David Hannay negotiated Britain’s accession to the European Communities. More than 40 years later, he is watching its departure from the EU with despairby Alex Dean / September 7, 2018 / Leave a comment
The 24th of June 2016 was one of the most remarkable days in British political history. Pro-Europeans were left in a state of profound shock. What was to be Britain’s future role in the world?
It must have been particularly odd for David Hannay. Having joined the diplomatic service in 1959, Hannay is not your ordinary Remainer; he played a key role in negotiating Britain’s accession to the European Communities in 1973, two decades before the European Union as we know it came into existence. He worked his way up to ambassador to the EC from 1985-1990, and was later ambassador to the UN. Few people have been thinking about Britain’s international alliances for so long.
But having helped to secure British membership, Hannay is now watching it fall apart. I sat down with him on the day that parliament returned from recess. Now 82, Hannay sits in the Lords as a crossbencher. What was it like back then, when Britain was on the cusp of joining? And how did it feel watching Brexit unfold?
“I was a member of the negotiating team that finally got under way after the 1970 general election,” Hannay explained, leaning back in his chair. “The previous decade having been spent fruitlessly banging on the door of the EC.”
The European Communities was the collective term for the European Coal and Steel Community, Economic Community and Atomic Energy Community, and then comprised six countries. “I think if I had to put my finger on the date I realised I really minded about the EC, it would be General de Gaulle’s first veto” of British membership in 1963, Hannay said. “I was really shocked and angered that he could say we were simply not ‘European.’ That was a travesty.”
DeGaulle vetoed British membership on more than one occasion, but after he relinquished the French presidency in 1969 a window of opportunity opened: Britain could join the club. “There was a sense of great excitement. A major European country from outside was now joining, and in any case the new group would be able to drive forwards in a more purposeful way.”
“The date I really minded about the EC was General de Gaulle’s first veto”
There followed in 1975 the referendum on continued British membership, which was…