Tag Archives: Europe

Parliament Week: Britain and Europe: Britain’s third (and final) attempt to join the EC, 1970-73

Britain’s two previous attempts to join the European Community – in 1963 and 1967 – had been humiliatingly rejected by the French. Two British prime ministers – Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson – had both failed. Brought to power in the 1970 elections a new leader, Ted Heath, was determined to have a third try. But Heath faced two massive challenges: negotiating a place for Britain in Europe, and bringing the British public with him.

Like so much related to the history of Britain’s relationship with Europe, the story of Britain’s three attempts to join the EC are largely forgotten by the general public. Yet, as well as fundamentally changing the course of British post-war history, they can clearly inform current discussion of Britain’s place in Europe.

Getting in

So, what had changed between 1967 and 1973? First, and perhaps most important, was the fall from power of General de Gaulle. De Gaulle, who had vetoed both British applications, was a victim of the 1968 student protest which forced him from the office he had held for a decade; in his place, the new president Georges Pompidou was considerably more sympathetic.

Brought to power in the 1970 general election, the Conservative government of Ted Heath decided that the time was right to revive the application that had been left dormant in 1967 after the veto. For Heath, the domestic pressures for Britain to enter the EC were just as powerful as they had been for Wilson. The lack of export markets for British industry was becoming an ever-greater problem and hastened the decline of British living standards. In 1945, Britons had been 90 percent better off than citizens of ‘the Six’; by 1969, they were six percent poorer.

Negotiations opened in June 1970 alongside parallel negotiations with Britain’s traditional allies Ireland and Denmark. In January 1972, Heath finally signed the accession treaty in Brussels.

Party and people

The diplomatic negotiations were just the first obstacle that Heath faced; bringing Britain into Europe would also require the support of his party and the British electorate. This was a challenge that faced the Conservative Whips as they tried to make sure that enough MPs would vote with the government to pass the European Communities Act – the piece of legislation that was finalise the negotiations. It is on this aspect that many of the papers held by the Conservative Party Archives at the Bodleian focus.

CCO 20/32/28: ‘Report and Analysis of the State of the Party’ (c. Jan 1971).

CCO 20/32/28: ‘Report and Analysis of the State of the Party’ (c. Jan 1971).

The Conservative Party, which had stood on a pro-European platform since Macmillan, clearly had a parliamentary mandate if only its MPs could be brought on-side. Looking at the Conservative Party’s 326 MPs in January 1971, the Whip’s Office was not entirely happy with what they saw. At least 218 could be counted on to support the government’s position but 75 were ‘in doubt’ and 33 ‘against’. Although comparatively small in number, the 33 (not to mention the large in-doubt contingent) could stop the government getting the votes it needed to pass the bill, especially considering the divided and disorganised state of Labour. The judgement on the 33 was pretty damning: ‘a hard core of right-wingers, backed up by some Powellites, Ulster members, a handful of new Members, and one or two who for specialist reasons oppose entry…[and] 15 of the anti’s come from the old brigade…who have always been against the Market and always will be.’ (CCO 20/32/28) By August 1971, when the terms of the negotiations had become clear, there was a big rallying to the government’s side. Just 21 were estimated to be implacably hostile and almost all of the undecideds had been won over. The Whips were also delighted to note that this rallying ‘has taken place in the House, in the Parliamentary Party; it has also taken place in the Conservative Party outside the House and amongst voters as a whole.’ (CCO 20/32/28)

CCO 20/32/28: ‘Third Report and Analysis on the State of the Party on Common Market Issue. August 1, 1971’.

Some voters writing into the party expressed their concerns whilst others wrote in support. Ultimately, however, the issue remained unsolved and the public divided. With the Labour Party also ambivalent towards Europe (a radical change of direction), confrontation was inevitable. In 1974, new elections brought Labour back to power with the promise that continued British membership of the EC would be decided by referendum. The result – a surprise 60 percent majority in favour of staying – guaranteed Britain’s role as a major player in European integration for almost half a century.

