In the early years of the 1970s British foreign policy underwent its greatest face-lift in the twentieth century. After much wrangling and heated parliamentary debate, Britain finally joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in January 1973. There was never any doubt that Edward Heath would pursue entry into the EEC with greater vigour and enthusiasm than his Labour predecessor, Harold Wilson. By the time he obtained office Heath was already well established as a pro-European.
His views had been shaped early in his life. Heath had visited Europe as a student, and had served in the military in both France and Germany after the Second World War. In 1950 his maiden speech had supported involvement in the proposals of a European Coal-Steel Community, as envisaged by the Schumann Plan. This was the precursor to the EEC, as created in 1957. By 1961 Harold Macmillan had given Heath the responsibility of negotiating the first British application.
However, Heath’s European credentials, John Young states, should not be over-estimated. Heath did not visit France until his teens, he had never acquired a foreign language, and after his speech on the Schumann Plan little was heard from him on the issue. 1 Nonetheless, according to Robert Armstrong, entry was “one of the two highest things” on Heath’s agenda when the Conservative Party assumed office in mid-1970, though the issue was not given a role in the election campaign.
This probably reflected low public interest in, and even hostility towards, the European issue following General de Gaulle’s second crushing veto, and also an effort to quash antagonism toward the question of Europe, which existed especially on the Conservative Right. Nevertheless, only twelve days after taking office Heath’s government entered into negotiations with the Six on the basis of the Labour Party’s application for entry, which was still regarded as ‘on the table’.
Heath deliberately stuck to the pre-arranged date and venue – 30 June, Luxembourg. He was determined that there should be no delay on the British side: the nearer to his election victory the better for his standing on other issues, he figured. Bernard Porter has argued that such an eagerness to begin negotiating indicated the enthusiasm, almost desperation, of Heath to gain entry into the Community. Such a display, he states, can only have contributed to weakening Britain’s negotiating position.
Heath’s unequivocal aim was to join the Community straight away, as the existing Six knew only too well. This may well have enabled the Six to settle on better terms for themselves, and worse ones for Britain, than if Britain’s negotiators had been less overtly willing to get in. The Labour opposition repeatedly claimed that they could have negotiated more favourably for Britain, though this may be seen as political expediency to paper over the deep divisions prevalent at that time: Labour, it must be noted, were still divided over the actual principle of entry.
Porter is adamant that the terms obtained by Heath were “bad”, and labels the only significant concessions being won on the transitional arrangement of British entry, concessions he believes were inevitable anyway. 2 It is clear, however, that the disadvantages of late entry necessitated Britain’s adherence to the rules and practices that had already been established in the Treaty of Rome in 1957. The controversial Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was one particular bone of contention, as it favoured the large agricultural sectors of the Six – and especially France – but there was no way to fundamentally alter it at such a late stage.
As such, it may be counter-argued that the terms obtained were the only ones available. Young has stated that indeed the British bargaining position was weak, and that the French made the possibility of failure in the talks appear high, so as to push for every concession they could from the British negotiators. However, he argues that – contrary to Porter’s opinions – “it would be wrong to suggest that the terms represented anything like a ‘sell-out’ by Heath.
The terms obtained, he insists, appeared reasonable at the time. In any case, Heath hoped to fully achieve his objectives, strengthening Britain’s position, once actually inside the Community. For Heath, entry was the main priority. The Labour government had prepared a dossier for the opening of negotiations, which the Conservatives, once in office, were able to utilise as it stood. Barber’s opening address in Luxembourg was actually the speech prepared for Labour’s George Thomson.
That the majority of the preparation had been done by the Labour government prior to 1970 meant that the Heathmen could crack on almost straight away. Initial negotiations bore some successes – Britain would be granted full voting rights in the European institutions immediately upon entry, despite not fulfilling all the duties of membership until after the end of the transition period. Britain would have 36 members of the European Assembly, 24 seats on the Economic and Social Council, and 2 judges for the Court of Justice. 4 These adjustments were relatively simple.
