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MICHAEL WHITE: The moments that shaped our European destiny

The Berlaymont building, headquarters of the European Union Commission in Brussels, Belgium. Picture: Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images - Credit: AFP/Getty Images

MICHAEL WHITE examines the competing forces that have shaped our place in Europe.

Understandably enough, we’ve had a lot of EU nostalgia this week as we’ve headed for the exit door, much of it sorrowful, some righteously “told you so”. What were you doing and thinking on the day Britain (plus Ireland and Denmark in its wake, while Norway said no) joined ‘the Six’ – the future European Union – on January 1, 1973? You have to be at least 65 to remember clearly. Not yet born? Lucky you. You may live long enough in our scarily exciting world to see us rejoin, albeit on less permissive terms. I suspect not. Brexit is a serious blow to the EU 27 too. “Don’t leave us, we’re not ready to be in charge,” well-meaning Germans begged pundit, Simon Jenkins, before the referendum.

I happened to be 27 myself in January 1973, just four weeks away from my low-key register office marriage which looks set to outlast Ted Heath’s greatest achievement. Unlike other couples who delight in cancelling out each other’s vote, my Kiwi bride and I were both in favour of UK entry as a safe harbour in a post-imperial storm. It might shake up the country after a dispiriting decade of retreat and humiliation on the political and economic front. Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” modernisation had spluttered, devalued and disappointed except on long overdue social reforms of sex and penal codes. Can you imagine, theatre plays were still censored by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office until 1968 – Ruritania or what!

Around the time of General de Gaulle’s first of two vetoes over what he saw as our insular non-European character – an Anglo-Saxon Trojan Horse – in 1963 the American statesman, Dean Acheson, had said “Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role”. Ouch. Churchill’s three grandiose inter-locking circles, with Britain the key link between Europe, the Commonwealth and the US – via Nato, the “special relationship” and the UN Security Council – were already looking tarnished. Europe would be a fresh start in the search for that role, as well as buttressing the continent’s peaceful cooperation (just 30 years after the war) and prosperity.


Yet for a wrinkly, merely to flick open the history books and electronic cuttings files is to be confronted with the grim realisation that some of the basic arguments have barely changed in 47 years. True, the then common market’s famous ‘food mountains’ and ‘wine lake’ – surplus product arising from over-generous common agricultural payments (CAP) – have been tackled and much progress made in ways we take for granted, but may not next week. I particularly remember a trivial instance – the new requirement that ice cream be made of milk, not pig fat. The detail had always shocked the new Mrs White.


At the time, Britain was feeling frosty towards the US. Vietnam was an unpopular war, though I did not share fellow-demonstrators’ chant “Victory to the Vietcong”. I just thought the Yanks should not be fighting such a brutal war against a popular nationalist leader – Ho Chi Minh – in the name of a suspect ‘domino theory’, according to which, if Saigon fell, its neighbours would too. Distaste for president Richard Nixon, clever but dark, heading towards impeachment in 1974, reinforced our dismay. Many of us were more complacent about Kremlin expansionism under the guise of ‘liberation’ than was wise. And many clever people still told themselves that Mao had hardly murdered anyone.

That mood suited loner Heath very well. Uniquely among post-war PMs he was neither a Commonwealth man (Rhodesia was in revolt) nor a pro-US Atlanticist. Born on the Kentish coast, a devotee of German music, he had brushed sleeves with Hitler as a student attending a Nuremberg rally and returned in an invading army in 1944. Harold Macmillan’s negotiator in 1962-63, details man Heath was a European by instinct – as most mandarins in the Treasury and Foreign Office were not. They came round, as their political masters required. We can already watch Whitehall’s big boats turn on Boris Johnson’s tide to face the opposite way again. So is George Osborne, whose mishandling of the referendum campaign did such harm.

Last Sunday’s Andrew Rawnsley column in the Observer dug out the Guardian’s front page story for January 1, 1973, to highlight what Rawnsley rightly called the “passionless nuptials” that day – much like this week’s divorce for most people. Having done the same myself I was shocked to read that British voters were narrowly against joining – by 39% to 38% – while 23% had no opinion. After years of pro-Brexit agitation those figures easily morph into 52% to 48%, don’t they? Not everything was the same, mind you. Most of the concern then was either about the old Commonwealth or dismissed Europe as a capitalist cartel. It was not about sovereignty. The exception was Enoch Powell, a romantic Tory nationalist. He had been a European federalist until 1967, but underwent a race-and-nation conversion for what I have always felt were Boris-ish reasons: ambition.

