Britain’s entry into Europe was a long, painful process – with clear lessons for our even more painful departure, says EDWARD BICKHAM, curator of a new exhibition on this pivotal period in British history
During the late 1940s, Winston Churchill had been the darling of many European political salons as a result of making trenchant speeches advocating a new form of European unity. At the start he presented Britain, along with the United States, as a sponsor and facilitator rather than a direct participant, but by the end of the decade he clearly envisaged British involvement in the new structures.
In 1950, plans were tabled for the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community. The then Labour Government were not keen to see sovereignty shared over two industries which they had recently nationalised in order to increase political control over them. But more fundamentally, although British detachment was attacked by the Conservatives, neither Westminster nor Whitehall could get their heads around the supranational element of the new institution nor saw a need for Britain to get involved. Indeed, when Churchill and Eden came back in to Government in 1951, despite their criticisms in Opposition, policy effectively remained unchanged. Britain’s prestige was still high at the time and there were missed opportunities for Britain to take a leading role in shaping a new European model, designed to prevent a return to conflict.
By 1955, and in an effort to relaunch moves towards integration following the failure (for which Britain was partly responsible) of the proposed European Defence Community, the Messina Conference was convened. It, and its offspring the Spaak Committee, were intended to lead to the creation of a common market. Britain was invited to attend but we did no more than send an Under-Secretary from the Board of Trade to a ministerial conference.
The consensus in Whitehall was that the proposals would almost certainly fail and that the supra-national element was not acceptable to Britain. Involvement was seen as incompatible with our Commonwealth obligations and the argument was made that, as a global player, Britain could not be constrained by such European entanglements. Anthony Eden and his chancellor, R A Butler, were described as ‘bored’ by the topic and the familiar phrase about the dangers of ‘finding ourselves shackled to a corpse’ even made an appearance. The final advice to ministers suggested that it would be in British interests for the common market to collapse.
The first obvious lesson for policy today is how our sense of British exceptionalism led to a poor understanding of our real strategic position and interests. The second point to note is the recurrent British expectation that continental plans of which we disapprove are bound to fail, and how often this has been proved wrong. This was once again in evidence after the 2016 referendum when many British pundits expected Brexit to be followed by Dexit and Frexit. Instead, the prospect of Brexit seems to have increased continental solidarity. When it comes to Europe we have a habit of underestimating our partners and of over-estimating the strength of our own position.
In withdrawing from participation in the Spaak Committee, our senior official, Russell Bretherton, is said to have left with a Whitehall-crafted message (which reputedly he didn’t believe) that ‘you are trying to negotiate something that you will never be able to negotiate. But if negotiated it will not be ratified. And if ratified, it will not work’. Too late, Britain launched her own initiative for the creation of a free trade area rather than a customs union and without the supranational elements. It failed but was seen as an attempt to sabotage the formation of the European Economic Community and created suspicion of British motives. In 1957 the Six – France, Germany, Italy, and the Benelux countries – went ahead with the Treaty of Rome.
Lesson three – particularly pertinent as we look to negotiate a post-Brexit trade relationship with the European Union – is that for the rest of Europe, trade is generally viewed positively, but for most of our partners it is the wider political relationship and interdependence that matter. Thus, they will not concede the same benefits that we currently enjoy without our shouldering a commensurate share of political commitments.
Lesson four, relates to the realities of power, influence and sovereignty. By opting out of participation in the EEC we relinquished our ability to influence events on our very doorstep. So, we avoided supranational entanglements and kept our ‘sovereignty’ pristine but at the price of surrendering our ability to shape the direction of European co-operation. In the years that followed the EEC agreed agricultural and budgetary policies which were not designed with British interests in mind and we left ourselves at the mercy of French vetoes.
Britain went ahead with EFTA, the European Free Trade Association, with six other, largely economically second division, countries – leaving Europe as the wags of the time described it as ‘at Sixes and Sevens’. By the time EFTA started to operate, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had already commissioned work on whether Britain should seek to join the EEC. He was influenced by fears about widening divisions within Western Europe, the shock to British prestige administered by the Suez debacle, by the quickening pace at which the Empire was being dismantled and by the poor performance of the British economy relative to the Six.