More complicated – an indication for the future of the negotiations – was the decision to be made for the duration of Britain’s period of transition, during which applicants were to progressively undertake full commitment to the rules and practices of membership of the Community in full. Such participation meant the abolition of tariffs against the member states, and application of the CAP. British negotiators asked for a three-year transition for industry, and a six-year period for agriculture, and even longer for the financial contribution they would have to make.
In December, Geoffrey Rippon, heading the negotiating delegation, insisted that industry and agriculture could both make the transition required within five years, but maintained that the financial aspect would need longer periods. Through the course of the negotiations the question of Britain’s financial contribution to the Community’s budget was to be a constant problem, along with a number of other issues: Britain’s application for Community preference; New Zealand dairy goods; cane sugar; sterling; and finally, ridiculously, fish.
Britain, as an industrial nation, could expect little return from the CAP, which represented the majority of the EEC budget, but entry to the Community would mean that Britain would have to put in a larger amount. The EEC took 1% of all members VAT, and all tariffs on external trade. 5 For Britain, this would mean a huge contribution. Estimates in 1970 indicated that the net cost of Britain’s entry would be somewhere in the region of £550 million and £750 million, perhaps forcing the government to deflate the economy in order to restore the balance of payments.
Reaching an acceptable settlement required complicated and seemingly endless discussion. Agreement was thus only very slowly reached. Initially Rippon had proposed that Britain should pay from 3% to 5% of total contributions over a five-year period. The French, however, insisted that Britain pay its full contribution on entry at around a fifth of total payments. This was totally unreasonable, and Heath stated that he would still at this point consider rejecting the terms were they not right.
Pompidou and the French were obviously seeing how far Britain could be pushed, and it is argued that the Frenchman did in fact want to see Britain accepted into the Community by this stage. Other problem areas had been encountered. For one, what exactly were French intentions? By early 1971 Heath was trying to make sense of opposing interpretations of what was going on in the discussions. On one hand it was circulated that the French were again unwilling to allow Britain’s entry, but not wanting to apply a third veto had decided to attempt to deadlock the talks in the vain hope that Britain would simply give up.
Another interpretation was that terms might be agreed, but terms so harsh that no British Cabinet could accept them. There was the possibility that parliament could throw out the Accession Treaty. Another theory was that the French were actually ready for British entry, but if they were too forthcoming would throw away their clear advantage. Interpreting this argument is straightforward, the French wanted the best possible terms for their own advantage: access for their produce; benefits for their agricultural sector; and support for their view of Europe’s future development.
Another idea, jostling for contention alongside the aforementioned theories, was that the French negotiators had been left without instruction and it was for them to negotiate as toughly as was possible with the backing of the Six. The objective was to put France into the best possible position, in which the French could play a waiting game. If the negotiations failed, the British could be blamed for not agreeing to the common terms of the Six. If the discussions bore fruit, France could take the credit. These issues dominated Heath and Rippon’s thinking throughout the troubled negotiations.
By December 1970 the French had rejected Rippon’s budget contribution model for discussion, and demanded that the British make a new, more realistic proposal. Deadlock ensued, lasting until mid-1971. On other contentious issues – New Zealand dairy produce and cane sugar – there had been little progress. With deadlock on the budget contribution, and the two Commonwealth problems, a further question – Community preference – took centre stage. The French clearly wanted a British commitment in the agricultural sphere.
Rippon and the other delegates knew that adherence to the CAP was a prerequisite of success, but hoped that this policy could be introduced systematically in stages over a stunted period. The French disagreed, and insisted preference be given in full from 1973. In late April 1971 the British Minister of Agriculture, Freddy Kearns, effectively rejected the full introduction of Community preference all in one go. Thus remained disagreement on this fourth issue as well. This seemed to seriously stifle progress, but a further issue was raised that provided even more difficulty: the question of sterling reserves.
The French now demanded that sterling balances held by overseas countries should be scaled down by fixed percentages each year. The argument went that sterling’s global importance would undermine Britain’s efforts to adapt to market conditions in the Community. Such French toughness meant a further deadlock on the talks. It was now clear that a Heath-Pompidou Summit was necessary to clear the air between the two countries. Highly secret talks took place between Christopher Soames and Michel Jobert, Secretary-General of the Elys(e Palace, in order to prepare for the meeting. On 19 May Heath flew to Orly and was greeted by the French Premier.
