1973: Britain finally enters the EEC

Follow me at paddy_j_smith

One of the founding fathers of the European Steel and Coal Community (see my last blog for more), the French political economist and diplomat, Jean Monnet, reflected: “I never understood why the British did not join. I came to the conclusion that it must have been because it was the price of victory – the illusion that you could maintain what you had, without change.”

Six years after the founding of the ECSC, in 1957, the six members signed the Treaty of Rome which created the European Economic Community. This was the forbearer of the EU that we have now. Still, even though it was invited, Britain was not interested in joining; sixteen years later, however, Britain was a member of the club. So what changed our mind?

The sixteen-year gap between Britain declining the invitation to join the EEC and finally becoming a member is actually a bit misleading – the UK’s government under Howard MacMillan swallowed its pride pretty swiftly and actually applied for membership as early as 1961. With its own economy flagging and needing a new sense of purpose, Britain saw France and Germany, especially, (its historical rivals) registering strong post-war recoveries. France, in the 1960s, for example, saw its economy grow at an average of 5.8% each year, the beginning of a French ‘renaissance’ and of the period known as the “trente glorieuses” – thirty glorious years.
It would be a fair assessment to say that the UK was tinged with a bit of jealousy of this, but there was also the fear that a united Europe might emerge from which Britain might ultimately be excluded. Germany might also, MacMillan feared, emerge as the dominant power within Europe – he privately noted: “it [the EEC] is really giving them on a plate what we fought two world wars to prevent.”

However, Britain’s application to join the EEC was vetoed by the then-French President, Charles de Gaulle. When saying ‘non’ to the UK, he described Britain as ‘insular’ and ‘maritime’, being set apart from the other European nations by ‘habits and traditions’. Perhaps making reference to the differing economic performances of the UK and France, he declared: “l’Angleterre, ce n’est plus grand chose” – “England is not much anymore”.

De Gaulle vetoed British applications to join the EEC on two occasions – 1961 and 1967 – and French opposition to British membership lasted his entire term, through to 1969. Like in the EU now, every state had to approve the accession of a new member state, and so as long as one country vetoed a new country becoming a member, they are unable to join. However, being rebuffed by the French only served to strengthen British determination to finally join the EEC – and diplomatic efforts to find favour with the French included cosying up to the Anglophile opposition leader (and future President) Francois Mitterand and even, apparently, offering to give the French back the remains of the exiled Emperor, Napoleon III, from the Imperial Crypt at St Michael’s Abbey in Farnborough! The offer was supposed to coincide with the centenary of the Emperor’s flight and exile to England. You’ll be glad to know, however, that this wasn’t acted upon as the task of exhuming them and taking them over to France was deemed a task too herculean – still, it did show the lengths some people were willing to go in order to join the EEC! (Contrast this with the lengths some people seem to be willing to go nowadays in order to get out!)

In the end, it does seem that all this sucking up to the French paid off because, in 1973, Edward Heath’s government submitted a third application to join the EEC – this time, with de Gaulle out of the picture, Britain’s request to join was accepted.
It would seem unthinkable today, but the British people were not consulted on whether or not they wanted to enter the EEC. This was despite Heath having previously promised not to join ‘without the full-hearted consent of Parliament and the people’, which was taken to mean a referendum would be held. However, with opinion polls registering a solid majority against joining, he decided not to keep his word. The subject was debated in Parliament for six days and, interestingly, the major topic was the loss of sovereignty that Britain was facing by entering the EEC. The economic argument appeared a bit of a foregone conclusion – unemployment in the early 1970s stood at 8 per cent, its highest rate since the Great Depression. There were constant labour disputes, and trade union leaders were arguably bigger household names than Cabinet ministers. Britain was widely regarded, including within Britain itself, as the ‘sick man of Europe’. The country that had stood up against Nazism was now losing the Cod War – to Iceland.

So it was against this backdrop that Britain finally entered the EEC in on 1 January 1973, the same day as Denmark and Ireland also joined. To mark the occasion, the Government put on a festival of European culture to celebrate. The centrepiece of the occasion was supposed to be the Bayeux Tapestry being on show at Westminster Hall, though this idea was shelved after it was pointed out that the butchery of Anglo Saxons by Normans wasn’t, perhaps, the most auspicious theme to be highlighting on this occasion. Instead, a number of European treasures were displayed at the V&A Museum, although the French refused to lend Britain the Mona Lisa, supposedly on the grounds that the British Museum had recently refused to lend them the Rosetta Stone (not the language-learning company…) Instead, the UK was offered Georges de la Tour’s Le Tricheur – ‘The Cheat’ (the picture above, you were probably wondering what that had to do with anything). Read into that what you will…

Thank you for your comments. There may be a short delay in this going live on the blog page as we moderate the comments added to our blogs.

Anonymous