No fireworks in 1973? No bongs? No, but on January 2, Heath (who’d been in Canada for an ex-PM’s funeral) did stage a celebratory banquet at Hampton Court. His speech was written up a storm by Ian Aitken, my old boss as political editor of the Guardian, who got the text in advance from No.10. Hella Pick, the paper’s redoubtable diplomatic editor (still active today at 90), was at the dinner taking notes. No mobile phones then, so Hella’s story came in later and was spiked. Next day she spotted Ian as she entered the Gay Hussar restaurant in Soho for lunch. “Ian, what you did to me last night was unforgivable,” she thundered. Or words to that effect. Prurient heads turned. The tale entered Westminster team legend.

But there were serious differences lurking behind the spat. As an ex-Daily Expressman, ally of Mike Foot and Lord Beaverbrook’s coterie of Bevanite leftwingers, Ian was a gut Eurosceptic, one who voted no to the capitalist ramp in 1975. Hella was a Viennese Jew, saved by the Kindertransport rescue in 1939, aged 10. A passionate Europhile with good reason, she knew everyone who mattered (still does). The Guardian itself was more cautiously pro-European, only the hard lefties were anti. Brussels veteran, John Palmer, dramatically switched sides to EU ardour in the 1980s. Aitken never went that far, but did vote Remain in 2016 shortly before his death. In that merry-go-round they followed leading figures – Tony Benn also switched sides – and both major parties, usually hostile in opposition, pragmatically pro-Europe in government. David Cameron’s referendum aped Wilson’s (originally Benn’s idea) in using a popular vote to solve a party management problem. Harold was just a far wilier politician than Cameron or indeed hapless Jeremy Corbyn. But right-wing Labour’s lost hero, Hugh Gaitskell (a Wykehamist like Seumas Milne), was an anti too. He warned against the loss of “1,000 years of history” and such-like guff. And, of course, Fleet Street changed sides too.


You could argue that the worm eating away at Britain’s European apple started gnawing well before 1066, a thread of in/out ambiguity dating from the post-Ice Age split – 22 miles of water – 8,000 years ago. Medieval kings were definitely Remainers, always conquering large chunks of France and losing it again. In or out until late Victorian ‘Splendid Isolation’ gave way to the fateful alliances of 1914-18 which led Lieutenant Macmillan (six times wounded) to become such an ardent European. During the first Europe-wide parliamentary elections in 1979 I heard him give a spell-binding speech on the theme. He was 85.

But in the short-term it started before Macmillan became PM (1957-63) in the traumatic wake of the Suez debacle. In 1950, Jean Monnet, French bureaucrat-intellectual and unabashed Euro-federalist, sold his dream of a European Iron and Steel Confederation (EISC) to Robert Schuman, French foreign minister. Born in Luxembourg, his father was from disputed Lorraine, and Robert was called up for military service by the Germans in the First World War. He only became French at 32 and spoke with a German accent.


Not trusting the Brits, whom they knew would oppose EISC, Schuman and Monnet didn’t tell Labour’s powerful foreign secretary, the ailing Ernie Bevin. Worse, they confided in Acheson, then US secretary of state. Worse still, Acheson didn’t tell Bevin at a private lunch being held in London as the news broke in Paris. Ernie was livid. A bad start.

That’s how the late Hugo Young, another Guardian European, tells the story in This Blessed Plot. Labour didn’t like any threat to its nationalised steel industry and Churchill’s Tories, back in power the following year, didn’t like being upstaged by initiatives from nations they’d recently liberated. When the EISC evolved into the embryo-common market at the Messina conference in 1955, no UK minister was allowed to attend, only a clever, mid-ranking trade expert called Russell Bretherton. The Europeans were unimpressed, the old prejudice reinforced on both sides that Protestant and imperial England was not really European.

When Britain lost its confidence and changed its mind, the EU’s basic structure was already built with delicate compromises between the Six. It could not easily be unpicked for new applicants without the whole edifice disintegrating. “The absent are always wrong,” as the saying goes – and will again shortly. CAP subsidies designed to boost the incomes of French and German small farmers – the kind long since gone in Britain – were a famous case in point. So was the fishing industry, whose UK communities were already being battered by the doomed Cod War with Iceland which gutted the deep sea cod fleet.

I had not realised until reading Young’s book that tiny New Zealand played the ‘kith and kin’ card brilliantly to achieve long transition arrangements for its lamb and butter. But negotiations are always a trade-off. As officials later admitted, the UK fishing industry was bargained away, almost by accident, as a direct result. Suspiciously, the Six had only completed their common fisheries policy (CFP) as the four applicant states – all with far bigger fishing interests than most of the Six – started negotiating in 1971. We were caught off guard. The fish deal has stunk ever since, only 0.1% of the UK economy – financial services are 10% – but likely to be a disproportionately emotive issue again in this year’s talks. We admire fishermen more than we do bankers. This week Michel Barnier in Belfast and Leo Varadkar in Dublin have threatened both.


