+44 (0)20 7799 6677

1971: Her Majesty’s Government explains why the UK should join the EEC

Here follows a commentary on the UK Government white paper, The United Kingdom and the European Communities, 1971.[1]

In retrospect, this white paper is notable for the amount of attention it gives to the geopolitical environment of the day, both as an explanation of the origins of the European Communities and as a reason for UK entry.

In the paper little time is spent looking back to the Second World War, only mentioning that the six European Community countries had been weakened by it and had suffered invasion, that the war was one of the factors leading to the formation of the original agreements, and that they had lost or were in the process of shedding their imperial links. In addition, the six countries of the European Communities had found the world dominated by new non-European superpowers whose resources none of them could match.

The deeply felt need of the six

The countries of Europe felt the need for something more than the institutions created immediately after the war, to ‘re-establish the fabric of international co-operation for peace, security and economic collaboration and recovery.’ The end of the Second World War saw the creation of organisations like the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Each of these involved one or both superpowers, so the European core nations also wanted closer cooperation between themselves. This helped to create the Western European Union alliance, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation.[2]

For greater security and prosperity, they decided they could do more by pooling their economic resources, so in 1951 they formed the European Coal and Steel Community, and in 1957, via the Treaty of Rome, the European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Community. In 1967, these three communities were brought together under ‘one European Parliament, one Court of Justice, one Council of Ministers and one Commission’ by the Merger Treaty.[3]

The white paper notes that the institutions’ aims included the ‘establishment of the foundations of an ever closer union among European peoples, the furtherance of economic and social progress by elimination of the barriers which divide Europe’, improved living and working conditions and so forth. The second article of the treaty affirms the task of ‘setting up a Common Market and progressively approximating the economic policies of member states, to promote throughout the Community a harmonious development of economic activities, a continuous and balanced expansion, an increase in stability, an accelerated raising of the standard of living, and closer relations of the member states.’ The white paper then declares ‘These are objectives to which this country can wholeheartedly subscribe.’[4]

The paper then observes that the programme for a Common Market with free movement of persons, goods, services and capital plus common agricultural and commercial policies had ‘unfolded steadily and that the influence of the communities in the economic councils of the world has increased impressively, as has the prosperity of their members.’[5]

Why Britain stayed away

Although the UK participated in many of the European co-operative ventures mentioned, the paper notes that ‘the realities of our position in the world… were masked. Our physical assets and our economy had suffered less disastrously than those of most other Western European countries as a result of the war: nor did we suffer the shock of invasion.’[6] For these reasons Britain did not participate in the formation of the European Communities. However, during the 1950s, ‘the transformation of our position in the world was increasingly borne in upon us’ by economic problems, the ‘quickening move to independence among former colonies, and of a sense of diminishing influence in world counsels.’[7]

No free trade area

The paper draws attention to the seldom remembered fact that the UK had sought a trade relationship with the Community. From 1956 some thought, ‘it would be possible for other European countries which did not become members of this closer grouping to join with the Community in establishing a wider European free trade area.’ However, ‘in 1958 it became apparent that the basis of general agreement did not exist.’ This led Britain to form the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) with Norway, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, Portugal and Sweden in 1960. But from the start, ‘it was recognised that some members of EFTA might eventually wish to join, and others to seek closer trading arrangements with, the European Communities.’[8]

Later, in discussing the possibility of Britain being part of both a North American free trade agreement and the European Communities, the white paper notes that ‘the Six have firmly and repeatedly made clear that they reject the concept that European unity should be limited to the formation of a free trade area.’[9]

UK European policy is bi-partisan

As if to emphasize the bi-partisan support for the present application, the white paper refers to the Conservative government’s efforts to negotiate entry in 1961, and those of the Labour Government in 1967, which were both ‘baulked in their objective’.[10] But in 1970 the Labour Government was invited to re-open negotiations, which it accepted, so after the present Conservative Government was elected, it merely ‘picked up the hand which their predecessors had prepared’, and resumed negotiation.[11] It was joined by two other members of EFTA, Norway and Denmark, and by the Republic of Ireland.

Regaining world power status

The political case for membership made in the white paper rested heavily on the idea of regaining a world power status, which no European power could hope to exercise individually, by joining a wider European Community of nations, whose joint strength and influence on the world could be much greater than that of individual members. If we remained outside, we would have had ‘to maintain our national interest and develop our national resources on a narrower base.’ This would have taken place as European political and economic unity proceeded without Britain in ‘a neighbouring Community several times our size.’ Here, as elsewhere in the paper, there is a hint that the UK would not be entirely comfortable with a new super-power neighbour, and that it might also be another threat to our security.[12]

The white paper then refers to the political and military predominance of two superpowers, and the emergence of a third, China, while noting that in economic affairs the European Communities and Japan were on the way to superpower status. It then predicted a world of five superpowers where, via the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and GATT, the three non-Communist blocs ‘will increasingly and inevitably be the decisive influences.’ It argues, ‘Individually, no European country can ensure its voice is heeded’ but that recent negotiations showed the united Communities were listened to. If we joined, suggested the paper, ‘we shall be making sure that British trade and manufacturing interests are represented at the summit of the negotiations where the terms on which we earn our living are decided.’[13]

The paper then notes that, while the Community was then mainly focused on economics, ‘it is inevitable that the scope of the Community’s external policies should broaden as member countries’ interests become harmonised.’ If we joined then, following the paper’s release, ‘we shall be able to influence the process of development’ including that towards economic and monetary union’. If we were not to join, this would not stop ‘the Community of Six moving forward in both the economic and political fields.’[14]

