ROME – In the early 1960s, former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously quipped that the United Kingdom had lost an empire, and not yet found a role. Afterwards, successive British leaders tried to change that, by forging a new role for Britain in Europe. The country’s just-concluded “Brexit” referendum, in which a majority of voters expressed their desire to leave the European Union, represents the spectacular failure of that effort – and the end of an era.
Britain’s journey toward Europe began in the early 1970s, when the firmly pro-European Prime Minister Edward Heath took the country into the European Economic Community, the EU’s forerunner. His successor, Harold Wilson, secured the membership with a 1975 referendum.
And Margaret Thatcher signed the Single European Act, which created the single market – one of the most important steps in European integration, and one that owed much to British inspiration. Her successor, John Major, who campaigned actively for Britain to remain in the EU prior to the recent referendum, was instrumental in forging the Maastricht Treaty. While Tony Blair was in power, he spoke eloquently about Britain’s European mission.
Then came David Cameron, who wavered in his attempt to keep the Conservative Party united, and ended up with losing both Europe and the party.