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Some Conclusions on Foreign Office Attitudes towards European Integration, 1957-73

Written by Adam Rolewicz.

The history of Britain’s relationship with Europe is one which has received significant attention from scholars and laypeople alike, especially in recent times. It has been explored from a wide range of angles and perspectives, all of which offer unique insights into what has often been characterized as an awkward or reluctant relationship. My thesis employed a specific focus on the attitudes of Foreign Office officials towards European integration in the years 1957-73 and the ways in which these attitudes shaped the foreign policymaking process. The role which Foreign Office officials played in Britain’s approach to membership of the European Economic Community (EEC) was extremely significant, and their attitudes had a profound impact on the policymaking process.

The first conclusion which I came to through my research was that the attitudes of Foreign Office officials towards European integration and British membership of the EEC in the years 1957-73 were extremely diverse. Even when officials were largely in favour of joining the EEC in the mid to late 1960s, there were a number of very different motivations behind these attitudes. The binary, essentialized view that the Foreign Office was made up of ‘Europhiles’ versus ‘Eurosceptics’ is an illogical one which should be discarded. To be sure, there were a group of passionately pro-European officials who were motivated by the grand ideological vision of a united, peaceful and prosperous Europe after the horrors of the Second World War. This vision was a powerful one, particularly for the men who had served on the frontline. For them, the creation of the EEC represented a defining moment in Europe’s quest for reconciliation and solidarity, and Britain was dutybound to play a full part. However, they appear to have been exceptions. The majority of officials were not motivated by such emotional attachments and instead looked towards Europe as an opportunity for Britain to reclaim her status as a global power. As Britain’s international standing began to wane with the Suez Crisis, de Gaulle’s veto of Britain’s first application for EEC membership, the erosion of the Anglo-American ‘special relationship’, domestic economic turmoil, the diminished political and economic relevance of the Commonwealth and the East of Suez imperial withdrawal, membership of the EEC became increasingly attractive as a means of preserving her influence and prestige. Of course, there were officials who remained skeptical for the entirety of their careers and in later life. The crucial point is that while the Foreign Office eventually became broadly in favour of British membership of the EEC, different officials altered their attitudes for different reasons, whereas a handful never warmed to the idea of European integration.

This leads to the second conclusion, which is the impact of officials’ formative experiences and the factors behind the differences in attitudes towards European integration. My research found absolutely no evidence that officials’ attitudes towards European integration were determined by their social backgrounds or educational experiences. Oxford and Cambridge continued to send large numbers of graduates to the Foreign Office, but there was also a significant cohort of officials who had studied at Edinburgh, Glasgow, King’s College London, Queen Mary’s College (University of London), and University College London. In addition, the subjects studied by officials varied considerably. These included Greats, History, Classics, English, Modern Languages, Law, Public Administration, and Economics. This heterogeneity in officials’ university educations reflected extremely diverse attitudes towards European integration, and there is no evidence of a correlation between them, or of a network of officials based on university affiliation. This was confirmed by the current Permanent Under-Secretary, who stated: ‘I wasn’t aware whether it was Cambridge or Oxford people because very quickly you’re more aware of your working environment rather than the academic environment you’ve left’. Sir Simon McDonald instead argued that joining the Foreign Office itself was the key watershed moment for most officials and that each year group had a strong identity.

Officials seemingly had more in common with those in the same age group, or more broadly, generation. Indeed, my research contends that the most significant determinant of Foreign Office officials’ attitudes towards European integration was a generational experience. The psychological impact of the Second World War decisively shaped the attitudes of the future officials who had witnessed it on the front line as soldiers or on the home front as adolescents. This generational attitude was not a narrow one. The majority of post-war Foreign Office recruits had seen service in the armed forces, either during the War itself or as part of their national service, and many had joined the department via the ‘reconstruction method’, which was specifically devised for young men who had had their university educations disrupted by the War. The Foreign Office also became much more open to the idea of European integration as the post-war generation climbed the career ladder to more senior positions. By the year of Britain’s accession, the department possessed a highly positive attitude towards the EEC. The new Permanent Under-Secretary in 1973, Thomas Brimelow, was an ardent Europeanist, as was Michael Palliser, his successor.