Guy Bud

Parliament Week 2016: Britain and Europe: Britain’s second attempt to join the EC, 1966-67.

‘Now, the question is asked – will France veto us, and should we be deterred from application for fear that they will? I think the situation in 1967 is markedly different to what it was in 1963.’ (MS.Wilson c. 873)

Speaking here at the Labour Party Conference, the Foreign Secretary George Brown was undoubtedly wrong. Britain’s second attempt to join the European Communities (EC) in 1967 would end, ultimately, in the same ignominious failure as its first – shot down by a French veto, wielded by General de Gaulle. However, Brown was certainly right about one important thing: both Britain and Europe were very different in 1967 to how they had been just four years previously.

Britain’s three painful attempts to join the European Union’s predecessor are, today, almost totally forgotten by the general public. Yet they can serve an important role in informing current discussions, not least as a reminder of why Britain was so keen to join the union in the first place.

MS.Wilson c. 873, iii.3: ‘Britain and the EEC’ speech to PLP

1963 and 1967: Similarities and Differences

Considering the embarrassment of Britain’s failed attempt to enter the European Economic Community in 1963, it is perhaps surprising that the issue returned to public discussion so quickly. Between 1958 and 1963, Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government had attempted to get Britain into the association but had been humiliated, in 1963, when the French president General de Gaulle vetoed British accession outright. In contrast, Britain’s 1967-68 attempt, unflatteringly dubbed ‘the Probe’, under the Labour government of Harold Wilson looks very similar. Yet this is not how it seemed to contemporaries.

Britain was a very different place in 1967 to what it had been under Macmillan. For one thing, the attitude of the Labour Party – traditionally the less ‘European’ of the two – had changed profoundly. Under Hugh Gaitskell, Labour had vigorously opposed entering the Common Market. In government after 1964, their new leader Harold Wilson led a surprising volte-face.

This reversal was even more remarkable given Wilson’s own initial stance. In a speech given in 1962, the draft of which is preserved in the Bodleian, Wilson had voiced scepticism at the stance taken by ‘the Six’ EEC members and, especially, the Belgian statesman Paul-Henri Spaak:

Now, M. Spaak began by saying “We [the British] forget that we are the askers”. [Perhaps not his intention, but] Seemed to suggest [the only posture fr. wh. the British can negotiation is one of suppliance] we should adopt a suitably suppliant tone. This is not our position at all… We in UK are also centre of a trading system – older, less integration, not based on any T[rea]ty or Constitution, yet an effective + identifiable trading area [community, outward looking] without wh. would be a gt. deal poorer…(MS.Wilson c. 873)

MS.Wilson c.873, iii.3: ‘Problems of Western Foreign Policy’ (undated speech at Wilton Park).

Partially, Wilson’s rethinking can be seen as an attempt to outflank his rival – the pro-European, Conservative leader Ted Heath. But it was also a reaction to Britain’s changing circumstances.
Importantly, British industry was in ever-faster relative decline. Lack of investment, as well as poor labour relations, led to economic stagnation in contrast to more dynamic continental economies, such as West Germany, which had access to the European market. In 1945, GDP per capita was about 90 percent higher in Britain than in continental Europe; by 1967, the difference was just 6 percent. Soon, Britons would be poorer than Europeans.
What really prevented British industry from reaching the ‘white heat’ to which Wilson aspired was a lack of markets. Britain’s own European Free Trade Area (EFTA) could simply never compete with the Common Market set up within the EC. ‘All EFTA countries now seem to accept that the goal is that they should all sign the Treaty of Rome’, noted a Conservative Party report in 1966 (CRD 3/10/2/3). Likewise, the Commonwealth was clearly failing to live up to the expectations of those who hoped that it would one day form a viable trade block of its own. In short, Britain needed Europe or – as a Conservative report concluded – entering Europe was ‘the only immediately practicable way of revitalising British industry’ (CRD 3/10/2/3).

CRD 3/10/2/3: ‘EFTA + Appreciation for Association to EEC’ (28 Oct 1966).

CRD 3/10/2/3: ‘EFTA + Appreciation for Association to EEC’ (28 Oct 1966).

