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Commonwealth Records

Historical and

Office Department



No. 16 Destination: Journey to an Unknown in Brussels Arrival in British 1973 the

Foreign and Commonwealth (e



The extent and meaning of the United Kingdom's commitment to the European Union is currently one of the most divisive issues in British Some has The it long been that politics. so. might argue uncertainties Britain's British imperial about post role which conditioned attitudes towards the European Communities in the i95os and i96os have given way to a new debate about how far we are, and should be, committed to the Union's further development. It was therefore singularly appropriate that Lord Thomson of Monifieth, who on 27 October gave this year's FCO Annual History Lecture, should have chosen as his subject Journey to an Unknown Destination: the British Arrival in Brussels in 1973'. The lecture diplomatic history the to not only added our understanding of of the ig7os, but also provided a stimulating contribution to the continuing debate on Britain's relations with its continental allies and partners. Lord Thomson has long been involved in the politics of European integration. After having served during the ig6os as Minister of State in the Foreign Office and as Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs in Harold Wilson's Labour Government, he was, as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Minister with special responsibility for Europe. Then, following Britain's accession to the European Community in January 1973, he was Brussels, Comm in he held for four the oner a position appointed next He from Chairman European Movement in to the 1977 ig8o, was, of years. Britain, and until 1997 was Liberal Democrat spokesman in the House of Lords on foreign affairs and broadcasting. We are pleased to publish Lord Thomson's lecture as the latest in the FCO Historians' series of OccasionalPapers.

John Kerr November iggg



& Commonwealth

HISTORIANS Occasional Papers

November iggg

No. i6





Lord Thomson of Monifieth

Copies of this pamphlet will be deposited with the National Libraries FCO Historians,

Records and Historical Department, Old Admiralty Building, Whitehall, London SW 1A 2AF Crown Copyright

ISBN 0 903359 83 9

JOURNEY TO AN UNKNOWN DESTINATION: THE BRITISH ARRIVAL IN BRUSSELS IN 1973 A lecture delivered at the Foreign and Commonwealth

Office on

October 27 iggg It is a great, if slightly intimidating honour to be asked to deliver the annual Foreign and Commonweal h Office lecture-and to do so in the elegant

Locarno Locarno Suite. I historic these the remember surroundings of and State first in Minister I brand of 1964 as a new saw them rooms when

for things the side of things -at the responsible among other Foreign Office. I discovered that the Locarno Suite had been converted into offices and was shocked to find a handsome marble mantelpiece divided in three by partitions to provide cubicles for three middle-ranking diplomats.


Well, times have certainly changed in the Locarno Room since 1964, as they have indeed in the whole pre-1939 system of European diplomacy which the Locarno Treaty represented, and which so signally failed to prevent a It for European this civil war. makes an appropriate setting a second great discussion of Britain's arrival in the European Community just over 25 years ago. I have stolen my title-Journey to an Unknown Destination'--from the Pelican paperback by Andrew Shonfield which contained his 1972 BBC Reith lectures. As well as mountains of butter, the European Community But I felt in 1972 that has always produced mountains of books about itsel Shonfield's slim volume was more perceptive than most a quarter and ... bears it re-reading. century on, Andrew Shonfield's unknown destination referred, of course to the voyage of it Community in European as a whole, and unknown many respects the Union, European its the now with own currency prepares to remains, as face the challenge of Enlargement. But in the more limited sense of the journey, Christopher Soames and I undertook in January 1973 to join the European Commission it may seem a bit odd to describe Brussels as an Britain's in involved We both had been destination. much unknown for Minister Cabinet Community. I had been in the as relations within the for entry, and Europe, preparing the approach to our negotiations Christopher had been a Labour Government appointment as Ambassador in Paris. We were to discover, however, that although we thought we knew a

