On 29 March 2017, the British Government invoked Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union by letter, delivered in person by it Permanent Representative to the EU to the President of the European Council.
This action brings to mind the importance of letters in the history of the relationship between the UK and the European Community/Union from the 1950s when the UK declined to participate in the creation of the EEC.
Five such letters are covered here, with a brief introduction and reproduction either of the full text or of key passages.
In 1961 the UK Government decided to make an application for membership of the EEC, just four years after the signing of the Treaty of Rome. The Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, told the House of Commons that “this is a political as well as an economic issue. Although the Treaty of Rome is concerned with economic matters it has an important political objective, namely, to promote unity and stability in Europe, which is so essential a factor in the struggle for freedom and progress throughout the world. In this modern world, the tendency towards larger groups of nations acting together in the common interest leads to greater unity and thus adds to our strength in the struggle for freedom.”
Monsieur le President
I have the honour to inform Your Excellency that, in accordance with the terms of the resolution carried by both Houses of Parliament on the 3rd of August, Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland wishes to open negotiations with a view to acceding to the Treaty of Rome under the terms of Article 237.
As the Member Governments of the European Economic Community are aware, Her Majesty’s Government have need to take account of the special Commonwealth relationship as well as the essential interests of British agriculture and of the other members of the European Free Trade Association.
Her Majesty’s Government believe that Member Governments will consider these problems sympathetically and therefore have every confidence in a successful outcome to the negotiations. This would constitute an historic step towards that closer union among the European peoples which is the common wish of the United Kingdom and of the Members of the Community,
– Full text of letter from Prime Minister Harold McMillan to the President-in-Office of the Council of Ministers of the European Economic Community, Dr Ludwig Erhard.
Five years after the initial French veto on UK membership the Labour Government decided to make a new application. The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, explained this decision in the House of Commons: “…all of us are aware of the long-term potential for Europe, and, therefore, for Britain, of the creation of a single market of approaching 300 million people, with all the scope and incentive which this will provide for British industry…on a truly Continental scale, can create. But whatever the economic arguments, the House will realise that, as I have repeatedly made clear, the Government’s purpose derives, above all, from our recognition that Europe is now faced with the opportunity of a great move forward in political unity and that we can – and indeed must – play our full part in it.”
I have the honour, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom of
Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to inform Your Excellency that the United
Kingdom hereby applies to become a member of the European Economic Community
under the terms of Article 237 of the Treaty establishing the European Economic
Please accept, Mr. President, the assurance of my highest considerations.
(Signed) Harold Wilson.
– Full text of letter from Prime Minister Harold Wilson to the President-in-Office of the Council of the European Communities, Renaat Van Elslande.
The UK, with Ireland and Denmark, became a member state of the European Community in 1973, beginning a relationship which has always been difficult, often ambivalent and frequently controversial: Margaret Thatcher promoted the Single Market and then made her Bruges speech; John Major negotiated the Maastricht Treaty and rejected the Social Chapter; and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown agonised about the Euro. A seminal moment came in 1990 when the former Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe, resigned from the Thatcher Cabinet in protest at the Prime Minister’s approach to discussions on EC matters. The Prime Minister wrote to Geoffrey Howe:
Your letter refers to differences between us on Europe. I do not believe that these are nearly as great as you suggest. We are at one in wishing to preserve the fundamental sovereignty of Parliament. We want Britain to play a leading part in Europe and to be part of the further political, economic and monetary development of the European Community. As I made it clear in my statement to the House, our aim is to find solutions which will enable the Community to go forward as Twelve. I believe the party is united behind these aims and demonstrated that very clearly in the House on Tuesday: we have always been the party of Europe and will continue to be so.
– Letter from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to Geoffrey Howe (Extract)
The early years of the 21st century and the 2008 crisis saw the UK-EU relationship under strain, particularly in light of the growing popularity of UKIP.