In a message to his Foreign Secretary at the end of 1959, Macmillan noted that ‘for the first time since the Napoleonic era, the major continental powers are united in a positive economic grouping, with considerable political aspects, which although not directed against the United Kingdom may have the effect of excluding us both from European markets and from consultation on European policy’. In 1961, Macmillan took the plunge and applied for membership – or as he presented it at home, sought to explore the terms that might be available if we applied.
Under the energetic leadership of Lord Privy Seal, Edward Heath, the British negotiating team made slow but substantive progress over the next 18 months. Britain hoped that the context would be of seven countries seeking to solve problems together. Instead, progress was slowed by the determination of the Six to align their positions before sharing them with the Brits. Thus lesson five is that in putting ourselves outside the club, we inevitably reduce our ability to use good bilateral relations to improve negotiating outcomes. Ultimately the importance to the Six – for which today read 27 – of their relations with each other outweighs the significance of their relationship with the UK.
Meanwhile back at home, although Macmillan’s private observations made clear that he saw EEC membership in strategic terms as being about British power, the public presentation was low-key and transactional. It was argued that to show enthusiasm would undermine Britain’s negotiating position – and enrage the Tory right. It also raised questions in other European capitals about how genuine Britain’s conversion to European integration was. The political climate had also deteriorated including by Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell’s, shift in 1962 to oppose membership and to portray it as meaning the ‘end of one thousand years of history’.
Under the leadership of De Gaulle, France’s position had throughout been slippery. Until quite late in the day Heath believed that the talks would succeed. In December 1962, the Bermuda Agreement enabled Britain to access US Polaris technology for our next generation of nuclear deterrent. This enraged De Gaulle and the following month he vetoed British membership. He didn’t bother to consult the other five before doing so. He argued that Britain’s economic problems and lack of European vocation would undermine the stability of the Community. He saw Britain as a Trojan horse for US interests.
The other five regretted De Gaulle’s actions but there was some sympathy for the proposition that Britain might be seeking to join in order to sabotage the Community. Our behaviour in the 1950s still rankled. Which brings us to lesson six – namely that we need to factor in scepticism about Britain’s sincerity as we approach the 2019 parting of the ways. Michael Gove’s ill-considered declaration during the referendum campaign that he sought the ‘democratic liberation’ of Europe from the EU still rings in the ears of many Continental politicians. Once Britain has negotiated future arrangements what confidence can our partners have that we will not seek to weaken the EU as a more powerful European actor whose interests we may see as inimical to our own because we will enjoy so little leverage over them?
Lesson seven is well known – that Europe can destroy British political careers. Harold Macmillan’s lengthy and distinguished career was the first to bite the dust. There was no Plan B and De Gaulle’s veto broke the back of his government. Under his successor, Alec Douglas-Home, the Conservatives lost power in 1964.
By the time of the 1966 General Election, the previously implacably anti-European Harold Wilson was already planning a volte face on EEC membership. Egged on by George Brown he duly lodged an application in 1967 declaring that Britain ‘wouldn’t take no for an answer’. Within months, however, he was met by a second French veto, with Sterling’s 1967 devaluation used as evidence of how the instability of the British economy could damage the Community. By this point, the French had managed to entrench a protectionist Common Agricultural Policy which would further complicate Britain’s life if we ever succeeded in securing membership.
