Did Britain’s policy towards the European Economic Community, 1957-1973, demonstrate a change in thinking about Britain’s global role?

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“Of course Brexit means that something is wrong in Europe. But Brexit means also that something was wrong in Britain.”

– Jean-Claude Juncker –

European Economic Community was established under the Treaty of Rome in 1957. The members consisted of six countries: France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, West Germany, and Italy. Over decades after the end of the Second World War, British policy-makers have remained convinced Britain was still a global power (Sanders, 1990: 72) that to some extent has caused the non-membership of Britain’s in the early years of European Community. However, Britain’s role in the international sphere has started to change, while, the European Community has grown rapidly. While there has been special occasion and treaty in between Britain and Europe – Britain has not decided to apply for membership until 1961. The period of the 1960s has been seen by many of historians as a transition point of British foreign policy as it convincingly turned its direction towards Europe (Butler, 2002: 165). Although Britain’s had decided to join the community, France under De Gaulle presidency has always been opposed to British membership to the European Community for various reasons. This essay will first examine Britain’s foreign policy towards the EEC under Harold Macmillan (1957-1963), Harold Wilson (1964-1970), and Edward Heath (1970-1974). In many respects, this essay will not discuss Britain’s policy under Alec Douglas-Home (1963-1964) – as it focuses is on the British application to join the EEC under the three prime ministers leaderships. The second part of the essay will analyse and discuss the reasons why Britain’s policy towards the EEC during 1957-1973 has demonstrated a change in Britain’s global role and what could have been done differently if Britain’s had noticed the change earlier.

Britain’s Policy towards the EEC under Harold Macmillan

Macmillan’s and the rest of Conservatives government were keen to maintain and keep Britain’s global role. The main supported argument with the statement is the fact that the primary focus on Britain’s national interest under his leadership was to retrain Britain’s global role (Deighton, 2000: 17). However, it has been a sensitive issue to maintain Britain’s global position during Macmillan’s government (Butler, 2002: 167). It was a challenge as Britain’s was struggling at the time. After the Suez crisis in 1956, Britain’s global role was at the edge. It had loosened up Britain’s relationship with the United States (Darwin, 1991: 77) and showed the world that Britain’s was not able to keep its Empire. Another challenged that the British had was the fact that Britain’s faced economic crisis. Although, ever since the 1950s, the Conservative’s government had already noticed that based on the OEEC and UN data, the British economic performance was not in a good term (Tomlinson, 1996: 276) – it was not a turning point until 1957 and 1961 when the sterling crisis began (Lowe, 1996: 265).

Nevertheless, the British were still able to manage a strong relationship with the Commonwealth. Until the late 1950s, Britain still had their empire supply and enjoyed the advantages of cheap commodities, mainly food, from the Commonwealth (Childs, 2002: 127). However, with Britain’s faced economic crisis since the end of the 1950s up until 1960s, the trade between the British and the Commonwealth were seen as not reliable enough. Moreover, Macmillan started to become pessimistic about the Commonwealth since the developments of apartheid in South African (Butler, 2002: 137). The Commonwealth was no longer seen as a significant place for Britain’s to rely on its political and economic ties. It is not to say that the Commonwealth was not crucial, but under Macmillan’s – Britain has started to seek for another community that more reliable than the Commonwealth.

Furthermore, the failure in Suez-Crisis and the inability to become a mediator in between the USA and the USSR (Moon, 1985: 37) and its failure to maintain its role as a global power (Butler, 2002: 165) – have caused Macmillan’s thought to apply for a membership to join the EEC, as, within this situation, Europe was seen as the most credible place to hinge on. Moreover, Macmillan did not like the fact if the world would be divided in between the Russian sphere, the American sphere, and a united Europe of which Britain was not a member (Ellison, 2000: 175). However, although Macmillan was convinced, the government was still uncertain whether or not to apply for the membership. The British government seems unprepared to see or did not expect the rapid development of the European community (Moon, 1985: 144) – to some extent this has put pressure for Britain’s to make a decision in a short period. The British was having a long consideration whether or not to apply for membership and did not give any commitment until July 1961, when Macmillan’s announced their intention to negotiate of British membership (Moon, 1985: 38). The decision was clear in October 1961 – when Edward Heath presented Britain’s application to the Six European countries (Toye, 2013: 149). The first application to the EEC has indicated a modification of British policy (Ellison, 2000: 175).

