When did the UK join the European Economic Community (EEC) and why?
Fifty years ago, the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community after decades of debate and doubt – on both sides of the Channel. Alwyn Turner looks back at this key moment in the relationship between the UK and its continental neighbours
On 1 January 1973, the six countries of the European Economic Community (EEC) were joined by three more: Denmark, the Republic of Ireland and the UK. To mark this auspicious occasion, Britain staged a great cultural festival. “Fanfare for Europe” incorporated more than 300 events, ranging from a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall to Slade playing at the London Palladium.
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Elsewhere, the Royal Court Theatre presented Billie Whitelaw in the European premiere of Samuel Beckett’s drama Not I. ITV contributed a beauty contest – Miss TV Europe – and a special international edition of Hughie Green’s talent show Opportunity Knocks. Preston hosted a show of contemporary Belgian art, and Hull featured Yorkshire artists in an exhibition titled Hull: Gateway to Europe.
The festival wasn’t a great success. It didn’t really hang together, and little of it found favour with the public; too much seemed peripheral, at best. In sport, Great Britain played the EEC at table tennis in Bolton, and took on France in karate at Crystal Palace. More credible was a football match at Wembley, billed as The Six vs The Three, pitting existing EEC member nations against a combined British, Irish and Danish team. It was the biggest sporting event of the festival, but the crowd of 36,500 wasn’t that big (60,000 more had watched England beat West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final) – though that figure doesn’t include the anti-Europe demonstrators protesting outside the ground.
Talking to the press, German captain Franz Beckenbauer stuck to the official script – the EEC “will hopefully mean that Europe will remain peaceful” – but England midfielder Alan Ball had less lofty aspirations. His only concern was whether membership “will make my family’s summer holidays cheaper”. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland keeper Pat Jennings wasn’t bothered one way or the other, saying: “I’m really not interested in the whole thing.” And perhaps, in those answers, lay the essence of Britain’s relationship with the European Communities.
An impatient dream
If there was one event that best captured the confused nature of Fanfare for Europe, it was the vintage car rally from London to Brussels. This celebration of pre-EEC technology and engineering was staged against a backdrop of decline in British car-making, with the sector increasingly afflicted by industrial action.
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The rally was started by the Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath – one man, at least, for whom the occasion represented an unalloyed triumph, the culmination of an impatient dream. Elected to parliament in 1950, Heath had made his maiden speech on the subject of working with Europe. At the time, there was talk of a European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), led by France and West Germany, that would bring those two industries – so vital to waging war – under a new body, operating above nation states. There was support elsewhere for the initiative – but not in Britain, where the Labour government was reluctant to become involved in Europe. “We can’t do it,” was the blunt assessment of deputy prime minister Herbert Morrison. “The Durham miners would never wear it.”
It wasn’t an unreasonable attitude. The British steel and coal industries were then much larger than those of Germany and France combined, so the UK had more to lose. Further, both of those industries had recently been nationalised in the UK, leading to a new sense of common ownership, and many felt this was not the time to give that away. Nor was Europe much surprised that the UK wished to remain apart. As Jean Monnet, who became head of the ECSC, pointed out in his memoirs: “Britain had not been conquered… She felt no need to exorcise the past.”
A chastened nation
Heath, however, was among those who did feel that need. He had served in France and Germany during the Second World War, and shared the belief that closer co-operation between the nations would prevent future conflict, as well as providing a bulwark against the communist eastern bloc. The UK’s role, as he saw it, should be to participate fully and to lead. This was an opportunity that must not be missed.
If Britain were in the negotiations, it could help shape an institution that was going to come into being anyway; if it stayed out now, he warned, “we may be left with the choice of taking or leaving”.
Even in his own party Heath was in a minority. The Conservatives had come to power in 1951, the year the Treaty of Paris was signed by France, West Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Belgium and Luxembourg, approving the creation of the ECSC. Britain was absent. It was absent again, under a Conservative government, in 1957 when the Six signed the Euratom Treaty – extending the arrangement to nuclear power – and the Treaty of Rome. The latter launched the EEC, pledging the signatories to build a common market; to allow free movement of goods, workers, services and capital; and to aim for “ever closer union”.
The press was generally hostile. “Britain has nothing to gain from this cartel, and much to lose,” said the Daily Express, at that time the nation’s largest-circulation paper. “She should keep right out of it.” Most of the political establishment broadly agreed.
It was not until 1961, a decade after Heath had warned of being left behind, that an attempt was made to catch up. Things had changed: the West German economy had overtaken that of Britain; the Suez Crisis had revealed how limited British autonomy over foreign affairs had become; and the “wind of change” sweeping through Africa – Ghana had become the first sub-Saharan colony to gain independence, with others hard on its heels – made it clear that the British empire was going to dismantle itself more rapidly than anticipated. It was, therefore, a reduced, slightly chastened Britain, unsure of its status in the world, that decided to enter negotiations to join the EEC, the ECSC and Euratom.
Prime minister Harold Macmillan appointed Heath as chief negotiator. He led the British team through 16 months of talks, before Charles de Gaulle unilaterally terminated the process. Britain was “obviously incompatible”, the French president believed: it was too committed to the Commonwealth, too connected to the US, too wedded to its own “habits and traditions”, which wouldn’t fit with the rest of Europe. He also rejected a second attempt under Harold Wilson’s Labour government. It was only when de Gaulle resigned in 1969, and his successor, Georges Pompidou, proved far more amenable, that a British application to start a new round of negotiations was accepted.