In 1971, UK negotiators seem to have been better prepared and qualified than today, when few officials have much trade talk experience. Trying to make sure the Six parked an issue because they couldn’t agree a line, not us, was one familiar divide-and-rule precept. But London’s desperation to join meant it usually ‘bid low’ to avoid a negotiating defeat. The French, for whom tense negotiations are “an art form, even a sport” (some things don’t change), played tough, resigned to UK entry after de Gaulle’s departure (1969), but not enthusiastic. Britain’s opening bid to pay a low 3% of the EU budget ended up as 8.4% to start with, rising to 17% until Margaret Thatcher’s ‘we want our money back’ campaign handbagged Brussels into granting a rebate.

The 27 will miss our cheque as they grapple with immigration, the euro, the green agenda and populism. The budget hole is one of several legacy headaches that include Britsh pragmatism (until recently) and humour. “It was always the Brits who organised the Christmas dinner,” one non-Brit MEP told the Guardian this week. They may even miss our bloody-mindedness. It has been an open secret since I first attended an EU summit 30 years ago that northern EU states were often happy to let the Brits say what they were privately thinking. It comes harder from the Germans.

Will London have a stronger hand now that the Withdrawal Act is signed and sealed? Now we are getting down to detail it is the EU27 who want to cherry pick the Canadian-style trade deal they once offered us, says pro-Brexit pundit, Dominic (son of Nigel) Lawson. ‘Dynamic regulatory alignment’ or ‘harmonisation’ is a try-on at a time when the rest of the world is happy with a ‘mutual recognition’ regime. Perhaps he’s right, but Boris Johnson has set a tight timetable for his deal and Sajid Javid, his vassal chancellor, can’t even get his “no rule taker” line straight. If a deal with the US is Boris’s carrot-and-stick priority he is dangerously out of step with Trump’s Washington this week – on Iran, on sustaining the World Trade Organisation from US attack and his cake-ist approach to Huawei’s 5G kit, cheaper and better than anything Silicon Valley can offer.

These are the realities of sovereignty in a world of big trade blocks where post-war free trade doctrines – and respect for ‘might is not right’ international law – are being actively undermined by populist, nationalist and authoritarian regimes, led by Russia, China, India and, alas, increasingly the US. We can understand why many voters feel aggrieved without sharing their belief that glib populists (Matteo Salvini’s setback in Italy’s regional elections on Sunday merely a breathing space?) have any answers except more populism. Now is not a good time to launch a single European state alone on the stormy sea of sovereignty.

Yet ‘taking back control’ – sovereignty over laws, immigration and ‘our own money’ – dominated the 2016 referendum, as it did not the 1975 vote or the 1971-72 negotiations and legislation. When Heath sealed his deal with president George Pompidou over dinner in 1971, he used the fateful phrase “full-hearted consent of the British parliament and people”. For tactical reasons Labour’s Wilson chose to interpret them as meaning a referendum to which he was edging. Enoch Powell helped him to defeat Heath in 1974 to make the referendum happen, only to see the ‘Remainers’ win by 2-1 with Margaret Thatcher’s active assistance.

But the “full-hearted” phrase stuck, the basis for much that followed. “We were never told about the loss of sovereignty,” the rebel alliance said as they slowly grew in strength, propelled by Thatcher’s Bruges speech (1988) and billionaire Jimmy Goldsmith’s Referendum Party. Yet it was Thatcher who promoted the single market, majority voting and EU enlargement. Brexiteers have since pushed us back to a future rooted in a past that no longer exists, a China-facing Commonwealth, an utterly changed US. As historian David Kynaston dryly noted this week, “we’re not even an island any more”. Mrs T dug the tunnel.

After Ian Aitken’s death his daughters gave me his faded copies of the two official “Why you should vote Yes/No” leaflets from 1975. The no campaign is familiar: higher food prices, jobs at risk, Britain reduced to a “mere province of the Common Market”, slowly losing the “right to rule ourselves”. Contrary to the ‘we were lied to’ myth, that sounds pretty clear to me, as does the leaflet’s assertion that parliament retained “the absolute right… to take us out” – as it is doing this week. The argument lost by 2-1 in 1975, but won narrowly in 2016. It will now be tested.


The 1975 yes leaflet also makes a simplistic economic case but warns against “going it alone’ in an increasingly inter-dependent world. “That is why so much of the argument about sovereignty is a false one.” Better to pool some of the substance than “cling to the shadow”, it told voters. That too seems clear enough to anyone who was concentrating – perhaps not to the 23% Don’t Knows on Accession Day. Forty seven years on both sides can wave their leaflet with conviction.

But one lesson is clear, as world leaders finally seek to enlist the consent of the governed in the painful steps needed to contain lethal climate change: the hard-to-reach left behinds, the gilet jaunes and romantics, the anarchists and Trump-voting nationalists must be persuaded. Whether in Brussels, London or even autocratic Beijing, you can’t dictate, you have to take them with you – or it will haunt you.

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