EU 101 Session 5: UK application, EEC and Empty Chair Crisis General de Gaulle’s plan was to put France firmly back on the global stage by pursuing demonstratively independent policies. This was his paramount interest as he sought to give new impetus to European integration. While he supported a Europe with France and Germany as its pillars, he rejected any significant relinquishment of sovereignty to a supranational authority.
Franco-American relations General de Gaulle wanted to review the relationship between the United States and Europe. The global geopolitical situation had undergone considerable changes between 1945 and 1960. In the 1960s, the threat of world war was receding and the United States no longer held the monopoly on nuclear protection of the West. In fact, de Gaulle wondered whether the United States really would use nuclear weapons to defend Western Europe. He felt the need to reconsider the relationship between the Old Continent and America, especially since he no longer felt the American nuclear umbrella to be reliable. Accordingly, France pursued a national nuclear policy and developed its own nuclear arsenal.
The United States reviewed its strategy at the same time, moving from the graduated response approach to a strategy of massive reprisals. Any conflict between the superpowers would now be played out in Europe, not in the territory of the parties to the conflict. France was determined not to be governed purely by the decisions of the President of the United States in issues relating to the defence of the national territory.
France and NATO On 17 September 1958, the French President, General Charles de Gaulle, sent a memorandum to President Dwight D. Eisenhower of the United States and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of the United Kingdom. In it, he called for the terms of reference of the Atlantic Alliance to be broadened to global scale in order, among other things, to cover certain geographical areas where France retained particular interests. He also proposed the creation of a tripartite Directorate of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, putting France, Great Britain and the United States on an equal footing for the purposes of discussing nuclear strategy. In the case of refusal by its partners, France, which wished to retain absolute control of its armed forces, reserved the right to withdraw from NATO. Indeed, de Gaulle drew no distinction between NATO and Europe. He sought to take advantage of France’s strengthened position in NATO in order to consolidate its influence among the Six on the basis of a Franco-German axis. On the other hand, he also hoped to develop European political and strategic cooperation in order to pressurise the United States into accepting the French plans for the reform of the Atlantic Alliance.
The United States and Great Britain did not follow up the French proposals. Consequently, on 11 March 1959, France decided to remove its Mediterranean naval fleet from NATO command. In June, it refused to stock foreign nuclear weapons on national soil, forcing the United States to transfer 200 military aeroplanes out of France. In the spring of 1960, the United States and Great Britain repeatedly stated to the French Government their refusal to conclude an agreement on nuclear cooperation, particularly on the development of nuclear warheads. France finally concluded that the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and America was at work and decided to re-focus its efforts on coordinating policy in Europe. On 21 June 1963, France also withdrew its Atlantic and Channel fleets from NATO command. The rift deepened on 10 March 1966, when General de Gaulle officially announced that France intended to withdraw from the Alliance and demanded that all NATO bases be removed from French territory. SHAPE was relocated from Paris to Brussels. However, France retained membership of the Atlantic Pact and of NATO.
De Gaulle and Europe Charles de Gaulle was very committed to a particular vision of Europe. He rejected the idea of an integrated Europe, yet supported a Europe composed of States detached from the direct domination of the USA. In implementing his European ideal, de Gaulle counted mainly on the support of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), and maintained a very close relationship with the German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer.
His approach was rejected, however, by the other European partners, whose priority was to protect the acquis communautaire, the entire body of legislation adopted by the Community. De Gaulle's rejection of any structure based on integration and supranational authority did not gain unanimous support. The tensions between de Gaulle and his partners were aired publicly on 15 May 1962 at what was known as the ‘Volapük’ press conference, when he rejected the concept of a Europe of integrated powers and languages.
His policies met with some opposition in France, too. In 1962, six ministers of the Mouvement républicain populaire (Popular Republican Movement, MRP), opponents of the presidential stance on Europe, hastily stepped down from their governmental posts.