deal from it Commission, deal European the a good of was good about the outside. I approved the Cabinet paper with the draft of Britain's application to join in a hotel in my Dundee constituency just before Labour lost the General Election of May 1970. It was delivered by my Conservative successor, Tony Barber, almost word for word with only an opening preamble that the British Government had changed, but not the policy. It was a period of biGovernment it for Opposition, but last between to was not and partisanship By the time Soames and I went to Brussels, he had behind him a long. Prime Minister and a party which was by a great majority in favour of British entry. I came from the pro-Europe minority of a divided Opposition. The European issue had reasserted its deeply divisive impact on British politics. Soames and I came from very different backgrounds--political Christopher and otherwise-but proved a good man to go tiger hunting with in the jungles of the Berlaymont. Not for nothing, when Christopher Soames was leaving as Ambassador in Paris, did his favourite restaurateur `Un Christopher felt grand ambience est parti'. that nothing less remark Queen's Flight would do for our historic arrival in the than a plane of Brussels. Unfortunately that morning there was a Royal pre-emption of the plane on which we planned to travel, and, and we were left with the more Queen's Flight the of modest end which turned out to be the Board of Trade calibration plane. No glasses of champagne; only instant coffee in flying in laboratory. And the weather was foul. the midst of a plastic cups So in the most literal sense we found ourselves making a journey to an We destination. had be diverted Dutch local to to unknown a airfield. When we arrived, trudging across the tarmac with our briefcases, we found If only The Daily Express had got a the terminal locked for lunch. photograph at that moment of two portly commissioners visibly sagging before that locked door! So this is Europe!



Europe Brussels f the of proved very welcoming when we nally Given it Britain between that the night. chequered relations reached and the Community over the last twenty-five years, it is worth recalling the in for Britain there the extraordinary enthusiasm 1973 was entry of and of Ireland and Denmark. After years of indecision by Britain and after two first President Gaulle, by de from this the original six vetoes enlargement Out was regarded as a major milestone. of the whole quarter century to follow, 1973 has turned out to be the only twelve months in which Britain Community fully by the the was regarded as participating with her rest of Community's The fact in that the partners the next stage of the voyage.


Labour Party had swung from seeking membership in i97o to opposing it in described `Tory they terms' was regarded as a passing as 1972 on what domestic former Labour Ministers the of politics, since most of problem involved in preparing the negotiations with Europe had declared they found Such terms the goodwill was invaluable in the early months as acceptable. Britain set out on its learning curve about the internal workings of the Community institutions, and they, in their tum, found themselves adapting Anglo-Saxon habits. A (and Irish Danish) the to some of political and field in the this two-way of process occurred over time striking example of Despite elaborate interpretation language. arrangements the working And the French were well language of the policy papers was French. known to be properly proud and protective of their national language. It English before in time at the working papers arrived was a considerable Commission Today in French. the transformation within the same time as It gained added impetus with the arrival of the has been remarkable. Swedes and the Finns. It is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that the Commission, President English Professor Prodi, Italian the of uses as new his language Cabinet. Irish Chef de This the working of cabinet under an fact in European Union, international in the that the as other reflects English has become the working language. In this country we organisations, for it too much take granted and we lose some of our advantage by becoming linguistically lazy about learning other nations' languages. The most immediate challenge, however, facing the UK in 1973 related to fill Commission in British bid the to posts the secretariat and in the other For the interested departments in Whitehall and for the two institutions. future Commissioners, it was an immensely difficult task, a multi-dimensional We could not know in advance which posts would be jig saw puzzle. The for bidding. Byzantine our available nature of the appointments system dimension its of political patronage was strange and alien to us. with There was a strong wish to ensure that the British contingent in Brussels We high but sought a quality. mixture of mainly was of civil servants, also industry from business and and the universities with a sprinkling of people for European ideal. We hoped the that many would be political enthusiasts European their to career stay and make as attracted civil servants, and that in Brussels others, after useful experience would return with their career by home their knowledge of the workings of the enhanced prospects at Community. Within twelve months these hopes were severely set back by the departure Heath Minister, Mr Prime by the the terms as of of entry renegotiation of Government degree doubts the the the new and of subsequent about