In 1969 De Gaulle lost a referendum and retired to Colombey-les-Deux-Églises. At the end of that year his successor Georges Pompidou agreed, in principle, to the idea of enlargement but whether this would extend to accepting British membership was still in doubt. When Edward Heath entered 10 Downing Street in June 1970 he found that negotiations on entry were scheduled to begin within a fortnight. British strategy up to this point had been to try and use pressure from the other five member states to wear down the French. Heath recognised that Britain needed to persuade the French directly of our European vocation which he did with Pompidou in May 1971. As Heath’s Political Secretary, Douglas Hurd subsequently wrote: ‘Pompidou was a serious man. He needed to be convinced not flattered. He had to believe that Britain was coming in to Europe not out of despair, not to make trouble, but to be a determined and capable partner.’ Having convinced the French the Five came rapidly into line. Even then, however, we almost snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Labour shifted back to opposing membership on ‘Tory terms’, even though those who would have run the negotiations if Labour had been returned confirmed that they were as good as, or better, than those for which they had been aiming. Fortunately, the House of Commons approved the terms by a majority of 112 but only because the Conservatives offered their MPs a free vote and the Liberals and 69 Labour MPs followed Roy Jenkins in voting with the Government.
Ultimately, Labour divisions had to be managed through a ‘renegotiation’ before a decisive two to one majority in favour of membership was achieved in the 1975 Referendum. But at least that victory was won through cross-Party co-operation – which leads us to lesson eight. Britain’s relationship with our European neighbours is fundamental to our national interest.
It is too important to be a pawn in our obsessive party struggles. Especially given current Parliamentary arithmetic, there needs to be a greater consensus behind creating a new model for Britain’s relations with the EU – one which does not consign Britain to frustrated impotence at the margins of our Continent.
Edward Bickham is Vice Chairman of the Conservative Group for Europe and was Special Adviser to the Foreign Secretary during the Maastricht Treaty negotiations. ‘Britain’s long road into Europe’ runs at Arundells, 59 Cathedral Close, Salisbury through to November 1st. Saturdays to Wednesdays 11 am – 4.30pm.
1948 The European Union of Federalists organises a Congress at The Hague in 1948 in the hope of drawing up a European constitution. The UK rejects the federal approach and the result is the Council of Europe, a loose grouping that becomes a guardian of Europe’s human rights
1951 The Treaty of Paris, signed by six countries (France, Germany the Benelux states and Italy) establishes European Coal and Steel Community ECSC
1957 The six members sign the Treaty of Rome, a significant step towards the common market, setting up the European Economic Community
1960 EFTA is launched, as an alternative to the EEC, by Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK. Like the EEC, EFTA aims to establish free trade but opposes uniform external tariffs and supranational institutions
1961 Harold Macmillan’s government applies to join the EEC
1963 French President Charles de Gaulle vetoes British membership saying that UK lacks commitment to European integration
1967 de Gaulle again says he will block a British application to join the common market
1973 Britain is allowed into European Economic Community, but within a year calls for major changes in the Common Agricultural Policy, ‘fairer methods of financing the budget’ and solutions to monetary problems
1975 Referendum over EEC membership splits Harold Wilson’s Labour government, but two thirds of voters opt to stay in
1979 The road to the euro begins with the European Monetary System, introducing the European currency unit (Ecu) and the exchange rate mechanism (ERM)
1984 UK wins a ‘rebate’ from Brussels, after Margaret Thatcher threatens to halt payments. ‘We are simply asking to have our own money back,’ she says
1986 The European flag is unveiled
1992 UK forced out of Exchange Rate Mechanism, which is intended to harmonise European countries’ financial systems before creation of single currency. Crisis creates arguments over whether Britain should consider future attempt at monetary union
1993 John Major faces down back-bench rebellion over Maastricht Treaty, which introduces co-operation on foreign policy and security. He had signed the treaty a year previously, after opting out of single currency and ‘social chapter’ on workers’ rights
2004 Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac clash during negotiations for European constitution, with France concerned that concessions create ‘two-speed Europe’. Plans later collapse after France and the Netherlands vote against them in referendums
2007 Gordon Brown misses televised ceremony of leaders signing Lisbon Treaty, which hands greater powers to Brussels. The controversial treaty took two years to negotiate, after plans for an official constitution were abandoned
2011 David Cameron clashes with Europe over plans to introduce a levy on banks and restrict London’s financial sector, and promises to bring back powers from Brussels
2013 Cameron promises that if the Conservatives win the next election they would seek to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU and then hold a referendum on membership
2016 The UK votes to leave the EU in a referendum held a year after the Tory election victory