The Fouchet Plans Having suffered, in 1959 and 1960, the rejection by the Americans and British of his plans for the reform of NATO, General de Gaulle partly focused his international activities on achieving a politically integrated Europe. In July 1960, he discussed his views on European political union with Chancellor Adenauer of Germany. De Gaulle’s objective was to reform the European Communities, with the aim of establishing a Europe of States. To that end, his proposals included regular meetings between Ministers and Heads of State or Government of the Six with senior officials, to discuss particular issues of policy, economics, culture and defence. He also proposed attaching to those meetings an advisory assembly composed of members of the national parliaments. Essentially, what de Gaulle proposed to Adenauer was none other than a sort of Franco-German confederation with common citizenship. He counted on the influence of the Franco-German partnership to gain the support of the other European partners for the building of an autonomous Europe. This led to the first Community negotiations, despite the Chancellor's guarded response and the differing views among the Six on the subject of British participation.
At a summit held in Paris on 10 and 11 February 1961, the Six agreed to develop political cooperation. De Gaulle accordingly proposed to his five partners the establishment of a Research Committee composed of representatives of the six Governments and responsible for studying the potential forms of diplomatic and political cooperation among the Member States of the European Economic Community (EEC). The Research Committee met for the first time on 16 March 1961. Eight days later, it appointed Christian Fouchet, French diplomat and former Gaullist parliamentarian, as Chairman, and decided to establish two subcommittees. The Cultural Cooperation Committee was headed by Pierre Pescatore of Luxembourg, while Carl Friedrich Ophüls of Germany presided over the Political Cooperation Committee. On 18 July 1961, at Bad Godesberg, near Bonn, the Six reiterated their intention to create a politically united Europe.
On 19 October 1961, Christian Fouchet submitted to the Research Committee a first draft treaty (Fouchet Plan I), establishing an indissoluble union of States based on intergovernmental cooperation and respect for the identity of Member States and their peoples. It proposed cooperation, alongside the Community treaties, in the areas of foreign policy and defence, science, culture and human rights protection. In institutional terms, the draft treaty provided for the establishment of a Council composed of Heads of State or Government, which would meet three times a year and adopt decisions on the basis of unanimity. A Council of Foreign Ministers would cover the interim period. Under the draft treaty, the Assembly of the Communities was granted an advisory role, and it was envisaged that a European Political Commission would be established to assist the Council. In other words, the plan drew a further distinction between the terms of reference of the Community and those of the future Political Union.
Fearing French domination of their foreign policy, France’s partners opposed the draft treaty as submitted. They also rejected any strengthening of the institutions’ intergovernmental character, regarding it as a threat to the independence and supranational nature of the Community bodies. Moreover, the Netherlands showed reluctance to complicate further the common market enlargement negotiations under way with the United Kingdom or jeopardise the ongoing discussions between Europe and America on the future of NATO. In the light of this opposition, de Gaulle hardened his stance, abandoning the compromises that the European negotiators had reached. On 18 January 1962, Christian Fouchet accordingly submitted a new version of the plan (Fouchet Plan II), which this time proposed to grant the Union the economic powers that had previously been the prerogative of the Communities, which became subordinate to the intergovernmental cooperation body. This second version, moreover, made no reference to NATO.
At the point when the common market was proceeding to the second stage of implementation, France’s partners, notably the Benelux countries, once again lambasted and rejected the plan. They accordingly drew up counter-proposals for a more federalist approach, which were rejected in turn by the French Government. At the beginning of April, the Secretary-General of the Italian Foreign Ministry, Emilio Cattani, replaced Fouchet, who had been appointed High Commissioner in Algeria, as President of the Research Committee. Cattani proposed new amendments, but was not able to reconcile France’s interests with those of the other European partners. Belgium and the Netherlands wanted to see the United Kingdom complete its accession to the EEC before moving forward with the implementation of Political Union. Consequently, the Foreign Ministers, meeting in Luxembourg on 17 April 1962, decided to bring the Committee’s work to an end permanently. On 15 May, General de Gaulle sealed the breakdown in the attempts at political integration. At a sensational press conference, he condemned European federalist policies and openly criticised the game played by Britain and America.