But if Britain had changed profoundly, so too had Europe. The EC had begun to move in a new direction – one that emphasised the power of national authorities within a ‘Europe des états’ – and this suited the British. Likewise, the new Common Agricultural Policy removed the problem of continuing Britain’s heavy subsidies to farmers which had been a major obstacle in the 1958-63 negotiations. Perversely, much of this change had been brought about by the same man whom the British reviled for his earlier veto.

CRD 3/10/2/3: ‘Preliminary Report by the Industrial Sub-Group’ for the Committee on Europe (c. Nov-Dec 1966).

CRD 3/10/2/3: ‘Preliminary Report by the Industrial Sub-Group’ for the Committee on Europe (c. Nov-Dec 1966).

As a Conservative briefing put it:

The British attitude towards…General de Gaulle has…often become tinged with elements of hypocrisy and envy. Hypocrisy because sometimes he has done certain things straight-forwardly which we have done deviously and envy because sometimes he has done things successfully which would like to have achieved ourselves. (CRD 3/10/2/1/1)

CRD 3/10/2/1/1: ‘Brief for Mr Heath for the Television Programme ‘Britain in Search of a Continent’ on 9th June’ (8 Jun 1966).

CRD 3/10/2/1/1: ‘Brief for Mr Heath for the Television Programme ‘Britain in Search of a Continent’ on 9th June’ (8 Jun 1966).

Negotiations

Uncertain of their position – and, especially, the opinion of de Gaulle – Wilson chose to approach the European negotiations cautiously. Stuart Holland, an Oxford academic, was despatched to gauge the French government’s mood through a personal contact, Pierre Joxe. The results appeared encouraging.

This low-key approach did not find favour with the more pro-European Conservative Party:

The Labour Party appear to want to start the negotiations by sending someone round Europe drawing up a list of all the difficulties. And this is justified by earthy metaphors about not buying goods before you have inspected them. This is not a deal to buy a second-hand car. You do not go around Europe kicking at bits of the Common Market for all the world as if you were looking for rust under the mudguard in the hope of being able to knock £5 off the purchase price.  (CRD 3/10/2/1/1)

CRD 3/10/2/1/1: ‘Statement on Britain and Europe’ (27 Mar 1966).

CRD 3/10/2/1/1: ‘Statement on Britain and Europe’ (27 Mar 1966).

Britain officially submitted its application to join the EC in May 1967, joined by its traditional non-EC trading partners: Ireland and Denmark. Everything seemed to be going well.
Then, on 27 November 1967, de Gaulle walked into a press-conference and, apparently out of the blue, vetoed British EC membership. It was yet another humiliation.
But the mood in Britain had changed in favour of Europe – and, importantly, the British government refused to withdraw its application for membership. Other members of the ‘the Six’ were also becoming increasingly sympathetic to British entry and impatient with de Gaulle’s personal agendas. Negotiations would eventually be re-opened in 1970 and would culminate, in 1973, with Britain finally fulfilling the twenty-year hope of entering the European Communities.

Source: Daddow, O. J. (ed.) Harold Wilson and European Integration: Britain’s Second Application to Join the EEC (London, 2016).

Guy Bud

Parliament Week 2016: Britain and Europe: Britain’s first attempt to join the EEC, 1958-1963

‘I will not disguise from the House, as I have not attempted to disguise from the country, the deep disappointment of the Government and, I think, of the whole nation, at the turn of events. […] If the European vision has been obscured, it has not been by a minor obstruction on one side or the other. It was brought to an end by a dramatic, if somewhat brutal, stroke of policy.’ ( HC Deb. 11 Feb 1963, vol. 671, fols. 943-1072.)

Speaking at a parliamentary debate in February 1963 shortly after Charles de Gaulle’s veto of British membership of the European Economic Community (EEC), it is perhaps easy to understand why Harold Macmillan was quite so bitter. After close to five years of negotiation, British hopes of joining the European Union’s antecedent had just been crushed – publicly – by a former ally, President Charles de Gaulle.

