of government. His successor, long-time Treasury chief Gordon Brown, was far more lukewarm. He even turned up late for the signing of the Lisbon Treaty, which amended the existing EU Treaties and included for the first time a mechanism by which a country could leave the EU.

For the record, Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty stated that any member state “may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.” Its author Lord Kerr didn’t think the U.K. would be the country to use it.

Brown had other things on its mind. His time at the helm was marked by the greatest peacetime shock to afflict the global economy since the depression of the 1930s. Following the collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers in September 2008, the financial crisis went global.

Banks around the world, including big U.K. names such as Lloyds and the Royal Bank of Scotland, had to be bailed out by the taxpayer. Britain endured its deepest recession since World War II. Although Brown won plaudits for his handling of the crisis, he lost the 2010 general election, ushering in a coalition between the euroskeptical Conservative Party and the very pro-EU Liberal Democrats.