The failure of the Fouchet Plans sparked off a series of crises, characterised by disagreement on the very nature of the European unification process, the powers of the Community institutions, European independence and relations with the USA. The Heads of State or Government did not meet again for seven years. This failure would, however, lead to a strengthening of Franco-German relations.
The crisis in the EEC The crisis simmering in the European Economic Community between France and its partners reached boiling point in 1965. The reasons behind the crisis were twofold: the difficulties in financing the common agricultural policy (CAP); and rapid European integration supported by France's partners. The financial problems in the EEC, and the CAP crisis, shook the Community to its very foundations.
Financing the CAP The agricultural financial regulations in force from 1962 were due to expire on 1 July 1965. On 15 December 1964, the Council of Ministers asked the Commission to draw up a draft document on the financing of the common agricultural policy (CAP). On 31 March 1965, the Commission proposed the establishment of an autonomous Community budget. The financial regulations had to be adopted before 1 July 1965.
The President of the Commission, Walter Hallstein, and the Commissioner for Agriculture, Sicco Mansholt, suggested reviewing the financial structures of the European Economic Community (EEC) and providing the CAP with its own financial resources. Under their plan, the Community would no longer be financed by national contributions, but by own resources paid directly into the Community budget. They were to be provided partly by agricultural levies and partly by customs revenue from duties on manufactured goods, of which a significant proportion would be payable to the Community. In the short term, the resources would be considerably greater than those actually needed. The proposals also contained elements conducive to broadening the powers and responsibilities of the European Parliamentary Assembly and the Commission.
The Commission endorsed the proposal by a majority vote. However, the French Commissioners and one Italian Commissioner voted against. Subsequently, Hallstein submitted the proposal to the European Parliament without holding initial consultations with the Governments of the Member States. This was the Commission’s way of trying to link the financial regulations to institutional review: it hoped to gain ground from France’s commitment to promoting the CAP. However, General de Gaulle made it clear that he was firmly opposed to it. There seemed no way out of the deadlock. In fact, Franco-German cooperation had been in decline since Chancellor Adenauer had left the political scene. The debate on the Community’s own resources dragged on interminably and was only resolved with the compromise worked out during the agricultural marathon of 19–22 December 1969, when the Council adopted the following two-tier system:
— Agricultural levies would be payable to the Community in their entirety;
Customs revenue would be payable to the Community according to a sliding scale, in order to avoid excessive disruption of national budgets.
The issue of majority voting The entry into force of the Merger Treaty, signed on 8 April 1965, which fused the Executives of the European Communities, was postponed because of the deep political rift between France and its partners.
The third stage of the transitional period, which began on 1 January 1966, provided that in future a larger number of decisions would be adopted on the basis of a qualified majority, rather than unanimity. Only the most important issues, such as the accession of new Member States, or controversial decisions, such as the harmonisation of legislation and economic policy, remained subject to unanimity. This was also true of any initiative that went beyond the provisions of the treaties.
General de Gaulle was willing to use all means at his disposal in order to avoid the application of the majority rule. From 1960, in parallel to the Fouchet negotiations, he asked Alain Peyrefitte, Secretary of State for Information, to study the potential for France to undermine or, at least, bypass the supranational nature of the Community decision-making process. De Gaulle did not participate in the negotiations on the Treaty of Rome, which he accepted in 1958 purely for economic reasons and on the condition that the application of the majority vote was postponed.