Britain's commitment to the Community. Twenty-five years on one cannot say that the British participation in the European civil service of the Commission has been as substantial as it ought to have been. At the higher levels in the Commission the UK produced from the be"". ., some very Directors Directors General, including of course, Lord Williamson good and Secretary General Emil Noel. legendary the to the successor as able as With hindsight, however, I think the UK civil service failed to recognise the importance of posts in middle management, and of recruiting a big enough Britain or good enough pool of younger capable of working their way up the ladder. For a British politician, there were many fascinating discoveries in those days early of entry of the differences between the Westminster and the found first For I the time continental political culture. myself working Rome. Treaty A the meeting of the within a written constitution of of Commission had a very superficial resemblance to the British Cabinet Service familiar, I but the there at a side table sat was meeting with which did not hesitate to 3uridique--she legal advisers to the Commission--who How different from Downing Street intervene as custodians of the Treaty. invitation. Law And by the appear special officers rarely and only where Things in European the they seem are never quite what yet ... and yet. Union. I remember Sir Con O'Neill, that magnificent mandarin of the I learn lessons in telling that would me wryly accession negotiations, I Fabian Society. had Brussels in in dreamed He the never of pragmatism Commission Council I found (and Ministers the the equally of was right. final decons were taken) tried with paiinstaking patience to where the its by proposals consensus after wide ranging reach agreements on interests lasting It sometimes consultations with outside years. was a more institution Whitehall I had less left and which, than the secretive open, is twenty-five years on, still struggling to give birth to a Freedom of Information Act. As a British Cabinet Minister, I was expertly briefed only on matters of departmental interest. For the rest I was on my own, and not encouraged In Brussels I to trespass on the departmental territory of other Ministers. found myself equipped with a Continental `Cabins'- a large Private Office with officials shadowing other areas of Commission policy. This enabled me to be well briefed on the CAP or other responsibilities of other Commissioners far removed from my own portfolio. I have the confirmation Lord Williamson his long Brussels Whitehall both of with and experience of here I quote him-`the I Cabi Ws de that-and meetings of the netswhich for brought intellectually ten chaired years a powerful and stimulating Commission's It is a complete misunderstanding to the to collegiality work.


Cabinets do, the that suggest, as some commentators simply battle to serve They a national viewpoint. were realistic about national concerns, but This European emphasis will be reinforced by an European in outlook'. initiative by President Prodi that in future every Commissioner must have Chef Deputy Chef In his either a or own nationality. not of regard to I interests behaviour the the might say same about of the national Commissioners. When it was necessary to tell their colleagues what the likely be-since to to a proposal no one else could national reaction was duty-a that perform I best'. know country

nice euphemism was used and we talked

`the of

In 1973 I found that the President of the Commission was much more `first British Prime the the to than position of myth attached amongst equals' But the Commission Presidency suffered from some particular Ministers. handicaps which have damaged the effectiveness of the Commission over Chairman, Ortoli, President the years. an able with great previous Commission from inside, had influence his the the no over experience of from Each the particular and of us emerged choice of colleagues. from drannstances the of country which we sometimes peculiar political had but influence The President some not much over the came. distribution of portfolios. They emerged from discussions between the new Commissioners strongly influenced behind the scenes by the views of the Once Governments. President had the the shared posts were out member Commission four-year life during bring the the to of about a reno powers President bring Still less the could about the resignation of a shuffie. Commissioner who failed to perform properly. There was only the ultimate Parliament deterrent the proposing the removal of the entire of Commission, an outcome that finally came to pass with the Santer Commission earlier this year over the exposure of a number of examples of serious maladministration. From the beginning there has been a real problem for the Commission over its democratic legitimacy and its accountability. There is now a new European Commission, a new European Parliament and a new President of for Commission. There President be the the should a warm welcome efforts Prodi is making within the limitations of the present treaties to improve for if Commissioners being to things. are asked a prior commitment resign face individual in to approval portfolios and requested, to accept changes from the European Parliament.