An inter-governmental form of government

Throughout the paper, the Community is presented as an inter-governmental body where ‘sovereign Governments are represented round the table’, but no time is spent wondering how this might be reconciled with the future superpower status it anticipates. On issues which a government considers of vital national interest, the paper claims that ‘it is established that the decision [must] be unanimous’. The paper asserts, ‘There is no question of any erosion of essential national sovereignty; what is proposed is a sharing and an enlargement of individual national sovereignties in the general interest.’[15]

Little change required in British life

The paper minimizes the change in British institutions and the British way of life that membership will entail: ‘The common law will remain the basis of our legal system, and our courts will continue to operate as they do at present. In certain cases however they would need to refer points of Community law to the European Court of Justice. All the essential features of our law will remain’.[16] This includes features like habeas corpus and the principle of presumed innocence. In any case, the paper argues that the political differences between European neighbours ‘are insignificant, compared with what we have in common.’ The paper goes on, ‘In history and culture, in political, legal and social framework, in social structures, in standards of living and in national interests and objectives, the countries of the Communities and the United Kingdom have a European heritage.’[17]

The paper then looks at the way in which membership would reinforce British security, which ‘has been bound up with that of our European neighbours for over a thousand years.’[18] The paper mentions NATO and says that the United States feels it is ‘now time for Europe to play a larger part in maintaining her own security.’ For that reason the US had, argues the paper, consistently supported the development of unity among Western European democracies ‘in a more self-reliant community of nations.’[19]

Many of the earlier comments might lead one to think that a European army would be a high priority of the Six. The paper says nothing of this, though this must have been in the mind of every participant and observer at the time given the staged withdrawal of France from the military command, but not political structure, of NATO from 1959-1966.

Commitment to world development

Similarly, the Commonwealth countries had little reason or wish to object to UK membership, according to the paper, since they ‘have developed and are still developing with other countries trade and investment arrangements which accord with the requirements of their basic geographical and economic circumstances.’[20] But the paper does mention the ‘threat of abrupt dislocation to Commonwealth and other third country suppliers’ which Britain sought to mitigate.[21]

Moreover, the Community was not intended to be inward looking, and in trade, investment and aid has already shown that it is not. It already accounts for 30 per cent of world trade, and its members’ trade with the outside world has increased more than two and a half times in the twelve years since its formation’.[22] Similarly, ‘aid to the poorer nations by our European neighbours is proportionately greater than ours, and the Community has been the first of the major aid donors to introduce a generalised preference scheme [to provide] for duty-free access for a wide range of goods from the developing countries.’[23]

A stark contrast of economies

The white paper made the economic case for membership by arguing that, while French and German earnings were about the same as British earnings in 1958, by 1969 average earnings there ‘were now between a quarter or a half higher on average than those in Britain.’ Member countries also had low levels of unemployment, higher investment and balance of payments surpluses, all of which were attributed to the formation of the Community.[24]

In sharp contrast, during the same time the UK had slow economic growth, low investment and repeated balance of payments crises, which add credibility to the common characterisation at the time, in Britain at least, of Britain as the sick man of Europe.

The main advantage of membership for the UK, according to the paper, was ‘a permanent, assured, and greatly enlarged market’ which will prompt ‘a radical change in planning, investment, production and sales effort’ in the UK.[25] The British government were, therefore, ‘confident that membership of the enlarged Community will lead to much improved efficiency and productivity in British industry, with a higher rate of investment and a faster growth of real wages.’[26]


The paper mentioned the costs of membership. We would contribute to the budget. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) would increase food prices, and we would also have to contribute to the European Investment Bank, but these costs were all considered manageable because of the improvements in efficiency following accession.

None of the costs which figure in the contemporary debate, such as those of regulation or of ceding the right to negotiate individual trade agreements to the Community, were deemed relevant at the time, except in the context of relations with former colonies and dependencies.

Conclusion: ‘The advantages will more than outweigh the costs’

This will be the case ‘provided we seize the opportunities of the far wider home market now open to us. If we do, we shall obtain, as the Six have done since the Communities were founded, a substantial increase in trade, investment, growth, real wages and standards of living than we have known in recent years or would be possible if we remained outside the Communities.’[27]

In a wider political perspective, the paper asserts that together ‘we can do more and better than any of us could do alone.’[28] It suggests that because members of the enlarged Community could help each other, the ‘relationships between Europe and particularly the United States, the Soviet Union and, one day, China would become more evenly balanced. A Europe united would have the means of recovering the position in the world that Europe divided has lost.’[29]


[1] HM Government, The United Kingdom and the European Communities, (White Paper, Command 4715), 1971

[2] (Command 4715) para 10

[3] (Command 4715) para 14

[4] (Command 4715) para 13

[5] (Command 4715) para 16

[6] (Command 4715) para 17

[7] (Command 4715) para 18

[8] (Command 4715) para 18

[9] (Command 4715) para 36

[10] (Command 4715) para 21

[11] (Command 4715) para 22

[12] (Command 4715) para 26

[13] (Command 4715) para 27

[14] (Command 4715) para 28

[15] (Command 4715) para 29

[16] (Command 4715) para 31

[17] (Command 4715) para 32

[18] (Command 4715) para 2

[19] (Command 4715) para 35

[20] (Command 4715) para 37

[21] (Command 4715) para 77

[22] (Command 4715) para 38

[23] (Command 4715) para 39

[24] (Command 4715) para 52

[25] (Command 4715) para 44

[26] (Command 4715) para 56

[27] (Command 4715) para 59

[28] (Command 4715) para 60

[29] (Command 4715) para 61

Please specify which chapter you are reading and offer feedback using the form below.