Since it was created in 1957 to help avert another world war, the European Union has weathered numerous crises, though Britain’s decision to leave might be the worst.

As Brexit becomes reality and the bloc’s membership falls for the first time, here is a recap of testing times in the past.

‘Empty chair’

In 1965, in what is known as the “empty chair” crisis, a dispute over budget funding sees French President Charles de Gaulle recall his representative to Brussels and boycott its institutions for seven months.

Thatcher wants refund

In 1979, U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher demands a rebate for Britain’s contribution to the European budget, reportedly declaring, “I want my money back.”

After fierce negotiations, London secures an annual rebate in 1984.

Danish rejection

In 1992, Danes shock Europe when they turn down the Maastricht Treaty establishing the EU and a future monetary union.

The Danes barely approve an amended version in 1993 after Denmark is granted greater autonomy in defense, currency, citizenship matters and judicial cooperation.

Mass resignation

The entire European Commission, led by Luxembourg’s Jacques Santer, resigns in 1999 after a report reveals its responsibility for fraud.

Austria sanctioned

In 2000, Austria’s conservative People’s Party (OeVP) picks the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) as its junior coalition partner, shocking Europe and leading to months of EU sanctions.

The FPOe again enters government in 2017, this time without stirring opposition from Brussels.

Constitution shot down

In 2005, French voters reject a draft European constitution, as do Dutch voters three days later.

European leaders manage to get the Lisbon Treaty ratified in late 2009 with provisions designed to improve the functioning of the enlarged EU institutions.

Greek debt

In 2009, Greece reveals a sharp rise in its public deficit that had been underreported in official data.

It warns of a debt default the following year, putting major European banks under strain and unleashing a crisis that threatens the euro single currency.

First Greece and then Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus seek aid from the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The so-called troika demands strict fiscal discipline in return for help, and several heads of government fall in a resulting public backlash against sharp public spending cuts.

Migration crisis

In 2015, Europe faces its most serious migration crisis since the end of World War II. More than 1 million people, fleeing war, mainly in Syria, arrive in the bloc via the Greek and Italian coasts.

EU leaders struggle to work out a joint action plan, with several EU members refusing to take a share of refugees.

More than 19,000 people have died making perilous sea crossings since 2014.


In June 2016, Britons vote 52 percent to 48 percent in favor of leaving the EU, surprising the remaining 27 nations and unsettling U.K. businesses and investors.

London and Brussels engage in tough talks aimed at ensuring Britain’s smooth departure on March 29, 2019, the original Brexit deadline.

But the U.K. Parliament balks at terms agreed by Theresa May, rejecting them three times and prompting successive deadline extensions aimed at averting a chaotic “no-deal” divorce.

In July 2019, May is replaced as prime minister by Boris Johnson, the pro-Brexit figurehead of the 2016 poll.

He reaches a new deal with Brussels and pushes it through parliament after winning a snap election, setting Britain on course to leave the bloc on Friday.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.