The ‘empty chair’ policy The proposal for the financing of the common agricultural policy (CAP), developed in 1965 by Walter Hallstein, President of the Commission, marked the beginning of what was known as the ‘empty chair crisis’. The Commission's proposal was geared towards developing its own financial resources, independently of the Member States, and attributed additional budgetary powers to the European Parliament. Moreover, the progression, on 1 January 1966, to the third stage of the transitional period preceding the establishment of the common market was to involve the application of the majority vote in the Council of Ministers. France could not agree to this development, which it regarded as an unacceptable renunciation of sovereignty. In addition, General de Gaulle, who had not participated in the negotiations on the Treaty of Rome, criticised Walter Hallstein for having prepared his budgetary proposal without prior consultation with the Governments of the Member States and for having behaved almost as though he were President of a European government. He also accused Hallstein of behaving like a Head of State. France was, in fact, afraid that a coalition of Member States might, on the basis of a majority decision, challenge the common agricultural policy, which France had persuaded its partners to accept only with great difficulty.
France held the Presidency of the Council until 30 June 1965, and its stance only exacerbated the latent conflicts between the ideas of the Hallstein Commission and those of the Council of Ministers. By refusing any solution based on compromise, Maurice Couve de Murville, French Foreign Minister in the second Pompidou Government, brought down the negotiations on the financial regulations for the agricultural policy. On 30 June 1965, Couve de Murville recalled to Paris the French Permanent Representative in Brussels and announced France's intention not to take its seat in the Council of Ministers until it had its way. This was the beginning of the extremely serious ‘empty chair crisis’. It was the first time since the entry into force of the Treaty of Rome in 1958 that the operation of the EEC had been crippled by a Member State.
The Luxembourg Compromise For six months, France stayed away from Brussels and boycotted the Community. Aware, however, of the risks of prolonged isolation and its impact on the national economy, it eventually agreed to resume negotiations. At the meetings held in Luxembourg on 17 and 18 and on 28 and 29 January 1966, Pierre Werner, Prime Minister of Luxembourg and President of the Council, proposed a compromise solution. This compromise stipulated that a country which believed that its vital national interests might be adversely affected could not be overruled by a majority, and that negotiations had to continue until a universally acceptable compromise was reached. The document, which fundamentally altered the spirit of the EEC Treaty by creating a new mechanism by which States could exert pressure on the Council, did not, however, make any reference to the nature of the essential national interest and the arbitration procedure in the event of dispute.
Since then, the ‘Luxembourg Compromise’ has frequently been invoked by Member States in order to block majority decisions. Contrary to the literal interpretation of the text, they have used the compromise in practice to make unanimity the normal decision-making procedure. The national delegations have, therefore, let the Luxembourg Compromise degenerate into a right of veto for sometimes minor issues. Under this arrangement, the Council agrees to continue discussions until such point as all ministers are satisfied with the proposed solution. While the Luxembourg Compromise allowed the Six to break the deadlock, it created a situation which sometimes gave rise to a certain resistance to change, for fear that the negotiations might be blocked, and imposed a de facto limitation on the Commission's right of initiative. This political loophole, which became increasingly unmanageable as the number of Member States increased, was partially corrected by the application of the Single European Act, which, from 1 July 1987, considerably broadened the range of decisions that could be adopted by qualified majority.
Institutional challenges Although the European Economic Community (EEC) got off to a good start, the Europe of the Six was soon shaken by serious internal crises. The causes lay both in General de Gaulle’s determination to modify the Community’s objectives by keeping any development towards supranational authority to a minimum; and in the financial and institutional problems inherent in a multinational organisation built on compromise. It proved necessary to change the focus of the institutions in order to break the deadlock.
The European Parliamentary Assembly Once Europe had been built from the top down, the idea of democratising the European institutions began to gain ground. The European Parliamentary Assembly, consisting of members of the national parliaments, made clear its desire to be elected by universal suffrage and demanded the right to appoint the new Single Commission. On 30 March 1962, the European Parliamentary Assembly passed a resolution changing its own name to European Parliament. Before that, in May 1960, its Members had adopted a convention on the election of the Assembly by universal suffrage. In June 1963, Parliament adopted a resolution calling for a strengthening of its powers through the direct election of its Members.
The stance adopted by the French Government was a priori hostile to this development of the European institutions and categorically opposed to an Assembly directly elected by its citizens. It took the view that the Assembly did not possess legislative power, which, moreover, it refused to grant it. The other European governments, with the exception of Italy and the Netherlands, had similar reservations with regard to universal suffrage.