However, the application did not go as smooth as what it was expected. The British that surreptitiously hoped could get special circumstances from the community, instead did not even had a chance to join. On his phone with President Kennedy, the Prime Minister stated that President Charles De Gaulle decision to vetoed British membership to the EEC was crazy (Wall, 2013: 7). De Gaulle vetoed British membership arguing that he doubts British seriousness on the application to join the EEC – with the fact that the British were asking to join the EEC on its terms (Wall, 2013: 8). The French could see that the British have not entirely ready to be committed to the continent. Moreover, De Gaulle insisted that Britain was still firmly bound with the Commonwealth and the United States (Bartlett, 1989: 119). France wanted Britain’s full commitment to the continent.

The situation has accounted the British to be conflicted. If Britain were about to be a full membership of the EEC, it would damage the traditional patterns of trade with the Commonwealth (Robertson and Singleton, 2000: 175). Although, Macmillan believed that with Britain’s membership in the European Community, would become a natural phase for an evolution in the Commonwealth (Toye, 2013: 149) – the rest of the government were not wholeheartedly agreed with him. The opposition party, Labour’s wanted to keep the relations with the Commonwealth to remain the same and refused to change it. Therefore, with De Gaulle vetoed and the parliament that was divided and faced difficulty to make a decision – Britain’s first application to the EEC was not a success.

Britain’s Policy towards the EEC under Harold Wilson

Following Macmillan’s leadership, Wilson’s government was also keen to maintain Britain’s global role (Butler, 2002: 171). However, in contrary to the Conservative’s, Labour’s believed that relations with the Commonwealth are more prominent than Europe. Ever since Attlee’s government, Labour’s has always been opposed to the European federalism that has high potential to overthrow the Parliament (Holland, 2013: 98). While Labour’s was keen to maintain its role in the Commonwealth – Conservative’s keen to keep the strong ties with the United States – Wilson’s position was incoherent as he was in between (Butler, 2002: 181).

Nevertheless, after the rejection of the first application to join the EEC, the British under Wilson’s decided to maintain a strong relationship with the Commonwealth (Butler, 2002: 172). Although Wilson’s main focused was with the Commonwealth, he did not drive away the opportunity for Britain’s to join the EEC. It could be argued that ever since 1964, Wilson has sensed the needs for Britain to join the EEC (Parr, 2006: 15). Wilson’s was under pressure with the economic situations that were not favorable and with speculation against the sterling that generated in July 1966 with the deflationary package (Holland, 2013: 97). As Britain faced deflation and Commonwealth was not dependable enough to secure Britain economy (Parr, 2006: 71) – according to Brown, the membership of EEC will help to sustain Britain’s economy (Parr, 2006: 76). Joining the macroeconomic policies of the European community will degrade pressure on sterling (Holland, 2013: 97). Therefore with the national economic crises (Barlett, 1989: 119) and the sterling crisis (Parr, 2006: 89) – Wilson’s government decided to make a second application to the EEC.

As many Europeans were keen to develop their technology, Britain could use this as a tool to smooth its entry to the European membership (Parr, 2006: 86). De Gaulle wanted to have technology cooperation between Britain and France through the European Technology Community – this should be agreed in advance for Britain to be able to apply for a second application to join the EEC (Holland, 2013: 101). With the technology cooperation, it was seen as a positive sign for the application to succeed. However, for the second time, the British have to faced disappointment. De Gaulle vetoed Britain’s second application to the EEC, leaving Britain has to decide which relations they want to maintain with the most (Wall, 2013: 265).

