Today, 13 October, the House of Lords will discuss the second draft of the European Union Referndum Bill. Hereafter an extract from The Guardian newspaper reminds us of how things change over time… so much that rather making a case for an exit or a renegotiation, in the 1960s Britain was asking itself an altogether different question: how can we join the European Economic Community (EEC)?
Written by: Kathryn Hadley (The Guardian). Photograph by Stefano Fugazzi (ABC Economics)
At the 2012 Conservative Party Annual Conference, Prime Minister David Cameron gave his backing to a referendum on the European Union, saying it was the “cleanest, neatest and simplest way” of establishing Britain’s relationship with Europe. But amid all the polemicising against Brussels, it’s worth remembering that Britain hasn’t always been trying to drag itself from the continent. Not that long ago, Britain was asking an altogether different question: how can we join the European Economic Community (EEC)?
I was reminded of this when I recently trawled through Foreign Office documents held at the National Archives while carrying out research for a book on British views of French 20th-century history. Throughout the 1960s and into the 70s, Franco-British relations and British foreign policy were dominated and largely shaped by efforts to convince the French to accept British membership of the EEC.
After Charles de Gaulle’s inauguration as president in January 1959, France seemed to have the upper hand for the first time since the beginning of the second world war. During the 1960s French gross national product grew at an average of 5.8% a year: it was the beginning of a French “renaissance” and of the period known as the “thirty glorious years”, “trente glorieuses”. In 1963, De Gaulle vetoed the British application to join the EEC declaring: “l’Angleterre, ce n’est plus grand chose” (“England is not much any more”). From this moment on, British efforts to join the EEC redoubled.
And British diplomats at the time were cunning. Fifteen years before he came to power, they had spotted François Mitterrand, who, as he is described in an unpublished Foreign Office personality note from 1966, “often declared his friendship for Britain and believe[d] that British membership of the European Economic Community [was] both necessary and desirable”. When Mitterrand announced the formation of his shadow government in May 1966, an FO report stated: “On Europe the Federation of the Left is generally in favour of the Community progressing in the direction of political integration, and do not oppose British entry provided it does not obstruct such progress.”
Quick to realise that Mitterrand would one day come to power, the British sought to get closer to him and side with the Socialists. Mitterrand and Guy Mollet, the Anglophile head of foreign affairs and defence, were invited to London in November 1966 as guests of the Labour party to meet Harold Wilson in the House of Commons.
But De Gaulle said “non” again in 1967 and the British recognised that their application was unlikely to be accepted as long as he remained in power. They did not give up. The British ambassador in Paris, Christopher Soames, outlined his policy in a paper on Britain and Europe: “If for the present it is denied to us to become as it were de jure members of Europe by joining the EEC, let us use the intervening period to seek to become de facto members in as many ways as may seem practical.”
On 28 April 1969 De Gaulle resigned, but high hopes for his successor were misplaced. As Gladwyn Jebb, Reilly’s predecessor in Paris, admitted in June 1969, despite Pompidou’s choice of more pro-British ministers: “Unfortunately there is no doubt that if [Pompidou] wants to block our entry into the EEC for a long time he certainly can.”
In 1970, seven years after De Gaulle’s first veto, British desperation reached new heights. In a final attempt to improve Franco-British relations, the Conservative Group for Europe (CGE) – which still exists today – made an astounding and unprecedented suggestion. On 22 December 1970 its chairman, Tufton Beamish, wrote to the undersecretary of state at the Foreign Office, Anthony Royle, to mark the centenary, in 1971, of the fall of Napoleon III and his flight into exile in Britain: “It has been suggested to me that the opportunity might be taken to cement Anglo-French relations by offering them the remains of the Farnborough mausoleum to complete their collection at les Invalides…”
In the end, the British held on to the bones – the effort involved in moving them looked too momentous. But these are the lengths to which they were driven to be allowed into the European Community. A fact that should not be forgotten as we become overwhelmed by the doubts and questions that abound in the current eurozone crisis. Should we not, today, hold on to our membership as we held on to the bones 40 years ago? Should we give up so easily something that was so long and hard fought for?
Debates and decisions on the EU seem currently to be dictated by short-term desires for electoral success and immediate economic gain. As shown in a statement made during his recent trip to Brazil, Cameron’s vision of the EU is depressingly limited, his ambitions for it amounting to little more than a consumerist empire: “Come to Britain and you can sell to the 320 million consumers across Europe.” Before rushing to seek “fresh consent” on a new settlement between Britain and the EU, Cameron might well reflect on the tireless efforts of his more long-sighted predecessors.