The following morning the Summit opened. Many hours of detailed talks took place, but fortunately both leaders were impressed with each other. By the end of the meetings Pompidou was confident and satisfied of Heath’s commitment to a truly European future, declaring: “It would be unreasonable now to believe that an agreement is not possible during the Conference in Brussels in June. “6 Agreement was reached that Britain would run down the reserve status of sterling. There was an official communique , but perhaps more symbolic was the warmth and obvious cordiality generated by the two leaders for the ensuing press conference.
Thus began the shifts in Paris. Crucial for Britain was the German decision to float the Deutschmark in early May. This step alarmed Paris of the new reaches of German independence and may have provided the French with the notion that British entry was required to counter the Germans. Shortly after the Heath-Pompidou Summit, Rippon and the British negotiators began to make serious progress, and Rippon hoped to have the Treaty of Accession signed by January 1972. In the breakthrough a formula was finally agreed upon for Commonwealth cane sugar, and agreements reached on New Zealand dairy products. The latter was an extremely favourable deal.
Still heavily dependent upon the British market, the French conceded that only a quite definite timetable to phase them out of the British market would shift them towards diversification of markets or of production. It was hoped that by 1977 the preferences would have been three-quarters removed. The final outcome was a compromise with New Zealand obtaining an export quota to Britain of 71% milk equivalent – 80% of present butter imports, though a much lower level for cheese. 7 However, the guaranteed butter price was crucial – substantially higher than what New Zealand had been getting only a year before.
Nonetheless, despite the benefits these terms brought for the Commonwealth it is argued that the arguments over Commonwealth interests – though less at the fore than they had been in previous application negotiations – made it all the more difficult for Britain to gain favourably in other vital areas. 8 By 23 June 1971 Rippon had finalised the terms for Britain’s entry: New Zealand dairy produce was protected for several years, and the financial question had been settled.
Rippon felt able to present Britain’s budget contributions to the EEC in a favourable light: Here the arrangements which we have agreed would provide for a maximum annual contribution to be paid by the United Kingdom in the first five years amounting to 8. 64% of the Community’s budget in 1973, rising to 18. 92% of the Community’s budget in 1977… The budget is now expected to grow from $3,300 million in 1973, to $3,800 in 1977. These sums are important ones, but the House will recognise that the Community has made arrangements which would be very satisfactory to this country on a number of other issues during the meeting which I have just attended, particularly on New Zealand.
It is fair and right that this country should, if it joins the Community, play its proper part in all aspects of Community policies and developments… the agreements reached in Luxembourg mean that we have now broken the back of the negotiations. “9 Thus, according to John Campbell, “Rippon returned in triumph with the terms, which were widely accepted as better than had been expected. “10 Campbell states that the deal was obviously satisfactory as the New Zealanders and the sugar producers themselves were contented. However, there was some concern about the terms achieved, especially from the Labour Party.
Largely because the party was so split on the actual principle of entry, it was the issue of Rippon’s terms that actual debate focussed. By the time the terms were brought home the question of whether to join or not had reverted to being a straight party issue, although still complicated by dissenters on both sides. Campbell is quite correct in stating that the only way that Harold Wilson could maintain the Labour Party’s unity was by insisting that he still supported membership, though only on the right terms, whilst claiming that the terms accepted by Heath were unacceptable.
Wilson thus retreated from his pro-market stance of 1967, as Gaitskell had done in 1962, declaring himself opposed to the Rippon terms of accession. He declared that the terms obtained betrayed the Commonwealth and that they were “an intolerable and disproportionate burden on every family in the land. “11 He reaffirmed the 1970 election manifesto that the Party supported entry if the terms were right, but stated that if they were not, that Britain would continue to go it alone. With the terms of entry settled, the government saw fit to publish a White Paper on 7 July.
The ‘great debate’ was launched. While Labour attempted to cover its hasty turn-around by attacking the terms, and Tory heart-searching largely focussed on the issue of national sovereignty, the government rested the case for entry squarely on the high ground of Britain’s world role.