In contrary to De Gaulle, Wilson would prefer if the economic and political relations between the British and the Commonwealth were not hampered (Parr, 2006: 19). De Gaulle rejection was still on the same basis with the first rejection, with an addition of Britain’s economy mainly in the agriculture area. However, in spite of Heath has dealt with the agricultural issues, De Gaulle still refused to accept British membership. In addition, the others Five were willing to accept British membership. Even Kiesinger had notified De Gaulle that the people inside the EEC would want to accept British membership and even the policy itself have – directly and indirectly – persuaded De Gaulle that Britain had changed and was moving towards the direction that De Gaulle wanted it to be (Wall, 2013: 215). However, De Gaulle insisted that no one could force France to accept Britain to the EEC (Wall, 2013: 224). Nonetheless, although Britain’s second application was not successful, Wilson’s government has effectively maintained good relations with the five. Wilson had positive responses from the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany in order to discuss the future relationship with Britain (Wall, 2013: 248). Wilson has made significant progress from the first application under Macmillan’s government and his second application played an essential role in the success of the next application.

Britain’s Policy towards the EEC under Edward Heath

The economic and political situations at the beginning of the 1970s have deteriorated (Alt, 2013: 38). The devaluation was elevated, and the parliament was still divided. Britain’s role in the international sphere was uncertain, and by the end of the 1960s, the British were no longer a colonial power (Darwin, 1991: 75). Britain’s relationship with the Commonwealth started not to be very beneficial to the British. The Commonwealth began to have more control and indirectly has pressured the British – instead of the other way around. Heath’s government was intended to rectify the situation. Heath’s refused to let the Commonwealth dictate British’s action on making policies (Butler, 2002: 186) and has restricted Commonwealth immigration (Butler, 2002: 187).

The most efficient way to show the Commonwealth and the United States that Britain’s was still powerful and able to act independently without relying on both parties – was to enter the EEC. In terms of Britain’s relationship with the EEC – the economic relations have grown rapidly. By 1967, British exports to the EEC had gone after the exports to the Commonwealth, and by 1970, only less than one-quarter of Britain’s exports went to the Commonwealth countries (Butler, 2002: 187). It has signified the development of relations in between both parties. As though others Conservative’s government, Heath was more pro European than Wilson. He brought the British first membership to the community under Macmillan’s leadership. With De Gaulle resigned in 1969, Heath and Pompidou decided to make a further discussion about the British membership to join the EEC. Britain’s did not have to re-apply to the EEC – as Wilson’s application in 1967 had never been withdrawn other than France vetoed (Ludlow, 2014: 19). Heath and Pompidou had discussed, and from the discussion, it was a vivid indication that both sides will come to a positive conclusion (Wall, 2013: 407). Heath has testified that the way he views the future of Europe was in line with France and he had been consistent of his views for the past twenty years (Wall, 2013: 406). On the other side, Pompidou was convinced with Heath’s sincerity to join the EEC.

However, the complication has not stopped. There were differences of the concept of economic and monetary outcomes for both Pompidou’s and Heath. Pompidou’s was more concrete while Heath’s was more general ‘onwards and upwards’ conversation (Wall, 2013: 421). It goes back to Britain’s unwillingness to fully commit to the continent. Moreover, in the domestic levels – Britain’s itself was divided. The Labour Party wrote on ‘White Paper’ given a conclusion that the Conservatives was weak and had no ability to unite Britain as a whole – thus, they were not able to lead the country into the EEC (Wall, 2013: 417). It could be argued that Britain’s was not disposed to be a member of the EEC. The decision occurred from uncertainty in both political and economic condition. Nevertheless, on the first of January 1973, Britain has finally entered the European Community (Wall, 2013: 456). Britain’s entry to the EEC has signified the British future in line with the European and no longer within a more comprehensive global realm (Butler, 2002: 187).


Britain’s position in the world order in between 1957-1973 has limited its actions in terms of making decision and policy (Butler, 2002: 185). There are various arguments that could be seen as the reasons why it has demonstrated a change in Britain’s global role. Firstly, it is important to remember that Britain’s global role has been uncertain ever since after the end of the Second World War. The foreign officers and the government, in general, refused to act accordingly and were trying its best to get the best outcome for the country. Although it had been a successful survival in the first ten years, it has failed to maintain the continuity of the success in the years after. Secondly, Britain’s was known as the biggest Empire. Theoretically, as the biggest Empire, the British were not willing to give any level of sovereignty to another state or continent or community. In the case of applying for a membership to the EEC – it has forced Britain’s to give some of its sovereignty, to the community that limited Britain’s action as a sovereign state. With the EEC membership, Britain’s will not be able to govern itself (Ludlow, 2014: 18). It has been argued that EEC membership had menace Britain’s traditions and interests (Ludlow, 2014: 33). However, eventually the British were still keen to seek EEC membership even after getting rejected twice. It has denoted that Britain’s was struggling to maintain its political and economic condition.