This study’s third main conclusion concerns when the Foreign Office developed a more positive attitude towards British membership of the EEC and the causes of this shift. It appears that Charles de Gaulle’s first veto in January 1963 was the most significant turning point for officials’ attitudes towards European integration in this period. Prior to the first application and over the course of the negotiations in 1961-3, the departmental line had been cautious and pessimistic. Senior officials had advocated an associative relationship with the EEC or complete alternatives in the form of EFTA. These ventures failed to garner much attention or support from the six member states of the EEC (France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) and the United States. When the Foreign Office began to consider an application for membership in 1960-1, the overarching attitude was largely unchanged. Correspondence between senior officials still argued in favour of a ‘halfway house’ approach which suggested that Britain join Euratom and the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), but not the EEC. Anglo-American relations was still considered to be the top priority in Britain’s foreign policy strategy. However, once it became clear that the United States expected Britain to participate as a full member of the EEC and that further exclusion would result in them looking towards the Six as their principal Cold War partners, senior officials begrudgingly accepted the necessity of an application. The first application was therefore exceptionally conservative and not launched in a spirit of enthusiasm for European integration. It was ‘a conditional and tentative venture, creeping in a state of high suspicion towards this moment of historic destiny, declining to make a commitment until the Europeans had shown what ground they were prepared to surrender.’

After de Gaulle’s first veto, the language and tone adopted by officials in their correspondence changed dramatically. The humiliating failure of the first application caused a permanent psychological shift which changed Foreign Office attitudes towards European integration irreversibly. There was a realization that Britain could not shape the EEC to fit its own interests, and that long-term exclusion from the club would be detrimental to British international influence. In the words of Con O’Neill, the department’s leading pro-marketeer in the 1960s: ‘the possible political disadvantages of…staying outside the Communities are the most powerful argument for…coming in’. The new orthodoxy accepted by the majority of officials was that Britain simply had no alternative means of preserving her status as a world power. The Foreign Office’s reassessments of European integration policy in 1963-4 all reached the conclusion that Britain should try and influence the EEC’s future developments to make them more compatible with British interests, thereby facilitating an eventual accession to the Community. British membership of the EEC became the top foreign policy priority of the day, and this was reflected in Foreign Office attitudes.

The ways in which the Foreign Office adapted and responded to the question of European integration form the basis for this study’s fourth conclusion. Over the years 1957-73, the Foreign Office became increasingly ‘Europeanised’ and underwent major internal restructuring to meet the demands of British foreign policy towards Europe. This was a consequence of changes to Foreign Office attitudes as opposed to a cause. It was the officials who initiated the alterations to the department’s organizational structure and orientated the diplomatic service towards European integration affairs. The most far-reaching measure in the department’s reorientation was the amalgamation of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1968. This merger was only partly driven by financial considerations and was primarily a result of officials’ changing attitudes towards Britain’s world role and European integration. There was a broad consensus among officials that the amalgamation be used as an opportunity to prepare the Foreign Office for the future of British foreign policy, which was principally geared towards obtaining EEC membership.

Simultaneously, the Foreign Office was severely overstaffed by the mid-late 1960s and this had resulted in a ‘serious promotion blockage’. This blockage could only be allayed by either an increase in postings or a large number of redundancies. Unsurprisingly, most of the middle-ranking officials who were affected opted for the former, arguing that British accession to the EEC would create a strong demand for jobs in European integration policy and economic affairs. Officials lobbied intensively for increased staff in Western European embassies and Foreign Office departments in London concerned with European economic affairs. These officials were all members of the post-war generation and were strongly in favour of British membership of the EEC. The fact that these deeply-held views coincided perfectly with a solution to the overstaffing of the department was extremely appealing. The efforts of the ‘Europeanist’ officials were successful, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was restructured with a greater focus on European and economic affairs. The remaining functions of the Commonwealth Office were redistributed which resulted in the Commonwealth being permanently downgraded in importance. As a direct result, the Commonwealth became a far lesser obstacle to British membership of the EEC in the final negotiations. In the minds of Foreign Office officials, it had outlived its usefulness as a viable political partnership and a source of economic regeneration. Europe was now the top priority, and the cuts to Commonwealth posts in London and abroad confirmed this.

Adam Rolewicz completed his Ph.D. at the University of Kent in 2018. He is now a civil servant and Policy Advisor on Brexit at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the British Government. 

Image Credit: CC by Antonio Acuña/Flickr.

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