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Edward Heath - European citizen

Edward Heath's European credentials were established at an early stage in his political career. Born into modest surroundings in 1916, he served in the British army during the Second World War, before becoming a Conservative MP at the general election in February 1950. His debut speech in the House of Commons concerned the Schuman Plan, a French proposal for the pooling of Franco-German coal and steel resources. The plan formed the basis of the European Coal and Steel Community (1951), the first supranational organisation to be created in postwar Europe. Britain, worried about the loss of sovereignty that membership of the ECSC might entail, stayed out.

Heath on the failed negotiations, 1963 - opens new window
Heath on the failed negotiations, 1963
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Taking the UK into the EEC

In July 1960 Heath was appointed Lord Privy Seal in the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan. In this post he was responsible (from 1961) for the negotiations surrounding Britain's first attempt to join the European Economic Community (EEC), which had been created by the Treaty of Rome in March 1957. These negotiations, however, ended in failure. In January 1963 the French president, Charles de Gaulle, wary of Britain's close relationship with the USA, vetoed Britain's application. This was a bitter blow for Heath. It prompted one of his most famous speeches, in which he promised that Britain would not turn its back on the European project: 'We are part of Europe by geography, tradition, history, culture and civilisation. We shall continue to work with our friends in Europe for the true unity and strength of this continent.'

In domestic politics, Heath's star continued to rise. He succeeded Sir Alec Douglas-Home as Conservative party leader in 1965, and became Prime Minister after winning the June 1970 general election. One of his first acts was to reopen negotiations for Britain's entry into the EEC, which had once again been vetoed by de Gaulle in 1967. In 1971, after the new French president, Georges Pompidou, had lifted de Gaulle's veto, negotiations with France and the other EEC partners were successfully concluded. Parliament passed the European Communities Act in the same year, and on 1 January 1973 Britain finally joined the EEC.
Anglo-French cultural ties, 1971 - opens new window
Anglo-French cultural ties, 1971
Document (143k) | Transcript
British sovereignty and the EEC, 1971 - opens new window
British sovereignty and the EEC, 1971
Document (143k) | Transcript

1974 and after

Securing Britain's entry into the EEC was Heath's greatest political achievement. In other areas, however, his term in office was less successful. Trouble in Northern Ireland and, in particular, mounting economic problems undermined his position. In March 1974 the Labour leader Harold Wilson succeeded him as Prime Minister. In June 1975 the Wilson government, having successfully 'renegotiated' the original terms of Britain's entry into the EEC three months earlier, called a referendum to endorse continued membership. Some 67.2% of participants voted 'yes' - a belated vindication of Heath's long-standing position.

Heath was replaced as leader of the Tory party by Margaret Thatcher in 1975. His subsequent political career was marked by his continued commitment to European union - and by his numerous clashes with Mrs Thatcher, a less enthusiastic supporter of the European Community, over European policy. He was knighted in 1992, and retired from politics in 2001. In his final speech to Parliament, Heath criticised the 'Eurosceptic' attitude of the Conservative Party leadership and emphasised his support for British membership of the single European currency.


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