The White Paper was unusually forceful for a government publication, but it was still thin on the actual future impact of entry for the British economy. The paper nonetheless stated the choices clearly: Either we choose to enter the Community and join in building a strong Europe on the foundations which the Six have laid; or we choose to stand aside from this great enterprise and seek to maintain our interests from the narrow – and narrowing – base we have known in recent years. “12 Yet the paper did not explain exactly how entry to the Community would enhance Britain’s future. It avoided the issue of greater supranationalism in the Community in future. In hard material terms it was difficult to see the advantages.
Opinions varied over its impact on ordinary people. At the start of 1971 opinion polls suggested that only perhaps a quarter of the public favoured entry to the EEC, with the main concern focussing on higher food prices. However, the polls were characteristically volatile, and by the end of the year the ‘pros’ and the ‘antis’ were roughly equal. Of the everyday British citizen, Heath claimed that entry would bring “a great improvement in their living standards”, but that was more likely to be a long-term benefit at most.
By the actual time of British entry, in 1973, it was much easier to quantify the setbacks, and to thus attack the terms Heath had accepted. For one was the immense net budget contribution; serious trade disruption, the possibility of mass unemployment as a result; increased competition; higher food prices; and increased bureaucracy. On television the Prime Minister stressed the familiar theme of British national greatness: “This time the choice is ours… for twenty-five years we’ve been looking for something to get us going again. Now here it is. We must recognise it for what it is.
We have the chance of new greatness. Now we must take it. “13 Wilson responded, appearing the following evening, though his address was completely in contrast with the obvious bubbling optimism and grand rhetoric of Heath. Wilson as yet did not condemn the terms achieved by Rippon completely, but he was clearly well disposed to follow some of his colleagues who had. By the time the Labour Party had held a one-day conference to debate the terms, just over a week later, Wilson astonished his audience by the power of his hostility towards even the basic concept of the Community.
That the government White Paper was so disingenuous about Britain’s cost of entry was one of the main reasons for Labour’s opposition. Yet far more important was the continued anti-Market feeling on the left, and the electoral need to offer clear alternatives to government policies. The Labour Party voted five to one against entry at its October conference and the issue, as with the issue of nuclear disarmament previously, became a battle of right and left for control of the party. The conference, however, only served to advertise the magnitude of Labour’s split.
Still, Wilson hoped to ensure that a future Labour government would not be committed to withdrawing from the Community – were Britain a member then – but only to ‘renegotiate’ the terms more favourably. His position, attacked at the time as lacking any real principle, seems to have been carved largely to hold his party together. Still, Wilson’s pledge was a massive blow for Edward Heath: if he managed to guide Britain into the Community in 1973 as expected he would have to face the fact that the arrangement, as he had commanded it, would only be provisional, pending a Labour Party renegotiation of his terms.
Heath would have very much preferred to lead Britain into Europe with the country and the opposition united behind him. Nevertheless there was political advantage to the Conservatives, both from the Labour split and from its change of line. Labour opposition actually assisted the Conservative Party in uniting itself in support of the Community. The success of the negotiations, seemingly satisfactory terms of entry, the distinct possibility of success at last, and the easy target that Wilson’s U-turn provided all helped to reinvigorate the Tories loyal enthusiasm. Still, public opinion was continuing to fluctuate.
Campbell argues that “the electorate had favoured the idea as long as there was no imminent likelihood of it happening, but shied off whenever it began to seem a realistic possibility. “14 As a result, Heath had been persuaded to delay the decisive vote over the summer recess while the government set about attempting to win popular support for entry. The date set was the 28 October, right at the beginning of the next session. For many weeks beforehand the vote was the focal point of much speculation and nervous apprehension. Heath saw that his main problem was not public opinion but that of numbers.
Enoch Powell and the ‘Powellites’ were the problem – roughly sixty Conservatives opposing the government’s proposals. Balancing these were a strong group of social democrats – and notably, Roy Jenkins – on the Labour right who were pro-Market. Nevertheless, many other Labour politicians, and the trade unions, were in full opposition behind Harold Wilson. They believed that the terms as they stood would push up the price of food, damage the Commonwealth – despite the obvious satisfaction that the New Zealanders and the cane sugar producers expressed at their deals – and would also lead to deflation.
