Britain and the European Union: Lessons from a Small Island

A- A A+

Max Weber Lecture by

Sir Stephen Wall
(Official Historian of Britain and the EU and

former UK Permanent Representative to the European Union)

9 June 2016, 16:00-18:00, MW Common Room

Summary by MW Fellow Emmanuel Comte (HEC 2014-2015 and RSCAS 2015-2016)

Sir Stephen Wall served as British Permanent Representative to the European Union from 1995 to 2000, and then as Director-General in the European Secretariat of the Cabinet Office from 2000 to 2004. In 2007, Prime Minister Gordon Brown appointed him to write the second volume of the Official History of the United Kingdom and the European Community, devoted to the period 1963-1975. Sir Stephen thus succeeded Alan S. Milward, who had published the first volume of this enterprise in 2002 about the period 1945-1963. Dieter Schlenker, director of the Historical Archives of the European Union, introduced the speaker and specified what ‘official history’ means: the author was afforded free access to all relevant material in the official archives of the government. Routledge published this second volume in 2012.

Wall developed his lecture in a chronological order to specify the relationship between Britain and the European Community between the mid-1950s to the early 1990s. In the first place, he emphasised the importance of insularity to explain British foreign relations. A major feature of such relations has been the long-term effort to resist continental encroachment. He referred to the conflict between Henry VIII and the Pope in the first half of the 16th century the Papacy was a foreign power wishing to influence British internal affairs. British imperialism only strengthened this feature of resistance, as the British economy developed ties with overseas regions outside Europe. Australia has long been, for instance, the main British export market.

In the mid-1950s, the British government believed that European Integration would not succeed. By the early 1960s, they were forced, however, to recognise the opposite and asked for membership. President Charles de Gaulle of France’s veto to British membership of the EEC on 14 January 1963 was a serious setback. French and British trade interests conflicted and France anticipated the risk of further enlargements if Britain joined. Trade flows between Britain and the Commonwealth contributed to those conflicting interests. In 1967, France vetoed British membership for the second time, as France’s EEC partners were also worried by the state of the British economy and the risk of having to bail out Britain were it to join.

The third application gave rise to much debate within Britain. A point of contention was the financial contribution of Britain to the EEC budget. During the British absence from the EEC, France had negotiated the Common Agricultural Policy with the aim to help EEC farmers and tax non-EEC agricultural imports. Given that Britain was a country without an important agricultural sector and that it imported most of its agricultural needs from the Commonwealth, British consumers would pay increased taxes on their agricultural products and the British economy would not benefit much from EEC expenditure. Prime Minister Harold Wilson had to threaten his resignation and promise a referendum after accession in order to convince the British people to launch accession negotiations. The U.S. government also pushed Britain to join to constrain the French on foreign policy issues.

Immediately after accession in 1973, the question of the British contribution to the EEC budget meant that the British government asked to renegotiate the terms of accession. The accession treaty was considered to be Britain’s Versailles Treaty. Food prices in Britain increased significantly in the first years of British membership. The British government was not willing to turn away from trade with the Commonwealth. As New Zealand had provided Britain with food during WW2, this was a major issue over the long term. Britain asked for easier access for New Zealand agricultural products to the EEC.

The British contribution was already at the top of the agenda when Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979. British membership would be unsustainable under the terms of accession. As this problem was mitigated with the negotiation of the UK rebate in 1984, European Integration again took a direction adverse to British interests with the negotiation by the early 1990s of the Schengen area and of European monetary integration, both developments arranged under French and German influence.

Sir Stephen Wall closed the lecture by recognising the recurring opposition between Britain and France in the EEC and the difficulty of forming a coalition with Germany to define the European order.

Watch the video and listen to the podcast of the lecture