• U.S.

Common Market: The Terms for Britain

4 minute read

In the nine months since Britain applied for membership in the European Common Market, few diplomats on either side have seriously considered that the British might be kept out. Last week, as a British team led by Lord Privy Seal Edward Heath got down to bare-knuckled bargaining in Brussels, there was a real possibility that Europe may yet roll back the welcome mat.

Despite Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s brave declaration in Toronto this month that the Common Market would have to “make it easy” for Britain to join, European leaders showed that they are in no mood for concessions. On the contrary, Konrad Adenauer warned that Britain has “interests different from those of Europe” and may not be able to pay the price of membership. Whether der Alte was threatening to block British admission, which he denied, or whether he was not too subtly raising the ante, his attitude was shared by many other Europeans, notably Charles de Gaulle.

Too Fat. Ostensibly, the biggest obstacle is Britain’s insistence that it cannot join unless the European nations agree to a long-term transitional period in which preferential tariffs for Commonwealth nations will be reduced by easy stages. As an opening gambit, Ted Heath offered for the first time to raise tariffs against the relatively small volume of manufactured goods Britain imports from the Commonwealth, then prepared to tackle the far more complex question of raw materials imports, many of which compete with commodities raised by former French African colonies that now receive preferential treatment as “associate” members of the Common Market.

But the real issue at stake is the political shape and leadership of Western Europe. De Gaulle is pressing for a loose confederation of states, presumably to be led by France and largely independent of the U.S.; Britain, he apparently feels, would not only rival French influence but act on behalf of the U.S. to dominate the Common Market. Adenauer, who is anxious to achieve almost any form of political union before he steps down, is now willing to go along with De Gaulle’s concept. Belgium and The Netherlands prefer a far tighter, supranational federation, but failing that, they want Britain in as a counterweight to France and Germany. Says Belgium’s Foreign Minister Paul-Henri Spaak: “England is a great political stabilizing element, our necessary intermediary with the U.S.”

With support from the Benelux nations and. if they are admitted, her former “Outer Seven” trading partners—Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Portugal, Austria and Switzerland—Britain would obviously challenge the present Franco-German dominance of the Common Market. With all those countries included, the result may be a “Big Europe,” many Common Market partisans fear, bound by commercial rather than political ties and in danger (as Adenauer puts it) of “growing so fat that it bursts.”

Too Canny. In Britain, the most serious potential threat to British membership remains the Labor Party. Though its right wing, headed by Labor Party Leader Hugh Gaitskell, generally favors the move, the left wing is outspokenly opposed to Common Market membership on the grounds that it would block the socialists’ hopes of nationalizing industry and, in the New Statesman’s words, “consolidate the inequalities in Britain’s social structure.”

Well aware that the Tories hope to win a general election in 1963 on the strength of Britain’s admission to the Market on favorable terms, Labor’s Hugh Gaitskell last week cannily avoided committing himself either way (see cartoon). In a folksy fence-sitting TV speech that was hailed as the most effective of his career. Gaitskell balanced the pitfalls (“Goodness me, it’s not going to be easy to switch over all our tariff arrangements”) against the advantages of becoming Europe’s “great, radical, progressive, democratic influence.”

In the end, he came close to repeating what Macmillan has promised all along. Said Gaitskell: “To go in on good terms would be the best solution. To go in on bad terms which really meant the end of the Commonwealth would be a step which I think we would regret all our lives, and for which history would not forgive us.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com