The European Parliament is steadily gaining a stronger constitutional role Union. In it European 1973 was no more than a consultative within the


It Parliamentary be turned the to the assembly. out area where impact. biggest the the of new member states made



the first band of British MP's arrived in Strasbourg led by the For Sir Peter Kirk, hardly the redoubtable existed. a serious question-time Commission there was no time limit for the preparation of answers to heard Ministers Council had of questions. never representing the supplementary questions and were quite unaccustomed to the rough and They found it difficult to tumble of a real Parliamentary question-time. Continental full answer the simplest questions without making a speech of Signor I in Italian Minister, Foreign rhetoric. recall one scene which the Fanfani, collapsed almost in tears over the affront to his dignity in having to face a hostile Westminster-type His cross examination. own party felt Parliament in him bouquet large to of obliged present supporters with a flowers to console him! Parliament of iggg, however, like the Commission has its legitimacy The between accountability. and own problems of relationship Parliament Parliaments difficult is European the and national and feeling indirectly I the that the elected uncomfortable retain unresolvedEuropean Parliament of 1973 with some major political figures preserving a link between the House of Commons and Strasbourg had advantages over European The Parliament tends to present the present situation. bytes, declarations and sound rather than make the concentrate on popular Parliamentary have been increased they powers of co-decision most of the Commission, becoming before MEP's The too self-righteous about the given. for salaries and expenses against the should guard their own arrangements disease international the of occupational sin of self-indulgence, Commission itself! institutions-induding, of course, the The


So much for the British learning curve on arriving inside the European Community. What are the lessonsof those early days for British policy today destination? its Union European to still uncertain continues voyage a as the A simple one is that membership of the Union does not involve abandoning fight Other British interests. defence their own the member countries of Community Thatcher fought battle Mrs over our share of a corners. financing, and she won Britain's rebate-because the others recognised however reluctantly that she was right. But I recall the remark of a wise Dutch Commissioner during the first years of British membership. My dear George, ' he said, `there are now two countries in the Community who are France Britain. But defending interests, their and stubborn about national a word of advice, " he added. "France always describes opposition to her


Europe. betrayal Britain makes it appear as if Europe is position as a of betraying Britain. Not the best way to get results!' A second obvious and outstanding lesson for Britain over the whole period of our relationship with the European project: it is better to be in at the beginning. My own task of establishing the Community's first Regional Development Fund provided immediate evidence of the crucial advantage of being in at the birth of any major new policy. In the search for objective for helping less-privileged Britain's distinctive criteria areas problems could be given appropriate consideration. There is no doubt that if the Regional Development Fund, like CAP or the Common Fisheries Policy had been in in the six original members before Britain, the existence reflecting situation Ireland and Denmark arrived, all three countries would have been at a disadvantage. It is a fundamental reality of the European Union that the long and painful process of getting agreements between member states on difficult decision, it to make makes very any major changes `acquis formidably the communautaire' notorious afterwards--hence which faces late entrants. What remains depressing is our failure to learn this simple lesson over the Union, Monetary Economic Exchange Rate the and whole saga of Mechanism and now the Single Currency. The stark fact is that if we are to continue as a leading country in the Union, British participation in the single currency is essential. Inevitably Single Currency European Central Bank are the the those running and decisions inside to the those meet needs administrative making of while Britain is outside. The longer we remain outside the more we will find, as has happened before, that we are joining something created by others to interests. Nor be their should we complacent about how long our reflect influence in Community the capital of goodwill and present considerable Government last if finally, through a referendum or would under the present decide Single Currency. to to the remain outside otherwise, we were History never repeats itself but there are sinularities between Britain's hesitations of the early seventies and those of the late nineties, in both involving In I to to the them. a resolve resort referendum cases i97o was involved in a White Paper that tried to prophesy the economic I British described it forecasting like membership. the consequences of football In Dundee United the event there were match uncertainties of a full for in transition to the a number of economic troubles membership us developments Arab the such as 1973 and some major unforeseen economic But despite these difficulties the referendum produced a massive oil crisis.