Thirdly, the British were convinced that others European countries wanted Britain’s to be a member of the EEC – with the beliefs that Britain’s will give lots of benefit to the community. As France wanted to maintain Western European as a united economic and political community under its leadership, the British applications to the EEC have created anxiety to the French because the British could have taken over the French leadership over the community (Ludlow, 1997: 232). Hence, the French sets the price of British memberships as high as it possibly could (Ludlow, 1997: 239). However, Britain’s was not apprehensive about the fact that others countries might not be willing to pay. The British fallacy was on their thought that the Six would be willing to pay any cost of an amount for the British membership as Britain’s appearance (on the British mind) would give lots of benefits to the community (Ludlow, 1997: 249). For instance, the Dutch reaction was not as what it was expected. Although, the Dutch have no problems with the British joining the community, however, they were not willing to help and were not prepared to pay any amount to secure British membership in the community (Ludlow, 1997: 234). This has indicated the shifts in Britain’s global role as the British were no longer as desirable as they thought they were.

Furthermore, it was the government slow realisation to the fact that Britain’s role in the international community has changed – that caused its difficulties to enter the European Community (Ellison, 2000: 185). On the other hand, it could be argued that the government has acknowledged the change of Britain’s role in the international community, but refused to act accordingly (Parr, 2006: 15). The British have realised that they could not get the best outcome from – the Commonwealth, Anglo-American special relationship and the European community. They had to decide which policy is more beneficial to the development of Britain’s – both politically and economically. However, since the 1960s, the British officials were no longer clear which direction they were going (Bartlett, 1989: 122). The British faced difficulty to make a decision because the government was divided in between Conservative’s and Labour’s that have different views on which policy is more important.

If Britain’s have had accepted the fact that its role in the international community was not as powerful as it was before (Parr, 2006: 20) and realised that by joining the EEC, Britain’s will still be able to play a part in the world order – the application might have been successful. As if the British were fully committed to the application, they would not ask for special terms and conditions – which something that supported De Gaulle suspicious on the British commitment towards the continent. Although De Gaulle might already dislike the idea of Britain’s joining the European Community – if the British disclose full commitment and certain levels of generosity – De Gaulle might have acted differently. Eventually, the British had to accept the negotiations and faced the fact that the outcome of the application was not as it was expected (Wall, 2013: 40), and the fact that the future with Europe was uncertain. Nevertheless, notwithstanding on what Macmillan and his successors wanted it to be, Britain’s role as a global power, in reality, has come to an end (Darwin, 1991: 74).


In conclusion, it was clear that Britain’s policy towards the EEC in 1957-1973 has demonstrated a change in Britain’s global role. The statement is supported by the fact that for the first time, the British government acknowledged the reality that the future of their country depended on Europe (Toye, 2013: 140). It indicated that Britain’s was not strong enough to rely on its own. Moreover, with De Gaulle rejection on the British membership application and the unwillingness for the five members to pay for Britain’s entry – represent the fact that Britain’s was not as desirable as it was before. One of the major problems was the British slow realisation and unwillingness to accept the fact that their role in the world has changed. If they have had accepted the term earlier, the outcome of the first and second application might have been different. Nonetheless, in the end, Macmillan, Wilson and Heath government have played an essential role in bringing the success of Britain’s membership to the EEC – that to some extent beneficial to Britain’s role in the world order. For instance, with Britain’s application to the EEC, it has shown both the United States and the Commonwealth that Britain’s still can act independently and not relying on both parties (Parr, 2006: 81). Therefore, although the policy towards the EEC and the complication of the application has brought change in thinking about Britain’s global role – it could be argued that the membership to the EEC was the best possible outcome that the British could have to adjust its position in the international order.


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“Great Britain, the British Commonwealth of Nations, mighty America, and I trust Soviet Russia, for then indeed all would be well, must be the friends and sponsors of the new Europe and must champion its right to live and shine.”

– Winston Churchill –

Author: Valentina Laura

A dreamer & a lover.

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