Britain, the Commonwealth, and Europe

Succeeding Anthony Eden as Prime Minister in 1957, Macmillan’s six years in power spanned a period of almost unprecedented change in Britain’s geopolitical status. The Suez Crisis of 1956, which had brought down the Eden government, demonstrated to the world that Britain was no longer a superpower in comparison to the United States or Soviet Union. No longer a major imperial power or, at least, no longer the major imperial power it had been twenty years before, the country was caught in a kind of malaise. The result was a difficult period of soul-searching about where Britain’s future should lie.

By the late 1950s, Britain’s economy was also encountering problems. Although Britain remained a rich country – richer, per capita, than most of continental Europe – the disparity between the levels of economic growth in Britain and the rest of Europe were becoming increasingly obvious. In order to keep in business, British industry needed ever-increasing overseas markets for its products.

Against this difficult backdrop, Britain was caught between two centres of gravity. One the one hand, the Commonwealth pulled the country towards its traditional export markets in the former colonies. Although very informal and disorganised, the Commonwealth – and especially the ‘White Dominions’ (notably Canada, Australia, and South Africa) – appeared to offer a way for the British to keep the economic benefits of empire as well as its sentimental attachments. On the other, attempts to form an economic union in Continental Europe were viewed with a mixture of scepticism and alarm.

In March 1957, six European countries (France, West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Italy) signed the Treaty of Rome, paving the way for a supra-national organisation intended to facilitate trade and political cooperation between the member-states. Macmillan faced a dilemma. Although not totally incompatible, Britain could not move towards both the Commonwealth and the EEC at the same time.

A difficult decision

The Macmillan archives on deposit at the Bodleian provide a fascinating snapshot of the difficulties of the decision, especially in the period immediately after the signing of the Treaty of Rome. They also show Macmillan’s attempt to play a difficult double game between what he termed ‘the practical’ and ‘the idealistic’ (Bodleian, MS. Macmillan dep. c.920, fol. 21). While he could certainly dress his actions in the ideology of Europeanism, he was also acutely aware of the dangers which a united Europe would create for a disengaged Britain.

MS. Macmillan dep. c. 920, fol. 21: Luncheon Speech for European Free Trade Area, 20 Feb 1957. Reproduced with kind permission of the Trustees of the Harold Macmillan Book Trust.

MS. Macmillan dep. c. 920, fol. 21: Luncheon Speech for European Free Trade Area, 20 Feb 1957. Reproduced with kind permission of the Trustees of the Harold Macmillan Book Trust.

In a speech written for the European Movement Industrial Conference in February 1958, Macmillan wrote that he saw Free Trade as an ideological glue to cement unity within the Continent:

‘The European idea is gaining every day in strength and purpose. […] The Treaty of Rome is a major achievement and one which we welcome because it will bring increased prosperity and strength to our friends and partners on the Continent. We believe that it is of the greatest importance to the future of Europe that the European Economic Community should be linked from the outset with the other free countries of Europe through a Free Trade Area. Such an association could draw the European nations steadily closer together in their political and economic relations…to the immense and lasting advantage of Europe and the free world as a whole.’(Bodleian, MS. Macmillan dep. c.920, fol. 110)

MS. Macmillan dep. c. 920, fol. 110: macmillan to Beddington-Behrens, 17 Feb 1958. Reproduced with kind permission of the Trustees of the Harold Macmillan Book Trust.

MS. Macmillan dep. c. 920, fol. 110: macmillan to Beddington-Behrens, 17 Feb 1958. Reproduced with kind permission of the Trustees of the Harold Macmillan Book Trust.

In other company, however, it was clear that his approach was much more grounded on the realities of the British position:

‘Of course it might be argued that we could use all our influence to break up the six and to prevent their plan coming into being. I think there would be great dangers in this. First of all, it would be a very wrong thing to do, and secondly, it would probably not succeed.’ (Bodleian, MS. Macmillan dep. c.920, fol. 24)

 

MS. Macmillan dep. c. 920, fol. 24: Luncheon Speech for European Free Trade Area, 20 Feb 1957. Reproduced with kind permission of the Trustees of the Harold Macmillan Book Trust.

