Extracts from memoirs and diaries show it's always been complicatedby Ian Irvine / October 12, 2017 / Leave a comment
In 1961 the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan applied to join the Common Market. As Lord Privy Seal, Edward Heath held exhaustive talks in Brussels with its six member states. However, at a press conference at Rambouillet on 14th January 1963, French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed British membership (against the wishes of the other five). Heath recalled in his memoirs:
“We were all astonished. We had underestimated the extent to which de Gaulle would be prepared to pit his judgment and his policies against the rest. The obvious question was whether we should stop there and then. On balance, we decided to proceed and finish the negotiations… On the 16th however [French Prime Minister] Maurice Couve de Murville arrived in Brussels and became very agitated when he found discussions still progressing. He joined us all for drinks before our customary dinner and at one point turned to Josef Luns [Foreign Minister of the Netherlands] and exploded. “Oh, you Dutch, you have always been the lackeys of the English.” “Yes,” replied Luns, “Yes, I suppose you could say that, in the sense that you could talk of you French as always having been the raw material of their victories.’”
In early 1967 the Prime Minister Harold Wilson toured Europe to sound out the possibility of a renewed application to join the Common Market. Observing Wilson’s approach to de Gaulle, the diplomat Crispin Tickell in Paris noted that:
“In Anglo-French dealings the French nearly always think their positions through more carefully than we do. We are quicker on our feet, because of ministers’ training in the House of Commons… We are more inventive and creative. But in set-piece discussions we tend to be less well prepared, less directed.”
The UK joined the EEC in 1973 under the Heath government. But in 1974, Heath lost his Conservative majority and Wilson became PM. James Callaghan became Foreign Secretary and visited Bonn (capital of West Germany) in pursuit of Labour’s sceptical policy towards the Common Market. The UK ambassador, Nicholas Henderson, noted in his diary:
“We dined that night as [Walter] Scheel’s [President of West Germany] guests, with leading officials from the German Foreign Office. Scheel made a speech friendly in manner and substance, Callaghan replied. It is the sort of thing he does excellently, with humanity and humour. I began to think that all was going to go well. However as soon as dinner was over my optimism was rudely dashed. It was when we got on to the EEC that the atmosphere deteriorated. Callaghan showed that he had little belief in the idea of political union. He insisted that there must be a thorough renegotiation. The touchstone was what would please the British housewife. Scheel hardly spoke. Most of those present gave the impression of having been hit on the head which they had been in a way.
“Next day I heard… how disturbed the Germans had been… On the drive to the airport Callaghan said he had thought his visit had not made things worse. With sycophantic expediency, I agreed; but went on to say that I hoped he would not mind if I referred to a problem. He was wanting to get something out of the Germans… If we wanted to win support it would help if we showed that we understood what mattered to them… It would make it much easier for the Germans to accept our particular needs if we could show some comprehension of their concept of Europe. Otherwise it looked as though we were trying to get the rules of the club changed to suit our convenience while continuing to say we thought it was a lousy club and we did not want it to develop. Callaghan reacted brusquely. He did not believe the German leaders attached any importance to the European ideal.”
Sarah Hogg, special adviser to Prime Minister John Major, recalls the Maastricht Treaty summit in December 1991:
“European Councils are a peculiarly hazardous way of reaching important decisions. Only the heads of government are present, usually flanked by their foreign ministers. No officials are allowed to take part in the Councils. There is a small secretariat in the Council chamber, from which one official will emerge to brief—mostly in French—the so-called ‘Antici group’ of officials, one from each country. At Maastricht, the briefer was of course a Dutchman, but by tradition he briefs in French. The Antici group scribble down his words in their own languages. These scrawls are then passed out to delegation offices, photocopied and circulated amongst waiting teams, who thus receive a blurred, third-hand account of the arguments. It is hardly the best basis for judging what additional information might be required.
“From each national base camp, the holders of a couple of magic inner passes can pop in and out of the Council chamber with ‘messages.’ John Kerr [UK ambassador to the EU, later author of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty] was the acknowledged master of this diplomatic game. Squatting beside the Prime Minister, avoiding eye contact with those who might object to his presence, determined not to leave while malign German influences were muttering in [Chancellor Helmut] Kohl’s ear, he managed to extend the art of message delivery way beyond any normal interpretation of the rules. The Dutch by and large turned a blind eye. The disadvantage of his floor-level position was that he was not entitled to either of Britain’s two sets of earphones, carrying interpretation in English. When the debate was in French (or even German), he could cope, but when Ruud Lubbers [Prime Minister of the Netherlands] spoke Dutch, some surreal exchanges ensued between the stowaway ambassador and the Prime Minister.”