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”.

The first step was the Treaty of Dunkirk (1947) with France, followed by the Treaty of Brussels (1948) bringing in the Benelux countries. The treaty aimed at ‘harmonisation’ in economic matters, and common social and cultural policies. But this strategy was derailed by the beginning of the Cold War, which made western Europe more dependent for its security on the United States. The Americans threw their weight behind a far less grandiose vision – the 1950 Schuman Plan – drafted secretly by the French businessman and political éminence grise Jean Monnet, and put forward by the French foreign minister Robert Schuman.

Schuman proposed a “high authority” of non-elected experts to manage western Europe’s coal and steel industries. The immediate aim of the French government was to control German heavy industry to prevent a possible military resurgence. With American backing, the plan was presented to Britain in May 1950 as a fait accompli, which it was given 48 hours to agree in principle to join. Bevin, affronted at what seemed a Franco-American plot, refused to buy “a pig in a poke”. The deputy prime minister Herbert Morrison famously commented that “the Durham miners won’t wear it”. The Schuman Plan took shape in the Treaty of Paris (April 1951) setting up the European Coal and Steel Community with an explicit commitment to eventual political unity. The next step, the Treaty of Rome, was signed in March 1957 creating a European Economic Community (EEC) of six members committed to “ever closer union”.

Britain tried at first to negotiate associate status with the EEC. Its position was difficult. During the 19th century, though much of its trade was with the empire and the Americas, the European continent had been a major export market. But the Great Depression and the Second World War had shifted much of Britain’s trade to the Dominions and colonies, from which it imported food and exported manufactured goods. In the 1950s, Europe took only 10 per cent of British exports (compared with 46 per cent today) – about the same as Australia. As John Maynard Keynes put it: “What suits our exporters is to have the whole world as their playground.” The Treaty of Rome – which set up a tariff wall, a protectionist agricultural policy, and a goal of progressive integration – seemed to challenge Britain’s great-power prestige and its trade.

More like this

The response of the Conservative government, elected in 1951, was to propose a Free Trade Area open to all, within which the Six could pursue economic and political integration, while permitting other European and Commonwealth countries to trade with them. This would arguably have been more favourable to Third World economic development and to long-term European growth. Ludwig Erhard, the West German finance minister and architect of its ‘economic miracle’, was a strong supporter. But, in November 1958, the negotiations were vetoed by the new French president General Charles de Gaulle. In response, Britain successfully proposed a European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in 1959, with Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland. Over time, EFTA and the EEC would doubtless have created stable trading arrangements and systems of co-operation.

However, in the 1960s, the British government made a historic decision to change policy. EFTA was considered too small to provide the diplomatic clout craved by Whitehall at a time of severe post-imperial unease, aggravated by the 1956 Suez fiasco in which a Franco-British attempt to overthrow the Egyptian government had been humiliatingly thwarted by American opposition (for more on this, turn to page 65). As well as being a decade of vertiginous cultural and social change, the 1960s were years of accelerating decolonisation: between 1960 and 1966, 20 British colonies became independent, including Cyprus, Nigeria, Tanganyika, Jamaica, Uganda, Kenya, Malta and Singapore. A cabinet committee warned in 1960: “If we try to remain aloof from [the EEC] … simultaneously with the contraction of our overseas possessions, we shall run the risk of losing any real claim to be a world power.” Besides, Washington disliked EFTA as a barrier to its aim of a united Europe, and the Americans put heavy pressure on London to join the EEC. As the former American secretary of state, Dean Acheson (one of the original backers of the Schuman Plan) put it in December 1962: “Great Britain has lost an empire, and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role… apart from Europe… based on a ‘Special Relationship’ with the United States (or) being head of a ‘Commonwealth’… this role is about played out.”

These words had a strong impact on British policy makers and the public. (But with hindsight, we might observe that rather than disappearing from the international scene, Britain has remained one of the world’s half-dozen or so most powerful and internationally active states – as it has been for the last three centuries.) Alongside diplomatic ambitions were economic worries. In the early postwar period, British trade had boomed, while a devastated continent struggled to recover. In steel, nuclear power, jet aircraft and cars, Britain had been a world leader, accounting for 50 per cent of global car exports. But from the 1950s onwards, comparative growth statistics seemed to show Britain lagging behind continental competitors. A report in 1953 warned of “relegation of the UK to the second division”. Over the next 30 years there was a chorus of dismay about the ‘the sick man of Europe’. This made joining the EEC seem less a choice than an inescapable necessity as the only way of galvanising Britain’s economy.

This pessimism was fundamentally misconceived. It assumed that European growth-rates were permanently higher than those of a declining Britain. In reality, faster continental growth was due to one-off structural modernisation: the large agricultural workforce was shifting into more productive industrial employment. From the mid-1940s to the early 1970s, this gave France, Italy and Germany ‘windfall growth’ at a higher rate than was possible in Britain, which since the mid-19th century had no large agricultural sector to convert. But once that process – known in France as ‘the 30 glorious years’ – finished in the early 1970s, European growth rates became the same as, or even slightly lower than, Britain’s. When measured over the whole half-century from 1950 to 2000, it is now clear that Britain’s economic performance was no different from the European norm. Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government applied to join the EEC in 1961. “It is only full membership, with the possibility of controlling and dominating Europe,” wrote an optimistic official, “that is really attractive.” For two years, negotiations to join were laboriously and stubbornly pursued, with Commonwealth exports of tinned pineapple, butter, wheat and lamb causes of interminable wrangling. Edward Heath, the Lord Privy Seal, who was leading the negotiations with tireless determination, reported that: “The French are opposing us by every means, fair and foul. They are absolutely ruthless.”