Merging the executives France proposed that the position of the Council of Ministers be strengthened. The partner States, however, rather envisaged the creation of an independent body with extended powers, based on a merger of the High Authority of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the Commission of the European Economic Community (EEC) and the Commission of the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC or Euratom). France opposed the merger of the executives for some time. However, under pressure from the other Member States, it finally accepted the principle.
After accepting the principle of merging the Community executives at the Council of Ministers on 23 September 1963, France attempted to limit the supranational power of the new single Commission. Following three years of difficult negotiations, the Treaty establishing a Single Council and a Single Commission of the European Communities was signed in Brussels on 8 April 1965. It entered into force on 1 July 1967. Henceforth, the Commission of the European Communities was the single body of the three European Communities (European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), European Economic Community (EEC) and European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC or Euratom)). On France's proposal, the Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER), composed of ambassadors from the Member States, played a permanent role in support of the Commission, which still retained the right to propose legislation, and the powers of implementation and representation.
The first President of the Single Commission was Walter Hallstein of Germany, who had presided over the EEC Commission since 1958 and had formerly served as a Minister under Chancellor Adenauer. His strong personality rapidly left its mark on the Commission. For the followers of federalist thinking, the Commission represented the embryo of a future federal European government. However, General de Gaulle was resolutely opposed to this approach and ensured that Hallstein's mandate was extended for only six months following the merger. Refusing to accept this compromise, Hallstein resigned.
The Council of Ministers was the principal decision-making body of the European Economic Community (EEC). It regularly held meetings of the national Ministers qualified to discuss the items on the agenda. Each EEC country took it in turns to hold the Presidency for six months. The Council's decisions were drafted by the Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER), with assistance from a number of committees of experts and senior officials from the national ministries.
The United Kingdom and its applications for accession to the Common Market During the 1960s, there were changes in the United Kingdom’s policy towards Europe. The wait-and-see approach of the 1940s and 1950s, which, at most, allowed European cooperation at intergovernmental level, was gradually replaced by a will to participate more actively in the European unification process.
A fear of being sidelined in international affairs and the resounding success of the European Economic Community (EEC) were the main factors behind the change in direction of the British Governments in the early 1960s. Public opinion and the major political parties, with their commitment to national sovereignty, appeared to be divided. The Conservative Party was more pro-Europe than the Labour Party. The latter, together with the trade unions, was in fact keen to protect the welfare state and State control of the economy against what it popularly perceived to be a capitalist Europe too wedded to the idea of free trade.
The United Kingdom’s interest in Europe met with a mixed reaction elsewhere. The strongest opposition came from France, which although it had welcomed the idea of the UK’s accession in the forties and fifties, changed its stance to rejection when General de Gaulle came to power. This was a symptom of the two countries' jostling for position as leaders of Europe. In this light, France took a sceptical view of the United Kingdom’s relationship with the United States. The UK Government also found itself called to task for old wartime grudges.
The end of a great power Having refused to participate in the European Economic Community (EEC), the United Kingdom became aware of the isolation it had brought on itself, especially since the special relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States cooled after the 1956 Suez crisis. The empire on which Great Britain's status as a world power had rested until the Second World War collapsed, and the political and strategic ties with the Commonwealth were relaxed. The links between the British and former colonial economies declined steadily throughout the 1960s.
Subsequently, the United Kingdom turned increasingly to Europe and the European Economic Community (EEC). The United States encouraged the United Kingdom’s accession in order to counterbalance the influence of Gaullist France and prevent the Community from drifting towards protectionism.
The United Kingdom's first application for accession to the Common Market
The United Kingdom was not part of the European unification process in the 1950s. It first applied for accession to the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1961. It was somewhat envious of the rapid economic growth of the EEC countries. The United Kingdom wished to avoid being economically and politically excluded from the new Europe and sought rather to preserve its traditional role of intermediary between Europe and the United States. Harold Macmillan, the British Prime Minister, prepared the British application after obtaining the backing of his Government and the Conservative Party. The House of Commons approved the United Kingdom’s application and the partners appeared to react favourably overall.