Others still opposed entry outright, regardless of the terms. There was, therefore, a real danger of defeat by a combination of Labour and anti-Market Conservatives. In Paris, naturally, there was real concern that the Commons would throw out the proposal of British entry. In the event the government won. The Conservatives had voted overwhelmingly (2,474 to 324) in favour of entry at the Party Conference in early October with Tory opponents reduced significantly in number, yet Chief Whip, Francis Pym was alarmed at the number of anti-Marketeers that remained in parliament.
The October vote was still a massive obstacle. On 21 October six days of debate got underway. Pym conveyed his view that there still remained around thirty Tory die-hards who would not fall into line. Heath, however, remained against a free vote – a suggestion that had been proposed earlier in the summer. The governments of the Six expected the British government to use its majority to approve the terms they had agreed. On 18 October, however, Pym, Barber and Rippon managed to finally convince the Prime Minister of the logic of a free vote.
The Labour Party voted against themselves having a free vote, and by imposing a three-line whip was seen to curtail the expressions of deeply-held views and only served to expose the party’s inner turbulence all the more. Heath’s decision to allow a free vote was a key moment, and he gained the credit for allowing a true expression of the House. In the end, the result was an unexpected triumph – 356-244, a majority of 112. The October vote, though a significant triumph, did not end the battle.
Heath signed the Treaty of Accession in Brussels on 22 January 1972, but a European Communities Bill had to be voted in. Hoping to avoid a lengthy breakdown of each section by the Labour Party, the Conservatives kept it very short – only twelve clauses. Still, the Bill took over three hundred hours of debate. 15 Prior to the second reading in mid-February Heath warned his party dissenters that voting against their government would mean defeat and probably a general election. Nonetheless, fifteen still defied him and the Conservatives majority plunged to eight.
The third reading, however, was eventually passed in July, and the Bill’s passage through the Lords a mere formality. Britain’s entry to the EEC had been achieved, and achieved properly through intensive debate and scrutiny of the terms achieved by Rippon. Though problems over the Community constantly harassed Heath until the very end of his ministry, it is very difficult to deny that the EEC success was a huge triumph for him. Essentially, gaining entry to the Community after two French vetoes, was his life’s ambition.
The formal entry of Britain in January 1973 was the greatest achievement of his government, though so often the terms achieved have been criticised as agreed to from a position of weakness, created as a result of appearing so willing and eager to join. It is not true to say that Britain’s entry to the EEC was pursued at any cost – the negotiations were dogged by problem areas between Britain and the existing Six, and fully hammered out – but it is true to say that they were perhaps not the best that could have been achieved.
Porter states outright his view that the terms achieved were “bad”. Regardless, the contemporary view – as expressed by John Campbell- was that the terms were reasonable, in fact, much better than had been expected. Certainly the Commonwealth countries involved appeared content with their arrangements. When Rippon revealed his terms it was very difficult to quantify what results would be, but it was clear that any benefits take time in coming. It is difficult to interpret what benefits and disadvantages the terms of British entry had even now.
Britain entered the Community at the worst possible moment – The impact of the oil crisis of late 1973, a result of the Arab-Israeli war, meant a massive price increase of oil, with huge effects on transport and energy costs. This marked the end of a quarter of a century of steady growth in Western Europe, assisted by cheap and readily available sources of energy. Britain joined as the institutions of the Community were set to its detriment, when economic recession minimised both the chances of institutional reform and also the opportunities presented by the enlarged Community.
The oil crisis also destroyed the post-war domestic political consensus, with recession coupled with rising inflation. From this perspective it is difficult to see how the terms were effected and how they worked for Britain immediately after entry. Certainly, it would be correct to say that the terms were not as good as they could have been, but they certainly were not, as Porter sees, downright “bad”. In the final analysis Geoffrey Rippon’s terms of entry to the EEC were reasonable, not good, not bad, but reasonable.