The above attitudes, viewed by many as symptoms of national arrogance, inevitably caused political tension between an increasingly isolated Britain and its European neighbours. In 1951, Churchill’s view was that Britain was “a separate, closely – and specially – related ally and friend” of Europe. This “aloofness” had already become evident in 1948 when the U.S. initiated the Marshall Aid Plan. Britain took a leading role in its distribution across Europe, but she was always “with Europe, but not of Europe” (Churchill). This was also illustrated by the determination to give the newly formed Council of Europe mere advisory powers. Even pressure from Britain’s closest ally, the U.S., to join Europe failed to change her stance. She wanted to optimise economical and political power by remaining in her three spheres of influence, the U.S., Commonwealth/Empire and Europe, rather than lose her role on the world stage by being integrated into one of these power blocs. It was therefore understandable that when the European Coal and Steel Community was created by the Benelux countries, France, Germany and Italy, through the Schuman Plan, Britain was extremely sceptical of joining a supra-national organisation. Admittedly, Britain had been given no advance warning of initial meetings and only exported approximately 5% of its iron and steel output to these countries anyway, but its refusal to commit to the principle of supra-nationality would remain a cornerstone of its relations with European organisations throughout the 1950’s.
At the same time as the establishment of the ECSC, European countries were also considering the establishment of an integrated, multi-national European Army responsible to a European Organisation, as first put forward under the Plevin plan in October 1950. Britain’s initial reaction, exemplified by Bevin and Attlee, was to dismiss this plan, at least until the U.S. showed its full support for it and for German rearmament. Even then, constant bickering between France and Britain resulted, often about the need to make firm commitments regarding the exact deployment of troops. It was only when Germany was admitted to NATO that progress finally occurred as British worries over the creation of a supranational European organisation dissipated and the British could maintain its foot in two camps, Europe and the US.
With progress occurring on many fronts (e.g. ECSC, NATO) it was not long before European countries were looking for more general economic and political integration. Such integration, provided it included Germany, would give others such as France access to the biggest and fastest growing economy. Yet, surprisingly, the Conservative Government still did not see it that way and therefore did not even take a full part in the Messina negotiations that led to the creation of the European Economic Community under the Treaty of Rome. Harold Macmillan had not even attended the important meetings. However, there were three main reasons for Britain’s indifference to the EEC. First, there was a general dislike of a federal Europe. Secondly, the Commonwealth was expanding with the admission of new countries such as Ghana. Lastly, the EEC would impose an overseas tariff on goods entering from the Commonwealth which would not only anger the Commonwealth but represent an economic disincentive to British membership as half of Britain’s imports came from these countries. Britain’s response was therefore quite predictable. When dealing with the possibility of a supranational European defence Community it had proposed solutions based on inter-governmental co-operation where each country retained important elements of political sovereignty. Faced with exclusion from the EEC Britain followed the same path – proposing and subsequently establishing a European Free Trade Area based on inter-governmental co-operation between the non-EEC countries and strictly limited to economic issues as opposed to any other organisation, supranational in nature, that might lead to political integration as well. Unfortunately, within four years the circumstances had changed. The Commonwealth had not lived up to expectations and, despite the certainty of angering the countries, plans were drawn up to limit Commonwealth immigration into Britain. The EEC had not become a supra-national organisation and any talk of a federal Europe was being played down. Moreover, Britain had finally realised she could never compete with the two superpowers, and the U.S. was pressurising Britain into joining. Essentially the main reason was that EEC was performing well and Britain’s EFTA was performing poorly. But the application was turned down by De Gaulle who, ironically, used Britain’s concerns over supranationality as an excuse for his refusal even though France, itself, preferred inter-governmental co-operation between sovereign states as a basis for the continuing operation of the EEC.
The 1960’s showed Britain continuing its effort to join the EEC, without success. Initially its Commonwealth links could be used by France as a reason for refusing EEC membership as these economic links might potentially undermine France’s determination to maintain a highly subsidized Common Agricultural Policy. Unfortunately, Britain’s reliance on US Polaris submarine capabilities, its inability to generate sufficient resources to pay for expensive military equipment (e.g. Blue Streak), or to act independently in a military capacity (e.g. Suez Crisis) but particularly its recognition that the world was passing it by as new political and economic alliances were being forged, meant that EEC membership applications had to continue even if national pride was damaged by each refusal. The Britain of the 1960’s had fallen behind European countries because of its refusal to lay down old concepts and start afresh.