European leaders want the UK to stay, but are best friends forever?

This post was originally published on Bruegel’s blog.

The Conservative Party’s election victory leaves little doubt as to the holding of a referendum on continued British EU membership in 2016 or 2017. While the official content of British demands remains vague at the moment, the reaction of Britain’s partners to the prospect of negotiations is made public every day.

German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble has just declared that he is ready to open talks with the UK about demands to rewrite the rules of Britain’s EU membership. Although more cautious in other public appearances, German chancellor Angela Merkel had made similar comments last year. By contrast, soon after Cameron’s reelection French president François Hollande reacted curtly to the British plans. He stated “it is legitimate to take into account the aspirations of the British, but there are rules in Europe, and among these rules there is dialogue.”

This tableau is reminiscent of the previous Brexit attempt of 1974-1975. Back then, British prime minister Harold Wilson wanted to renegotiate the UK’s terms of entry to the then European Economic Community (EEC), which the UK had joined about a year before in January 1973. The British political landscape was virtually the opposite of what it is today – a Conservative party in favour of the Common Market and a Labour party split on the issue. However, the continental European picture is bears some resemblance to what happened then.

French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was strongly sceptical of British demands. In particular, he rejected the idea that the EEC budget should be reformed to suit the needs of the British government. By contrast, West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt was much more open to Wilson’s requests. Through culture and strategic thinking, Schmidt was closer to Britain. Often described as an ‘Atlanticist’, and famously voting against the Treaty of Rome in the Bundestag (partly in fear that it would isolate Britain!), the appointment of Schmidt at the German chancellery in May 1974 was excellent news for the prospects of the British renegotiations.

A little less than 40 years later, an interview with the former German chancellor in the press came as a relative surprise. “Fundamentally, I think de Gaulle was right [to veto British entry in the 1960s],” declared Helmut Schmidt in 2010. “I used to believe in British common sense and state rationale… I was brought up in a very Anglophile way. I was a great supporter of Edward Heath who brought Britain into the European community. But then we had Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher, who didn’t always behave so sensibly.”

How can we make sense of such a change of mind? The turning point in Schmidt’s perception of Britain arguably occurred during the renegotiations of 1974-1975. Schmidt’s support for British membership contrasted with Wilson’s ambiguity in his public appearances. While the German chancellor would have liked a stronger British commitment to EEC membership, Wilson maintained an ambiguous line, chiefly for domestic political purposes. Schmidt did not understand why the technical details of the renegotiations were being transformed into proxy for the much deeper question of British membership of the European Community. In addition, even though Schmidt was critical of European integration before and during his time in office, he was always convinced of the need to organise the interdependence of European economies. He did believe in more, not less, integration – something that British officials failed to understand back then.

A negotiation that started off on a promising basis ended up in a much more difficult atmosphere. Most British demands in 1974-1975 were not met; those that were, only in a cosmetic way. What seemed to be an ideal situation at the beginning – having an ally in the German government, the most economically powerful member state and greatest contributor to the EEC budget – failed to lead to a successful deal for the British government. Worse, antagonising the German chancellor revived the Franco-German axis and contributed to British isolation in Europe. Schmidt refused to make concessions during the last stages of the renegotiations in early 1975, and the Franco-German duo took centre stage in European politics during the remaining years of the Labour government.

Schäuble’s comment should therefore sound a note of caution for British officials. A disproportionate disconnect between the high stakes of the discussions – yes or no to the EU – and the technicality of the negotiations’ process can easily turn someone who appears a best friend at the start into a staunch opponent at more crucial stages. Instead of finding comforting thoughts in Schäuble’s remark, the British government should be wary that in a few years the German finance minister could end up agreeing with what de Gaulle said in the 1960s: that there is a fundamental incompatibility between Britain and Europe.


This post is a snapshot of work in progress on the policy implications for today of the 1975 referendum.


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