The announcement of the first application The British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, prepared his country’s application with great care. Possessing a solid majority in the Commons, he could afford to ignore resistance to the Common Market within the Conservative Party and was able to appoint dedicated pro-Europeans to the key posts within his Government.
At international level, he promoted the advantages of the United Kingdom’s membership of the EEC to the Commonwealth countries. He also toured the capital cities of the Six in order to sound out the Member States of the European Economic Community (EEC) about the United Kingdom’s possible accession.
Within the close-knit circles of the British Labour Party, there was some opposition to Britain’s possible application for accession to the European Communities. The opponents were afraid, in particular, of losing the benefits of the Welfare State in a liberal Europe. They were against any loss of sovereignty and frequently raised the spectre of capitalist Europe.
However, the House of Commons vote of 4 August 1961 won resounding support. The House of Commons adopted the Government’s proposal by 313 votes to 4, while the Labour Opposition and some 50 Conservatives abstained. On 9 August 1961, the United Kingdom submitted its first application for accession to the Communities and entered into negotiations. The British press was buzzing with arguments for and against the Common Market. Overall, the reaction was quite positive. The Community’s Member States appeared to be ready to welcome the United Kingdom.
Difficult negotiations As Lord Privy Seal, Edward Heath, the future British Prime Minister, was responsible for European issues and was therefore put in charge of negotiating with the Six in Brussels. The negotiations were tough because London, resting on its imperial laurels, demanded exemption from a number of Community regulations. For example, it had difficulty accepting the Common Customs Tariff for fear that it would lose its privileged relationship with the Commonwealth countries.
Considerable progress was achieved over the summer of 1962, particularly in terms of Britain’s gradual shift away from its colonial focus. The British now seemed ready to accept the acquis communautaire, the body of Community legislation adopted to date. Harold Macmillan even launched a public awareness campaign in order to win over British public opinion. But at a conference of the Commonwealth countries in September 1962, Canada and New Zealand voiced their opposition to the United Kingdom joining the European Economic Community (EEC).
Germany, the Benelux countries and Italy were prepared to make substantial concessions. However, the negotiations on enlargement were adjourned following General de Gaulle’s categorical veto on 14 January 1963.
General de Gaulle's first veto On 14 January 1963, General de Gaulle held a press conference at which he declared his opposition to the United Kingdom’s application for membership. He referred to incompatibilities between continental European and British economic interests. In addition, he demanded that the United Kingdom accept all the conditions laid down by the Six and revoke its commitments to countries within its own free trade area. On 28 January, the French Government forced its five European partners, who were already shocked by the unilateral veto, to adjourn the membership negotiations.
General De Gaulle was afraid that the new member might threaten the common agricultural policy (CAP) and transform the European Economic Community (EEC) into a huge free trade area. Above all, he regarded the United Kingdom as a Trojan horse concealing US interests: he believed that British membership would lead to the Americanisation of Europe. He declared his support for a deepening and an acceleration of common market integration rather than expansion, and shed doubts on the UK’s commitment to Europe.
De Gaulle's attitude also stemmed from reasons not connected solely with EEC interests. In addition to the anti-British resentment that he had continued to harbour ever since he was exiled to London during the war, he was afraid of British-American nuclear cooperation. When, in October 1962, American Polaris rockets were supplied to the British, this was a grave blow to Franco-British relations, while de Gaulle continued to develop close relations with Germany.