Talks were due to start shortly after the general election of June 1970. The previous decade had seen slower economic growth in the UK than in competitor European countries, and both Labour and the Conservatives had concluded that membership of the EEC was the best hope for the country. All of the major parties went into the election expecting to join during the course of the new parliament. “Our sole commitment is to negotiate; no more, no less,” the Conservative manifesto noted modestly, but no one was fooled by that. There was never really any doubt that if the Tories won, the nation would be joining. This was “the greatest chance in 20 years”, Heath had said of the ECSC in 1950; 20 years on, he wasn’t going to miss what might be the last chance.
The public were less convinced, because de Gaulle was right on a personal as well as political level. The British tended to look to the wider world – to the US and the Commonwealth, where there were strong cultural, and often familial, ties. Involvement in Europe, by contrast, was associated primarily with conflict and misery. A poll carried out in April 1970 indicated that just 19 per cent of the UK population approved of Britain’s application to join, while 59 per cent disapproved. But the electorate’s reticence made no difference when Heath won an unexpected election victory and pressed straight on with the negotiations. In October 1971, with the talks completed to his satisfaction, he tabled a Commons motion to approve the “government’s decision of principle to join the European Communities on the basis of the arrangements which have been negotiated”.
A party divided
This was a historic moment for the UK, but it also proved to be a turning point for the Labour Party. The party leadership decided to vote against the motion – because, they argued, there were aspects of the negotiations with which they could not agree. Their real objections, though, were domestic rather than European. Earlier that year, Heath’s government had passed a controversial Industrial Relations Act that was vigorously and angrily opposed by the trade unions. Heath’s motion offered a chance to take the fight into the Commons, to hurt the Tory government and, in particular, to attack Heath personally – and perhaps fatally, since EEC membership was so central to his premiership. It helped that the unions had never fully been won over to the European cause; a majority still wanted stay out, including many of those Durham miners.
Labour whips instructed members to vote no. The party was in favour of joining, but not on these terms. However, a substantial number of MPs, including deputy leader Roy Jenkins, threatened to vote with the government, putting – as they saw it – country before party.
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With a better sense of party management, Heath gave his MPs a free vote on the question. A noisy minority of Tories were implacably hostile to any concession of national sovereignty, but Heath refused to make martyrs of them, trusting to support from the benches opposite. He was right to do so. Although 39 Conservative MPs voted against him, they were more than compensated for by 69 Labour rebels; 20 others abstained, and the government emerged with a majority of 112.
The left of the Labour Party were furious, calling it the biggest betrayal since Ramsay MacDonald went into coalition with the Tories in 1931. Jenkins was seen as the arch collaborator; Michael Foot and Tony Benn, from the anti-EEC left, challenged him in the deputy leadership election scheduled for the following month. Jenkins saw off both, but the final ballot was narrow: 140 votes for Jenkins, 126 for Foot. Here were the seeds of the split that emerged a decade later when Jenkins launched the Social Democratic Party, taking much of Labour’s support with him and leaving behind a party committed to withdrawal.
In 1961, Macmillan warned that membership “could break the Tory Party”, though he added privately that he wasn’t overly concerned. “It never hurt the party to split over something that was really in the national interest,” he said. Yet the Conservatives held together; it was Labour who were first to break.
Victory and fatigue
Heath was at the very apex of his political career, finally able to sign the Treaty of Accession he had worked towards for so long. On 1 January 1973 – “the Day of the Great Happening”, as the Daily Mirror called it – the UK would become a full member of the European Communities. It was, said the prime minister, “the end of a glorious era, that of the British empire, and the beginning of a whole new chapter of British history”.
For those more concerned with the kitchen table than the world stage, the decision was accepted as a fait accompli. A poll just after the signing of the Treaty of Accession showed for the first time that those in favour of joining outnumbered those against, though by the narrowest of margins: 42 to 41 per cent. That poll was conducted during the course of a seven-week miners’ strike. There were power cuts and blackouts; electric heating had been banned in shops, restaurants and pubs. In these dark and desperate times, the public was increasingly inclined to believe politicians who said we needed to change course.
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But there was no great enthusiasm for the project. Indeed, there was no great enthusiasm for anything much; the country was simply tired. More than half the population had memories of the war and of rationing. They had seen the end of the empire, and watched Britain fall behind its rivals. They had seen the rise of strikes, unemployment and inflation. Now they mostly wanted a quiet life without too much disruption. In a 1972 episode of TV sitcom Till Death Us Do Part, rightwing London docker Alf Garnett spelled out his vision. “What I reckon England ought to do, see, we ought to retire,” he said. “England ought to be able to sit back and put our feet up.”
Heath liked to refer to “the Community”, to the public and the press, though it was “the Common Market”. That was sufficient: it was an economic necessity, nothing more. But that misunderstood the nature of the European project. It was always intended to be more than a trading arrangement. The conference that led to the Treaty of Rome spoke of “the establishment of a united Europe”. The dream of “ever-closer union” took a decisive step forward with the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which replaced the EEC with the European Union, conferring EU citizenship on all those within it, extending co-operation on policing and foreign policy, and introducing the euro. Yet, culturally and emotionally, much of Britain still felt more attached to the anglophone world than to the continent.
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It was partly to address this lack of engagement that the government had staged the “Fanfare for Europe”. One venue was London’s Whitechapel Gallery, where a display of confectionery from member nations would “show their beauty as a popular art form”. Perhaps foolishly, the gallery invited school parties; 500 children ran riot, smashing display cabinets and eating the exhibition – all 22.5kg of it. It didn’t augur well for the future.
Alwyn Turner is senior lecturer in history at the University of Chichester. His books include Crisis? What Crisis?: Britain in the 1970s (Aurum, 2008)