MS. Macmillan dep. c. 920, fol. 24: Luncheon Speech for European Free Trade Area, 20 Feb 1957. Reproduced with kind permission of the Trustees of the Harold Macmillan Book Trust.

Macmillan realised that Britain could not preserve its economic and political status in Europe from outside a united Europe and, despite his reservations, began to negotiate with European leaders to get Britain in.

Painful process

Informal negotiations with ‘the Six’ began in 1958. Unfortunately for Britain, the same year saw the rise to power of General de Gaulle in France. Although concerned about the escalating war in French Algeria, de Gaulle still saw British membership of the EEC as potentially damaging to France’s international position and especially to its leading role within the EEC.

Britain went to the polls in 1959 and re-elected Macmillan, giving him the mandate to formally apply for Britain to enter the EEC in 1961. Edward Heath, as Foreign Secretary, was sent to Brussels to open formal accession talks.

Politically, British discussion on EEC membership hinged on two issues: the privileged position of the Commonwealth and agricultural subsidies. Both immediately created problems. The British refused to extend Free Trade to food because this would mean removing the existing heavy subsidies given to British farmers and a rise in food prices as a result. The Six, however, also refused to allow the Commonwealth to hold onto its existing trading privileges, despite Macmillan’s attempt to use separate negotiations with the Commonwealth as leverage against the Europeans. For Macmillan, the process was deeply dispiriting. ‘I think sometimes our difficulties with our friends abroad result from our natural good manners and reticence’, he wrote in June 1958.

Gauging the public reaction to the process is difficult. The Labour Party, under Hugh Gaitskell, was certainly hostile. The Conservative Party Archive at the Bodleian does preserve a number of angry letters on the issue; many complain about the perceived ‘betrayal’ of the Commonwealth, others voiced suspicion of European motivations.
Certainly the Conservative Research Department worried that Macmillan’s ‘rational approach based on a simple analysis of our political and economic problems’ might make the attempt to join the EEC sound, publicly, like ‘an act of desperation’. (Bodleian, CRD 2/43/2)

Ultimately, however, public opinion was never put to the test. In January 1963, de Gaulle vetoed British membership of the EEC with his famous comment: ‘non’. Britain would have to wait until 1973 – and endure another humiliating French rejection – before it would finally take a seat in the EEC.

Guy Bud

40 years ago: Britain joins the EEC


On 1 January 1973, after decades of discussion and frustration, the United Kingdom became a full member of the European Economic Community.

The successful application was a long time coming. The UK had applied for membership in 1963 and 1967 but had been rejected – largely due to the hesitance of Charles de Gaulle, the French president. 

In 1969, the Party explored the issues involved in further negotiations, estimating that a conservative estimate would extend them until 1971 (LCC 1/2/17)


When Edward Heath became Prime Minister in 1970, he continued to press for membership. In July 1971, Heath told a Central Council meeting, ‘We believe, as we stated in the White Paper, that our people will be more prosperous, our economy and our industries stronger as a result of joining the European Communities’. In fact, 1971 became a year of much discussion and consultation, from the launch of the Government’s White Paper to the vote at the Party Conference in October – the Party’s Weekly News called it ‘the summer of the Common Market. Of the great debate’ (PUB 193/23). Party members, the Opposition and the public all had many questions about what EEC membership would mean for the UK. Heath’s Central Council speech was met by no fewer than 29 detailed questions from the audience, and the Conservative Party Archive holds reams of correspondence about terms of membership, debates over the possibility of a referendum and discussion of Conservative policy. Heath stopped short of holding a referendum, however; the UK did not hold a public vote on the EU until 1975.

A question from Party members at the Central Council meeting in July 1971. Heath answered 29 questions, many in great detail (NUA 3/1/4)
A record of the vote in favour of EEC admission at the Conservative Party Conference, 13 October 1971. The motion passed by 2,474 against 324 votes (NUA 2/1/76)


On 1 January 1973, newspapers nationwide celebrated the work Heath did in bringing the UK into the EC, and the Union Jack was raised in Brussels to celebrate the occasion. Over the following months, however, the Conservatives – and indeed, the UK political body as a whole – turned to the practical issue of working as a part of the EEC government.