The United Kingdom’s second application for accession to the Common Market The October 1964 elections in the United Kingdom were won by the Labour Party. The Labour Party leader, Harold Wilson, took over from the Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, who had come up against the opposition of French President Charles de Gaulle in the bid to accede to the European Communities. The new Prime Minister, who had previously been opposed to the United Kingdom’s accession to the European Communities, gradually began to pursue a more Europe-oriented policy. This new direction in foreign policy was largely a result of the difficulties encountered by the British economy in the mid-1960s. Relations with the Commonwealth continued to weaken and trade relations within the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) were developing at a slower pace than expected. Participation in the European Communities therefore seemed the best solution to revive the British economy, all the more so because exports to the Communities’ Member States were constantly on the rise. The Communities also seemed to provide the necessary framework in which to overcome the balance of payments deficit and to devalue the pound sterling, a measure which had become essential. Finally, accession offered the United Kingdom the prospect of playing an active role in the development of the Communities, which were experiencing continued growth, and of reducing its dependence on the United States by choosing the path leading towards an emerging Europe.
However, during Harold Wilson’s first term of office, conditions were not yet favourable for an open policy change towards accession to the Communities. Opposition to accession within the Labour Party itself was too great and the memory of the failure met by the first application for accession in 1963 was still too vivid in the minds of the general public. It was only following efforts made to persuade his party and after the elections held in March 1966 that Harold Wilson had a large enough majority to take the decision to make a second application for accession to the European Communities. At the same time, the empty chair crisis served to highlight General de Gaulle’s opposition to the majority vote and to the Communities’ evolution towards a federal structure. This reassured the British leaders, because even if Harold Wilson was ready to accept the economic terms associated with accession to the Communities, the Prime Minister was not keen on accepting the slightest limitation of British sovereignty in terms of foreign and defence policy. On 10 November 1966, the Prime Minister announced to the House of Commons that he had decided to visit the European capital cities to see whether conditions were favourable for a British application for accession.
In early 1967, Harold Wilson and his Foreign Secretary, George Brown, carried out a series of visits to the leaders of the Six. The reactions in the capital cities were mostly positive, owing to the fact that London had stated its willingness to accept the terms of the treaties and to fulfil the same obligations as its future partners. The most muted welcome came once again from France, in particular because of the economic difficulties experienced by the United Kingdom and the country’s special relationship with the United States in foreign policy matters which, in the eyes of the French President, threatened to hinder Franco–German plans for political cooperation. However, the British Prime Minister was convinced that lessons had been learnt from the failure of the first application and that this time he would be able to convince General de Gaulle that British accession was essential.
On 2 May, after ascertaining the reactions of the members of the Commonwealth and EFTA, Harold Wilson announced to the House of Commons that the government had decided to apply for accession to the European Communities. The Prime Minister’s announcement was approved by a large majority. On 11 May, with the backing of the majority in the main parties and a general public that had come to support the idea of accession, the British Government submitted to Brussels its second application for accession to the European Communities. As with its first application in 1961, the United Kingdom’s application for accession was accompanied by those of Ireland, Denmark and Norway.
The reaction of the Six to the United Kingdom’s second application for accession On 11 May 1967, the British Government submitted its second application for accession to the European Communities. Since French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed Britain’s first application for accession in 1963, his position on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Communities had not fundamentally changed. But as London was certain of the backing of France’s partners in the Community, it believed that this time it would be possible to convince the French President, especially given that the British Government had considerably reduced its demands in comparison with the first application for accession in 1961. France’s partners in the Community had already indicated that they were in favour of a second British application for accession, but uncertainty remained over General de Gaulle’s position.
His initial reaction prolonged the doubts about his intentions. He expressed his support for an association between the Communities and the United Kingdom, but did not officially oppose an enlargement of the Communities, thus enabling the Member States to examine the British application. France’s partners reacted favourably to the United Kingdom’s involvement and declared their support for a Europe of Ten.
London, however, was not content with association status, particularly as the British Government was willing to accept the Community acquis and the terms of the treaties, subject to a few financial adjustments and a transitional period for some of its trade. Moreover, the United Kingdom had expertise in the nuclear field and capabilities in new technologies, and accession would enable it to open up new markets and develop its technological industries. Confident of this potential contribution and of the Five’s support, Harold Wilson reiterated his request for full accession.