for majority continued membership and twenty-five years on, the economic benefits of membership have been undeniable. Going into the Single Currency, however carefully we arrange the timing is likely to produce its in But the long term the short term. own awkward economic aspects benefits as in 1973 will be substantial, with 6o% of our trade now within the European Union and Britain with its world business language as a prime attractive area for inward investment. There is European known in born was

final for lesson Britain of an essential characteristic of the one Union throughout its history. It is the importance of what is The European Union the Brussels lexicon as the political will. Economic Community its today the as an great majority of and operations remain economic, although the foreign policy, defence and home Union Commission jurisdiction the the affairs pillars of are outside the of becoming steadily more important. But all the economic achievements of the European Union have had their foundations in political decisions of historic significance. The Coal and Steel Community combining the warmaking heavy industries of Western Europe was an act of political will with the political aim of Franco-German reconciliation after two catastrophic European wars. Messina in 1935, setting up the Common Market, was an act of political will of breath-taking audacity to which Britain was blind. unbelievably The underlying aim of the European construction from the beginning has been political not economic. Politicians in Britain have been accused of fact. I do believe this that the public declarations of those concealing not Britain into Europe in took of us who 1973 are open to that charge. Like I have must made scores of speeches about the political role of the others European Community in making inconceivable the great European wars of the past, and in enabling Europe to pull its united weight in world affairs in for impossible any single member nation. a way I come back in conclusion to Andrew Shonfield's `Unknown Destination' in Instead European Federation, he suggested a the 1972. of concept of a series of practical measures which taken together would make the Community significantly more capable. `What we can do', he said in his final words on the eve of British entry, `is to create a mood and a set of habits which will make it feasible in joint European action on to engage ... a scale we have never approached before'. That remains pretty true today. In a European Union of ancient nation states the concept of surrendering identities Super State is is fantasy. Equally to national a an unreal unreal the concept that Britain can make the other member states re-write the


Treaties and confine their main activities to a free trade area and a single market. In my own case I was the last British politician to hold the separate post of Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, and one of the first to become a UK European Commissioner. I had special reason to be aware in Britain Dean Acheson's that truth creating an remark of of the upsetting independent Commonwealth had lost an Empire and had to seek a new in itself be That has in to as a major player proved role world affairs. role is it If Union. European take now perfectly our opportunities the we decade be that a player of central we could within a reasonable to conclude European board. the significance right across We are fortunate that the standing of Britain amongst its European partners is high at the moment and the British economy is in good shape. The case in principle for joining the single c urency enjoys the support of a broad band of leadership of Britain, in politics, business and the trade unions. But in circumstances where the referendum is now an accepted instrument of is decision there a vociferous and xenophobic maldng, and where political do inform is to to there public opinion not only of much section of the press, bring home Currency, Single but for than to the that much wider the case a if decisive EU benefits the to ensure we are same membership of general in It is last in European in the the next referendum as one 1975. a majority lesson we learned a quarter of a century ago. Let us not forget it-today.




Lord Thomson is a Liberal Democrat Peer. As George Thomson, he was Labour following East Dundee in MP for 1952 the election and, elected first Government Minister Harold Wilson's in he in 1964, as served victory Chancellor Office Foreign (1964-6), State in the of and subsequently as of he became last In August 1967 (1966-7). Lancaster Duchy the the of Affairs. Then as Minister Without Secretary of State for Commonwealth Portfolio (1968-9) and, again as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (196970), he was Minister with special responsibility for Europe. He was Shadow Defence Minister (1970-2), and on the United Kingdom's entry into the European Community in January 1973 he was appointed Commissioner in European has since been Chairman Brussels. Lord Thomson the of Castle Leeds is Chairman Movement in Britain, the and currently of Foundation.




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Journey to an Unknown Destination: The British Arrival in Brussels in 1973  

Lord Thomson of Monifieth considers the meaning and extent of the United Kingdom’s commitment to the EU in the 1999 FCO’s Annual History Lec...

Journey to an Unknown Destination: The British Arrival in Brussels in 1973  

Lord Thomson of Monifieth considers the meaning and extent of the United Kingdom’s commitment to the EU in the 1999 FCO’s Annual History Lec...