This was no small matter; the UK sent upwards of 1,000 civil servants to Brussels, and the Conservative Party Archive’s papers explore the negotiations and practicalities of EEC participation. The CRD, for example, proposed that its role in relation to European Parliament should be as a source of political advice as well as a liaison between backbench members and MEPs (CRD 4/22/8). Central Office explored direct elections throughout the 1970s (CCO 20/32) and debated the possibility of a referendum. British MEPs joined those from Denmark to form the European Conservative Group – later the European Democratic Group – on 16 January 1973, and some of the group’s working papers can be found in CCO 508.

The UK’s membership in the European Union remains a subject of discussion and often debate. As Cameron’s government explores the possibility of an EU referendum in coming years, the history of the UK’s membership and previous votes, the CPA provides much fodder for those interested in Conservative policy and position toward the EEC/EU. Though recent files are closed, those up to 1982 provide a rich perspective on the UK’s first few years in Europe. 

50 years ago today: Britain applies for membership in the EEC

Although the United Kingdom didn’t join the European Economic Community until 1 January 1973, Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government had applied to join the group as early as 10 August 1961.

Ted Heath, then Lord Privy Seal and charged with EEC negotiations, spoke to the assembly at Brussels in August 1961:

“These discussions will affect profoundly the way of life, the political thought and even the character of each one of our peoples… The British Government and the British people have been through a searching debate during the last few years on the subject of their relations with Europe. The result of the debate has been our present application. It was a decision arrived at, not on any narrow or short-term grounds, but as a result of a thorough assessment over a considerable period of the needs of our own country, of Europe, and of the free world as a whole. We recognise it as a great decision, a turning point in our history, and we take it in all seriousness. In saying that we wish to join the EEC, we mean that we desire to become full, whole-hearted and active members of the European Community in its widest sense and to go forward with you in the building of a new Europe.”

(Address given August 1961, requoted in address given 29 January 1963 at the 17th ministerial meeting between the Member States of the European Economic Community (EEC) and the United Kingdom, a draft version of Heath’s 1963 speech forms part of the Edward Heath archive, which was acquired by the Bodleian Library earlier this year and will be available to readers following cataloguing (see story and image of Heath’s notes)

The front page of the Weekly News Letter (August 1961; PUB 193/17)

The United Kingdom’s membership in the EEC/EU has sparked much debate and discussion over the years. Its initial application was part of Macmillan’s efforts to develop fresh policies for the Conservative Party; the application “acknowledged that Britain’s standing as an independent great power, and its emphasis on empire, were all but over, which were bitter pills for the right to swallow.” (Seldon and Ball, 1994, p. 51).

However, this first bid was unsuccessful; it was officially and harshly vetoed by French President Charles de Gaulle in 1963 and again following the United Kingdom’s second application in 1967; de Gaulle claimed that Britain displayed a distinct “lack of commitment” and refused very publicly to countenance the union. In a public statement in January 1963, he said:

“She [Britain] did it [asked to join] after having earlier refused to participate in the communities we are now building, as well as after creating a free trade area with six other States, and, finally, after having — I may well say it (the negotiations held at such length on this subject will be recalled) — after having put some pressure on the Six to prevent a real beginning being made in the application of the Common Market. If England asks in turn to enter, but on her own conditions, this poses without doubt to each of the six States, and poses to England, problems of a very great dimension … In short, the nature, the structure, the very situation (conjuncture) that are England’s differ profoundly from those of the continentals.”

(Press conference held by General de Gaulle, 14 January 1963; Audio version available in French)

European Policy (a paper by the Conservative Research Department outlining possibilities and policies for another EEC entry attempt; LCC 1/2/17)

It was only after a change of power in France and the further negotiation of the EEC’s agricultural policies that the United Kingdom’s bid was finally successful (along with those of Ireland and Denmark), and the nation was welcome into the EEC on 1 January 1973, under the premiership of Ted Heath.