A lengthy period of discussions was therefore launched between France and the Five on the opening of accession negotiations and the conditions in which they should take place. Finally, in July, in accordance with Article 237 of the Treaty of Rome, the Six decided to ask for the opinion of the Commission of the European Communities on the applications for accession of the United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark and Norway. On 29 September 1967, the Commission delivered its opinion. It noted that, even though accession of the applicant countries would bring major changes, it would not modify the fundamental objectives and individual features of the European Communities or the methods they used. But it also emphasised that the applicant countries must accept the Community acquis, the term given to all the decisions adopted before enlargement, and criticised some problems in the British economy which would need to be settled before accession, such as the re-establishment of the balance of payments equilibrium and the definition of the role of the pound sterling. Before giving its final opinion on the applications for accession of the applicant countries, the Commission suggested the immediate opening of accession negotiations. The Commission’s opinion therefore did not enable the question to be resolved; the Five and France each found arguments in favour of their respective positions. France continued to express strong opposition to the immediate opening of accession negotiations, arguing that a solution first needed to be found to the British problems raised by the Commission.
General de Gaulle’s second veto On 29 September 1967, the Commission of the European Communities delivered an opinion on the applications for accession of the United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark and Norway in which it proposed the immediate opening of accession negotiations with the applicant countries. Despite this opinion, France’s partners in the Community, who were in favour of the first enlargement of the Communities, continued to meet with opposition from General de Gaulle. The French President pointed to the economic difficulties experienced by the United Kingdom and demanded that a solution to the major problems be found before its accession to the Communities. Unlike the Five, Paris was convinced that the United Kingdom’s accession to the Common Market, even on the condition that it accepted the terms laid down in the treaties, would fundamentally change the nature of the Community and cause it to move in the direction of a single free trade area.
Aside from the economic arguments put forward to block the United Kingdom’s accession, the French President had other concerns. Despite the commitments made by his government in economic matters, the British Prime Minister did not agree with the French views on foreign and defence policy. Harold Wilson continued to advocate the need for United States involvement in European defence and rejected the establishment of a European nuclear force. The French President feared that in an enlarged Community, France would not only be at risk of encountering greater difficulties in defending its economic interests, but that it would also be in danger of losing its leadership role to a more Atlanticist policy with the arrival of the new Member States.
On 18 November, the British Government was forced to devalue the pound sterling. The French President did not hesitate to voice his reaction. He believed that this was proof that the British economy was not ready to meet the conditions of the Common Market. On 27 November 1967, even before the accession negotiations with the applicant countries could begin, General de Gaulle held a press conference in which he declared his opposition, for the second time, to the United Kingdom’s accession to the European Communities. In his statement, the French President particularly emphasised the incompatibility of the British economy with Community rules and stressed that the United Kingdom’s accession to the European Communities firstly required that the country undergo a major political and economic transformation. He reiterated his proposal for an association between the European Economic Community and the applicant countries to promote trade, but London immediately rejected the idea of an association, which would exclude it from the Community decision-making process.
However, France’s partners in the Community were not willing to accept this unilateral decision. They therefore tried to find alternative solutions to break the deadlock and maintain the prospect of accession for the applicant countries. But all the proposals came up against the opposition of General de Gaulle; he became increasingly isolated from the other Member States and even went as far as threatening to leave the Community if Britain were to accede. The difference of opinion between France and its partners on the issue of British accession affected the Communities’ activities. It became essential to find a solution to the British question in order to break the deadlock and pursue the development of the Communities. The Five’s mistrust of France’s European policy was increased when, in February 1969, the French President proposed to the British Ambassador to Paris, Christopher Soames, that the United Kingdom accede to a single European free trade area which would replace the Community structures. The British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, not only rejected France’s proposal but revealed its substance to the Five, thus contributing to France’s isolation. Only when Charles de Gaulle’s tenure as President of the French Republic came to an end three months later were negotiations able to be relaunched.