European Affairs

Before Brexit, there was Brentry. A journalist's recollections     Print

michaelmosettig.newIn a journalistic life that began as teenager I have covered some mega stories: from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Kennedy assassination to Watergate and 9/11 among others. Perhaps, then, it is not a surprise that one story had slipped out of my memory chamber, only to be revived by Brexit.

The story was the first round of the negotiations in the summer of 1970 that led to Britain's admission two and a half years later to what was then called the European Economic Community or Common Market.

Famously, successive British governments in the 1950s had distanced themselves from the first efforts to create European unity -- the Coal and Steel Community and then the Common Market. But by 1961, Prime Minister Harold MacMillan had a change of heart and realized there was more economic benefit in joining the six continental members rather than standing loftily aside.

Those negotiations laboriously struggled ahead, seemingly stuck on such Commonwealth preference issues as New Zealand butter and Indian polo mallets. In January 1963, French President Charles de Gaulle put a stop to them, vetoing the United Kingdom application on the grounds that Britain was insufficiently European and out of anger with a UK-US nuclear missile deal that did not include France. Labor Prime Minister Harold Wilson tried again four years later, once more to be snubbed by de Gaulle.

By 1970, it seemed the stars had reached alignment. De Gaulle was no longer president, replaced by the more pragmatic Georges Pompidou. Wilson re-submitted the UK application. And then another stroke of luck for the European cause. In one of the biggest upset elections in British history, on June 19, Wilsonwas ousted by the Conservative party led by its most devoted pro-European Edward Heath.

The new prime minister had headed the unsuccessful negotiations of 1961-62 and was determined to make a success this time. And he had a willing partner in Pompidou.

Due to the election, the British negotiators had changed, at least at the top level. I was a UPI correspondent in Brussels and asked a UK official in Brussels how complicated it would be to change the names on the Luxembourg hotel reservations. I received a haughty response that only a British diplomat could deliver to a young American reporter.

On June 30, the talks began with little fanfare and the impulse to get on with business. But by 1970, there was a critical difference from the original entry negotiations. In 1961, a recently imperial power was dealing with a newly formed association of countries still finding its economic, political and legal footing. By 1970, an economically weak Britain had to navigate with a grouping that had experienced remarkable economic growth and through 13,000 pages of Community laws and regulations.

The 1970-71 negotiations, like the original, soon threatened to bog down in New Zealand butter and Caribbean sugar. The deadlocks were broken in 12 hours of private talks between Heath and Pompidou in July 1971. Within weeks the details were wrapped up in a deal to bring in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark and Norway (though the latter opted out in a referendum). On January 1, 1973, formally began an expansion process that would grow over decades from six to nine and eventually to 28 members, now perhaps to go back to 27 as Britain departs.

There was one tough hurdle in between. In the October 1971 British parliamentary vote to approve the accession treaty, there were suggestions of the storm clouds that would turn into a hurricane four decades later. Members of the House of Commons were given a free vote, no party whips, and there were splits in both the majority Conservative and opposition Labor benches. The treaty passed with a multi-party majority of 112 votes.
Interestingly, as described in Hugo Young's magisterial book on Britain and Europe, This Blessed Plot, national sovereignty was a secondary issue , critical only to a few Tories led by Enoch Powell. According to Young, Heath fudged the issue of whether Community or British law would be supreme. More of the no votes were based on fears of rising food prices.

The Heath-Pompidou alliance was as strong as any had been or would be between the leaders of Britain and France. And it would prove tobe especially vexing to the United States. In his memoirs, Henry Kissinger said President Richard Nixon had thought Heath would be a natural conservative soul mate and pursued him almost like a love struck teenager.

To what extent Heath was pro-European versus anti-American is a subject of historical debate. But there has not been a modern British prime minister less deferential to the White House and more accommodating to France and Europe. The depths of that relationship were proven by the joint French-British tilt to the Arab side in the 1973 Mideast war, while the United States armed Israel and brought an oil embargo on itself.

The revived Anglo-French bond was on symbolic and ceremonial display in May 1972 when Queen Elizabeth II made a state visit to Paris. There were even rapturous comparisons with the Paris visit of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) that helped open the way to the pre-World War I Entente Cordiale between Britain and France.

I happened to be in Paris for the Queen's visit, and one nugget has stuck in my mind 44 years on. The International Herald-Tribune carried a story about the preparations, and correspondent James Goldsborough wrote that Buckingham Palace had advised the Elsyee that the Queen did not like food with garlic.

A bizarre thing perhaps only a foodie in Paris could recall. Given the turmoil that has followed the Brexit referendum, I think I could have lived more happily with the memories sublimated.

But Brexit did send me back to the 1998 work of Hugo Young, who died way too soon (at age 64 in 2003) and whose wise voice is so missed amid so much reckless and irresponsible British press coverage of the referendum.

Young opened the chapter on the British entry with words remarkably foretelling:

"Many features common to politics in every era and every dispensation are to be found in Britain's reluctant binding to Europe. There is vacillation and concealment. There is progress followed by regress, and all the time an argument about the real meaning of each of these forms of motion.

"There is, near the top of the list, the question of national pride and what it means, allied to the question of the popular will and how it can be handled: and there is the claim always to be satisfying these potent values, while at the same time regularly redefining them.

"Also present is genuine uncertainty. The leaders often did not really know what would be the consequences of their action, or inaction."

I can only imagine that even such a gifted chronicler of British politics would be saddened, if perhaps not astounded, at his own prescience.