In his Bloomberg speech in 2013 Prime Minister David Cameron indicated that a referendum on UK membership of the European Union would be held, following a re-negotiation of the country’s terms of membership. In a major address at Chatham House on 10 November 2015 the Prime Minister explained the changes the UK wanted: “What we are asking for and why […] The European Union needs to change. It needs to become more competitive to cope with the rise of economies like China and India. It needs to put relations between the countries inside the Euro and those outside it – like Britain – onto a stable, long-term basis. It needs greater democratic accountability to national parliaments. Above all, it needs to operate with the flexibility of a network, not the rigidity of a bloc.”
And, significantly, he insisted that “the commitment in the Treaty to an ever closer union is not a commitment that should apply any longer to Britain.”
Thank you for inviting me to write setting out the areas where I am seeking reforms to address the concerns of the British people over our membership of the European Union. As you said, the purpose of this letter is not to describe the precise means, or detailed legal proposals, for bringing the reforms we seek into effect. That is a matter for the negotiation, not least as there may, in each case, be different ways of achieving the same result.
[…] I have been encouraged in many of my conversations with my fellow Heads of Government in recent months that there is wide understanding of the concerns that I have raised and of the case for reforms that would benefit the European Union as a whole
[…] The European Union has a long history of respecting the differences of its many Member States and of working to overcome challenges in a way that works for the whole European Union. For example, with the protocols and other instruments agreed for Denmark and Ireland, the EU was able to arrive at a settlement, which worked for each country and did not disadvantage other Member States. Our concerns really boil down to one word: flexibility. And it is in this spirit that I set out the four main areas where the United Kingdom is seeking reform.
[…] I hope and believe that together we can reach agreement on each of these four areas. If we can, I am ready to campaign with all my heart and soul to keep Britain inside a reformed European Union that continues to enhance the prosperity and security of all its Member States.
– Extracts from Prime Minister David Cameron’s letter to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk.
Prime Minister Cameron’s campaign failed to keep Britain in the European Union. Following the referendum on 23 June 2016, David Cameron was replaced as Prime Minister by Theresa May who gave an undertaking to activate Article 50 of the Rome Treaty providing for the withdrawal of a Member State from the Union. On 29 March 2017 Prime Minister May signed a letter triggering Article 50 and addressed the House of Commons, stating that “This is an historic moment from which there can be no turning back. Britain is leaving the European Union” and continuing: “It is a plan for a new deep and special partnership between Britain and the European Union…And I have been clear that we should seek to agree the terms of this future partnership, alongside those of our withdrawal, within the next two years.”
Dear President Tusk
As I have said before that decision was no rejection of the values we share as fellow Europeans. Nor was it an attempt to do harm to the European Union or any of the remaining member states. On the contrary the United Kingdom wants the European Union to succeed and prosper. Instead the referendum was a vote to restore, as we see it, our national self-determination.
[…] The United Kingdom wants to agree with the European Union a deep and special partnership that takes in both economic and security cooperation
[…] If, however we leave the European Union without an agreement the default position is that we would have to trade on World Trade Organisation terms. In security terms a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened…..we must therefore work hard to avoid that outcome
[…] The Republic of Ireland is the only EU member state with a land border with the United Kingdom. We want to avoid a return to a hard border between our two countries, to be able to maintain the Common Travel Area between us and to make sure that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU does not harm the Republic of Ireland. We also have an important responsibility to make sure that nothing is done to jeopardise the peace process in Northern Ireland ad to continue to uphold the Belfast Agreement
[…] The task before us is momentous but it should not be beyond us. After all, the institutions and the leaders of the European Union have succeeded in bringing together a continent blighted by war into a union of peaceful nations and supported the transition of dictatorships to democracy. Therefore, I know we are capable of reaching an agreement
– Extracts from Prime Minister Theresa May’s Letter to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk.
These letters provide some historical context for the UK-EU relationship and serve to shed some light on the evolving attitudes in the UK towards the European Union over the past five decades.
Any further letter in this series, however, is almost certain to be the last.