After one late-night session, the Luxembourg foreign minister collapsed from exhaustion. Then, de Gaulle vetoed negotiations in a televised press conference on 14 January 1963, taking the British and indeed his own government by surprise. “England is an island,” he declared, “sea-going, bound up, by its trade, its markets, its food supplies, with the most varied and often the most distant countries.” Hence it was not European enough to be part of “a truly European Europe”.

De Gaulle had several motives: to preserve French leadership, to exclude a country he considered to be ‘a vassal’ of the Americans, to forestall what he saw as the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ intention of absorbing the EEC into a vast Atlantic free trade zone, and to protect French economic interests, particularly agriculture.

De Gaulle’s veto was the first of a series of blows in 1963 that wrecked Macmillan’s government. In October 1964, Labour won a general election, and Harold Wilson, epitomising a new meritocratic elite, became prime minister. At first, like most of his party, he was suspicious of EEC membership and urged support for Commonwealth trade: “We are not entitled to sell our friends and kinsmen down the river for a problematical and marginal advantage in selling washing machines in Düsseldorf.” But soon he decided to make a new application to join, hoping it could be to “the right sort of Europe… outward looking and not autarkic”. As Alan Milward, the official historian of Britain’s negotiations, puts it, there was a general agreement in Britain to accept something that was not on offer.

Wilson’s motivation was primarily political. He hoped that Britain would regain its old international status by acting as the bridge between Europe, America and the Commonwealth. There was an extraordinary dissonance in official British thinking, a bizarre mixture of despair about national ‘decline’ and arrogance about their own abilities to control their future European partners. “If we can’t dominate that lot,” said Wilson, “there’s not much to be said for us.” He made a new application which de Gaulle again vetoed in 1967, using (said a Foreign Office diplomat) language of “quite exceptional bitterness, hostility and scorn”. Only after the students of Nanterre and the Sorbonne had dented the general’s prestige in the May 1968 riots and hastened his retirement, was the barrier to British membership of the EEC removed. De Gaulle’s successor, Georges Pompidou, declared that the general, as “a legendary personage”, could defy all of Europe to keep the British out, whereas he, a mere politician, could not.

Edward Heath’s new Conservative government, elected in June 1970, grasped the opportunity. Heath assured Pompidou that the British were ready to “give priority to (Europe) over their other interests in the world”, though he grumbled privately that the Europeans “are constantly barging ahead with regulations drawn up to suit themselves and then coming along, more or less with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, to present them to us”. Sir Con O’Neill, the chief Foreign Office negotiator, was clear that the EEC was essentially about power and prestige. “None of its policies was essential to us; many of them were objectionable.” The terms for entry O’Neill considered “burdensome”, including sharing Britain’s fishing grounds, accepting the Common Agricultural Policy, and agreeing to a large financial contribution. But he considered it necessary to “swallow the lot”.

Belief that EEC membership ‘at any price’ was the only cure for Britain’s perceived diplomatic, economic and political malaise was now the orthodoxy in official circles, and de Gaulle’s successive vetoes seem only to have confirmed this view: Britain was ‘the sinking Titanic’, and Europe the lifeboat, into which it must scramble, whatever the drawbacks. So Britain formally entered the EEC on 1 January 1973, with Ireland and Denmark. The rest of EFTA remained outside.

When Labour returned to power in 1974, Harold Wilson announced the intention of “renegotiating and denegotiating” a settlement he had condemned as unfavourable, and putting the result to a referendum. Wilson’s efforts at renegotiation had no significant outcome, but the modified terms were presented as a British victory. Public support had collapsed since the first failed attempt to join, so the government mounted a huge publicity campaign with vociferous support from business and most of the intelligentsia. The issue was carefully depoliticised, indeed trivialised: “The community… hasn’t made the French eat German food or the Dutch drink Italian beer.” The main theme was the EEC’s fast economic growth (which ironically had just reached its end, precipitated by a sudden rise in the international price of oil). The attractions of membership were represented on the cover of an official pamphlet, The British European, by a young woman in a skimpy Union Jack bikini proclaiming “EUROPE IS FUN! More Work But More Play Too!” The country chose to stay in by 67 per cent of those voting.

Exaggerated pessimism from the 1950s to the 1970s concerning Britain’s post-imperial decline compared with what seemed the success of the continent was thus the driving motive for joining the EEC. Of idealism about ‘the European project’ there was little, even among those who were directing British policy. “The question is,” Harold Macmillan had written, “how to live with the Common Market economically and turn its political effects into channels harmless to us.”

The country was thus led by the political elite of all parties into a community whose explicit political ambitions for ‘ever closer union’ most of its people have never espoused. Many who voted for the EEC in 1975 later believed that the full political implications of membership had never been made clear to them. Four decades later, an opinion poll taken a few days before the 2016 referendum showed that only 6 per cent of people in Britain favoured giving greater powers to the EU, compared with 34 per cent in France and 26 per cent in Germany. Following that referendum, by a great historic irony, Britain may be heading back towards the sort of associate status with the EU that it could have had in the late 1960s as the leading member of EFTA. An episode of its history has ended.


Professor Robert Tombs is a historian and author specialising in modern European history. His books include The English and Their History (Allen Lane, 2014).