Published on 8 April 2019
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Brexit  •  Government

How the story of Britain and Europe began

How has the story of Britain and Europe begun? Was Brexit inevitable? In this blog, Lindsay Aqui (Cambridge/LSE) attempts to answer these and other questions as the UK’s protracted departure from the European Union enters yet another phase.

As we near what may be the end of the UK’s membership of the EU, it seems timely to reflect on how that relationship began. Titles like British Abdication of Leadership in Europe, Reluctant Europeans and An Awkward Partner suggest that it has always been a troubled partnership. According to these accounts, Britain missed opportunities to join the European integration project in the 1950s, reluctantly sought European Economy Community membership in the 1960s, and upon joining the European Community (EC) in 1973, became an ‘awkward partner’.

But the history of Britain and Europe is much more complicated than this suggests. While there are elements of awkwardness and even hostility, there are also forces outside the control of government actors and instances of a clear British commitment to deeper integration with the Community.

Take the first year of membership as an example. On 1 January 1973 Edward Heath’s government brought the UK into the EC. As might happen to any newcomer in an established organisation, there were some uncomfortable moments. The introduction of EC terminology into the usual Westminster discourse did not go well. The chief whip, Francis Pym, complained that that the language of the Community was incomprehensible. In order to deal with this, Heath sent a minute to all ministers on ‘Euro-jargon’, instructing that statements be expressed in plain English.[1]

In other areas, there was a decisively uncooperative approach. Heath proved particularly stubborn over the location of a new EC institution – the European Monetary Cooperation Fund. In April 1965, the Community had agreed that all of its financial institutions would be in Luxembourg. However, Heath wanted the fund to be in London. There were no EC institutions in the British capital and, if the UK compromised in this instance, it would be difficult to secure the location of future organisations. This led to a breakdown in relations between Heath and Pierre Werner, the Luxembourg prime minister, who turned down an invitation to London due to the bitter argument. Heath eventually conceded when it became clear that the UK was in a minority of one in continuing to argue.

At the same time, the 1973 entrants, the UK, Denmark and Ireland, made valuable contributions to the Commission. The Westminster tradition of taking extensive minutes and disseminating records widely made for a more open working environment. The British, Danes and Irish tended towards more informal forms of address and this relaxed culture was eagerly adopted.[2] Moreover, entry to the EC was, for some, a cause for national celebration in the UK. The ‘Fanfare for Europe’, included an opening gala attending by Heath and the Queen, pop songs and a football match where the three new entrants faced off against the original six members.

During the first year of EC membership, the UK government also attempted to contribute to deeper forms of integration. In October 1972 the new member states joined the EC Summit in Paris, in preparation for their official entry in January. The summit communiqué included a commitment to a European regional development fund, one of Heath’s main goals, and was celebrated by the government as a sign of the benefits that joining the EC would bring to Britain. It represented a new initiative, a major Community-wide policy, similar to the Common Agricultural Policy. In this way, the UK demonstrated its commitment to advancing European integration.

At the same time, the government’s proposals were designed with particular national interests in mind. Heath was determined to secure a large share of the funds allocated to regional development, in order to ease the burden of the UK’s financial contributions to the EC budget. This made for tense negotiations, which eventually broke down, in part because of German resistance to the UK’s demands and the instability of the Heath government towards the end of 1973. Heath lost the February 1974 General Election and the question of a regional development fund was overtaken by Harold Wilson’s renegotiation.

It should also be remembered that 1973 was a particularly challenging year. In February 1973 the US dollar was devalued, sending a shockwave through European markets. The German mark was revalued by 7.3%; the Italian lire was devalued by 1.4%. Then, in April, Henry Kissinger made his infamous ‘Year of Europe’ speech, in which he defined Europe’s interests as regional as opposed to America’s global reach. This precipitated a crisis in US-European relations and placed additional strain on the UK which was torn between the ‘special relationship’ and its newly affirmed membership of the Community. Finally, of course, 1973 was the year of the oil crisis. The October Yom Kippur War led OPEC to impose substantial price increases and, in some cases, a complete ban on exports. For the UK it meant adding an additional £409 million per year to the import bill. For the British public, this timing created an association between rising prices and Community membership. As a result of this wider international context, the EC was engaged in crisis management for much of the year and new projects, like regional development, were put on the back burner.

Britain’s first year of EC membership was characterised by some awkward stumbles, examples of overt hostility and attempts at constructive engagement. It was shaped both by the policies pursued by the Heath government and by exogenous forces. None of this can be easily explained by any single characterisation of the UK’s relationship with European integration. Instead, it seems more appropriate to see the history of Britain and the EC/EU as complex, variable and subject to multiple forces which pulled both parties closer together at times and further apart at others.

This article first appeared on the blog of the London School of Economics.


[1] Stephen Wall, The Official History of Britain and the European Community. Volume II: From Rejection to Referendum, 1963–75 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), pp. 458–459.
[2] Éric Bussière, et al. (eds), The European Commission 1973–1986: History and Memories of an Institution (Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2014), pp. 380–381 and pp. 468–469.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s).

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