The Heath Government was elected in June 1970 determined to take Britain into the E.E.C. The balance of political forces in Europe finally appeared to favour our application, the General Election had conferred a fresh mandate for entry and most important of all, perhaps, the European ideal lay at the very heart of the new Prime Minister's political creed. Entry seemed a more achievable objective than it ever had before.
The key question was whether the French would agree? Twice before, under De Gaulle, France had vetoed British applications. De Gaulle's successor, Georges Pompidou, was known to be more favourable, but a French "oui" could not be taken for granted. Even if a veto was avoided - and we knew the French would pay a price among the other members of the EEC if they sought to repeat it - there was a danger that they might take such a tough line in negotiation that the talks would prove very costly to the domestic standing of the British Government or would fail altogether. In the British view the longer things dragged on, the worse the outcome would likely be. Consequently Heath was determined to break the back of the negotiation by summer 1971.
The official entry negotiations in Brussels between Britain and "the Six" were proceeding slowly when, in February 1971, confidential talks between Pompidou's closest adviser and the British Ambassador in Paris (Christopher Soames) raised the suggestion of a summit between President and Prime Minister to settle the main questions. Such an event would raise high expectations and carried corresponding risks. A failed summit might derail the British application and hugely embarrass Edward Heath, who was already busily recasting British policy, domestic and foreign, on the assumption we were going to join.
It would damage Pompidou as well. But perhaps for that very reason, in the words of the French official, the two leaders would be "condemned to succeed" and, of course, from the British point of view there were few obvious alternatives to a summit, once Pompidou had expressed a desire for it. Even so, the British Government deliberated for almost a month before finally accepting the proposal.
Planning for the summit took place in high secrecy by direct contact between No.10 and Presidential officials at the Élysée Palace. The French Foreign Office, still hostile to British entry, was told nothing until hours before the event was announced, to the embarrassment of British diplomats who were forced to keep their French counterparts in ignorance.
The British Government edged the French towards compromise positions before the summit itself took place, trying to avoid a crisis atmosphere and aiming to make the remaining gap bridgeable. We also sought to make the summit a glittering media occasion which would lift the negotiations out of the political rut into starrier territory. Pompidou responded generously, commanding welcoming ceremonies, banquets, and a wreath-laying at the Arc de Triomphe. Heath delivered a speech in French and the President graciously lunched at the British Embassy.
At the heart of the summit was a simple question, posed by Pompidou to Heath in their tête à tête: was Britain ready to make "a historic change in (its) attitude", a "fundamental choice" in favour of the European Community? Although detailed negotiating points occupied much of the eleven hours of talks, the exchanges on this subject (at the beginning of the first and second sessions) mattered most. Heath was probably the first British Prime Minister in history who could have truthfully answered "yes" to that question, and he was very likely the only one who had a chance of being believed when he said it. His credibility in this respect drew heavily on his coolness towards Britain's traditional ally, the United States, as to which he left Pompidou in no doubt.
For good or ill, the summit achieved everything Heath could have hoped; it was perhaps the highpoint of his political career. The entry talks in Brussels came to life the following month and outstanding problems were successfully resolved. The British Government was able to begin the task of pushing the necessary legislation through Parliament and bringing the sceptical British public into line.
Strangely, Heath's massive Prime Ministerial files on the application did not include records of the summit itself. A Freedom of Information Act application by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation has secured their release and they are made available here for the first time. The French records are yet to be opened in full.
The key summit documents
Documents released under Margaret Thatcher Foundation FoI request:
The British Ambassador in Paris sent home an account of events between and outside the actual summit sessions, as well as a note of conversation at the Embassy lunch. Both these documents were released in 2002 in file PREM 15/ 372.
"Limited imagination and no talent for grandeur": the British Ambassador (who felt he had both) wasn't a close admirer of Pompidou. But he was a shrewd observer, all the same. Read his analysis of the President and of French policy. (Source: PREM 15/ 371.)
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Heath's secret files on the E.E.C.
Available here on line for the first time are Heath's secret files on the E.E.C up to the May 1971 summit, which run to 1500 pages.
Read them in full from the links below.
File references are those used at the UK National Archives in Kew, where the original documents are freely available for study. Conditions for filming were not ideal. All documents should be perfectly legible, but some are blurred or poorly lit. Readers experiencing problems with a particular document are invited to email firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: UK Government documents are filed in reverse chronological order, with occasional errors and inconsistencies in the ordering.
PREM 15/ 62 - E.E.C. Application (Part 1)
1970 Dec 30 - Nov 9 pages 1-100 [9.5 MB]
1970 Nov 9 - Oct 23 pages 101-201[9.6 MB]
1970 Oct 23 - Jun 19 pages 202- 324 [11.3 MB]
PREM 15/ 368 - E.E.C. Application (Part 2)
1971 Mar 8 - Feb 18 pages 1-100 [10.1 MB]
1971 Feb 17 - Jan 4 pages 101-259 [13.3 MB]
PREM 15/ 369 - E.E.C. Application (Part 3)
1971 Mar 26 - Mar 15 pages 1-99 [9 MB]
1971 Mar 15 - Mar 8 pages 100-200[10.7MB]
1971 Mar 8 pages 201-228 [2.2 MB]
PREM 15/ 370 - E.E.C. Application (Part 4)
1971 Apr 21 - Mar 29 pages 1-100 [8.6 MB]
1971 Apr 14 - Mar 29 pages 101-201 [9.5 MB]
1971 Mar 29 - Mar 27 pages 202-227 [2.1 MB]
PREM 15/ 371 - E.E.C. Application (Part 5)
1971 May 8 - May 3 pages 1-100 [9 MB]
1971 May 3 - Apr 21 pages 101-202 [11.5 MB]
PREM 15/ 372 - E.E.C. Application (Part 6)
1971 May 24 - May 19 pages 1-100 [7.6 MB]
1971 May 19 - May 11 pages 101-201[7.6 MB]
1971 May 11 - May 10 pages 202-259 [4 MB]