February 1986: European Integration Moves Forward

Convinced that the European idea, the results achieved in the field of economic integration and political co-operation, and the needs for new developments correspond to the wishes of the democratic peoples of Europe, for whom the European Parliament, elected by universal suffrage, is an indispensable means of expression…

[Preamble to Single European Act]

Leadership is what is required in the Community. The leaders of the Ten must agree upon the direction of the Community in a spirit that wields and transcends individual national self-interest. Let us raise our heads above the petty squabbles of the past and lead the Community into new enterprises and fresh ventures, for the sake of both ourselves and the Community.

[Ted Heath, Europe – The Next Ten Years, at Conservative Group for Europe Annual Conference, March 1984 (IDU 32/2)]

By the early 1980s, discontent and frustration were growing among the member states of the no-longer-fledgling European Community. The Treaties of Paris and Rome in the 1950s had set the integration ball rolling, but barriers remained and made economic movement difficult.

Captain Europe attempts to educate British voters about the European Community

A number of camps formed among European nations to discuss future changes (including the famous Crocodile Club and Kangaroo Group). At the same time business pressures grew; Jacques Delors took office as president of the European Commission, making his primary purpose work towards a single market. Negotiations between member states began to create pressure to work towards an agreement.

In 1984, the member states gathered at Fontainebleau (see photo of the Heads of State at the Fontainebleau Summit of 25 and 26 June 1984) and commissioned the Dooge Committee to research the issue, and a white paper on the completion of the European Market was presented by Jacques Delors and the Commission to the European Council in 1985 (see also the House of Commons discussion of the report).

The ten leading member states convened in Milan in June 1985 to discuss a possible treaty. Consensus proved difficult, however, as many of the member states had severe misgivings about proposed changes. Britain, as a traditionally hesitant member, was unwilling to accept any stipulation that might prevent a nation from protecting its own interests.

Despite misgivings from a number of nations, a conference was convened and the text of the Act was finished in December 1985. A complicated signing process followed, including national referendums in Denmark and Ireland; the Act came into force on 1 January 1987.

The Act itself set out one of the most important provisions of today’s European Union: the European single market. In order to make way for the establishment of a single market by 1992, the Act touched upon the movement of refugees, tax barriers, VAT rates and other important elements to establishing a free trade area, and it institutionalized European monetary policy. The Act didn’t limit itself to finance and trade issues, however, and it set out goals for European social cohesiveness. The Act also established the European Court of First Instance, which would act as a filtering court and take some of the workload from the Court of Justice. To make these changes (and future decisions) work smoothly, the Act set extended Qualified Majority voting.

As Jacque Delors summarized:

The Single Act means, in a few words, the commitment of implementing simultaneously the great market without frontiers, more economic and social cohesion, an European research and technology policy, the strengthening of the European Monetary System, the beginning of an European social area and significant actions in environment.

[From Europa]

European Conservative Brief, January 1988 (CCO 508/11/60)

Not everyone was thrilled with the Act. Although the provisions it made were monumental, Thatcher herself called its impact ‘modest‘. Indeed, it was a modest version of the original; negotiations had been forced to make it palatable to all member states. But it set the Community on its way; by 1992, a huge number of barriers had been removed, and the member states signed the Maastricht Treat, setting out goals for the European Monetary Union.

That did not stop the UK’s Conservative Party from shifting to what Margaret Thatcher called a Eurosceptic stance in the late 1980s. In September 1988, Thatcher gave what is now called her ‘Bruges Speech‘ to the College of Europe. She affirmed: ‘Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.’ At the same time, however, she passionately declared:

To try to suppress nationhood and concentrate power at the centre of a European conglomerate would be highly damaging and would jeopardise the objectives we seek to achieve …Europe will be stronger precisely because it has France as France, Spain as Spain, Britain as Britain, each with its own customs, traditions and identity. It would be folly to try to fit them into some sort of identikit European personality.