chapter  3
26 Pages

The application phase 1961–75

Over the decade of the 1960s Britain was to make two bids (1961 and 1967) to become a member of the European Economic Community (EEC), before finally achieving success at the third attempt in 1970. In that time Britain had to overcome the hostility of France, and seek to resolve problems concerning the position of British agriculture and her trading relationship with the Commonwealth. Throughout, the applications were presented as free trade exercises that were economic necessities if Britain was to survive economically on the world stage. For critics this was a radically dangerous departure, which threatened to irreparably destroy Britain’s imperial links, and yet others viewed it as little more than an attempt to reinterpret the three circles – Europe, America and the Commonwealth – with Britain at the intersection.1

The decision to seek EEC membership was not a snap decision, but rather an evolutionary change of position that had occurred over a period of years. A multiplicity of factors, both domestic and external, can explain Harold Macmillan’s decision to apply for membership in 1961. There existed a strong elite European lobby, in the forms of ministers like Sandys, Kilmuir, Soames and Thorneycroft and from backbenchers like Geoffrey Rippon, Peter Kirk and Maurice Macmillan. Given Macmillan’s sympathy for European cooperation it’s perhaps unsurprising that he surrounded himself with likeminded individuals. At the same time there was evidence of changing attitudes amongst the business community, for example Lord Chandos and the Institute of Directors as well as the Federation of British Industries.2 The press was also changing its position. The Observer, Economist and Financial Times all supported an application from 1960, and were followed in 1961 by the Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, and The Times. Only Beaverbrook’s Daily Express was opposed. There can also be a danger of exaggerating the negative influence of the farming lobby, although at the time Conservative analysts estimated that between 70 and 80 Conservative seats were at threat from the farming vote. Many large farmers were favourable to entry; one regional survey of farmers in the east Midlands found 42 per cent favourable.

Lord Netherthorpe (National Farmers’ Union president 1946-60) was inclined to support entry, although his successor Harold Wooley was opposed.3 This was akin to the experience of cabinet minister Rab Butler, whom many saw as the agricultural conscience in the government. He agreed to support entry after a tour of farming constituencies convinced him that the community was largely favourable to entry.4 Nor can outside circumstances be overlooked. The growing Soviet threat from 1961 with the technological resurgence of

the USSR following their successful Sputnik space programme, the building of the Berlin Wall and Macmillan’s failure at détente with Khrushchev once more gave emphasis to the need for European co-operation against the communist threat. At the same time Britain’s relationship with America meant that London had to heed the views of Washington. The failure of the British nuclear Blue Streak missile programme in April 1960 emphasised Britain’s defensive vulnerability, and placed a reliance on the US Skybolt system for a nuclear capability, making the Anglo-American alliance all the more significant to Britain. Yet some observers also interpreted it as a turning point that made an application to join the EEC inevitable.5 After the difficulties over American disapproval about Suez, the relationship was tense. The Eisenhower administration saw EFTA as an unnecessary complication. Their support for European unity can be seen through the significant, but covert funding, that the USA was injecting into the European federal movement.6

There was concern in London post-Suez that if Britain did not begin to see Europe in the same light as the USA, the latter might well begin to look to other Europeans, notably West Germany, for the special relationship. Kennedy told Macmillan in April 1961 that should Britain join the EEC it could only enhance the Anglo-American relationship. Furthermore, there were economic concerns that American inward investment was flowing towards the EEC rather than Britain. In 1960 for the first time half of American direct western European investment was directed towards the EEC and only 40 per cent to Britain. It was hoped that Britain’s EEC membership would reverse this trend. It is clear that the British discussions were taking place against a backdrop in which the four strategic components underpinning Britain’s world status were in varying degrees of crisis: the nuclear option, the Commonwealth relationship, the Anglo-American alliance and Britain’s mediatory role between the two superpowers. The economics may have been deemed ‘secondary’ at this point but they were still concerning. Over the 1950s Britain’s international trading competitiveness had declined sharply from 25.5 per cent to 16.5 per cent whilst West Germany’s share had risen from 7.3 per cent to 19.3 per cent. Commonwealth trade had also declined significantly and by 1962 Britain’s exports to western Europe were higher than its exports to Commonwealth countries.7 A noticeable trend in Britain’s trading patterns developed during this period, no doubt in part due to the expectation that Britain would join the EEC. Between 1960 and 1962 in the three years that Britain was being penalised by tariffs from the Six and exploiting market

advantages by tariff cuts of 20 per cent on trade with the Seven, exports to the EEC rose by 55 per cent whilst exports to EFTAwent up only by 33 per cent.8

The potential fragility of the British economy also weighed on the minds of decision makers. Whilst the UK economy was growing solidly this did not compare as well against EEC members’ economies. Problems with the balance of payments had produced a cycle of stimulating demand only then for the necessity of restrictive measures to damp down the flood of imports. It was suggested that EEC membership would offer the British economy a greater platform for stability. The retreat from empire, especially in Africa, also suggested to Britain the need to consider alternatives. Attempts at bolstering the colonial ‘circle’ were not proving successful via the Commonwealth, not least because of the desire of former colonies not to appear subservient to previous masters.9 Suez had illustrated only limited Commonwealth support, and then the decision to expel South Africa in 1961 against British advice illustrated that this ‘circle’ was haphazard. What the above all served to do was reinforce the narrative of ‘decline’ that was playing on the minds of many politicians. This can be seen by surveys of elite British opinion. Of those questioned in 1959, 72 per cent saw Britain as the third superpower. By 1965 this had declined to just 39 per cent with only 8 per cent expecting Britain to sustain that position to the end of the century.10 For Philip de Zulueta, one of Macmillan’s advisors, Britain had ‘to join the European game in order to stay in the world power game’.11 Labour’s leading Europeanist, Roy Jenkins, was just as sanguine about necessity: ‘we would do better to live gracefully with them than to waste our substance by trying to unsuccessfully to keep up with the power giants of the modern world’.12