University of Cambridge > > Wolfson College Lunchtime Seminar Series - Wednesdays of Full Term > Helmut Schmidt, Harold Wilson, and the British Renegotiation of EC-Membership, 1974-5

Helmut Schmidt, Harold Wilson, and the British Renegotiation of EC-Membership, 1974-5

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In January 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron proposed to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership of the European Union, followed by a nationwide ‘in or out’ referendum. It was a move designed primarily to keep his Eurosceptic backbenchers at bay, while also trying to appease widespread public unease over Britain’s future relationship with Europe. In his quest, so he claimed, Cameron hoped for strong German backing.

This is not a new strategy. Already in 1974-5, Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson pulled off a similar feat, in the end keeping a deeply divided Labour Party together while also keeping Britain in Europe. And, just like Cameron, Wilson had gambled on strong German support at the time.

Yet, such hopes proved to be misplaced. Though Wilson managed to get a successful referendum outcome in the end, Britain’s reputation inside the European Community suffered significantly as a result, in particular with regards to the initially sympathetic German chancellor Helmut Schmidt.

My talk revisits the renegotiations of 1974-5 through the prism of these two protagonists. By asking what went wrong with Schmidt and Wilson at the time, it analyses not only on the nitty-gritty details of European diplomacy, but it also reveals the very different worldviews and national agendas behind British and German conceptions of European integration more generally. In so doing, the talk offers important historical background to Britain’s troubled relationship with European integration, while also suggesting some lessons for Cameron’s strategy today.

This talk is part of the Wolfson College Lunchtime Seminar Series - Wednesdays of Full Term series.

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