The reluctant Europeans

Britain's decision to join the EEC in 1973 was motivated not by idealism but a grim assessment of the country's economic future. Professor Robert Tombs investigates...

Londoners read newspaper headlines about Britain's entry to the Common Market, January 1973. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

Britain’s vote on 23 June to leave the European Union casts the history of its membership in a new light. Explaining why Britain joined the then European Economic Community in 1973, after several attempts and long negotiations, is a first step to understanding its ambivalent 43-year relationship with European integration. It was shortly after the Second World War that British engagement with the task of rebuilding a shattered Europe began. The Labour foreign secretary Ernest Bevin had continental, indeed global, ambitions: a “Western Union”, centred on Franco-British partnership, eventually taking in the Benelux countries, Scandinavia and a democratic Germany, and building links with British, French and Belgian colonies and the Commonwealth. This, he believed, would create a ‘Third Force’ equal with the United States and the Soviet Union. He hoped in four or five years to have the Americans “eating out of our hands”.

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