On the morning of Saturday 22 January 1972, a British delegation touched down at Melsbroek International Airport in Belgium, just over seven miles north-east of Brussels, to begin what Sir Christopher Soames, then Ambassador to France, called 'a great adventure' – the first 'enlargement' of the European Economic Community. As Franco Maria Malfatti, the President of the European Commission, told a press conference the day before, the Community had now given 'full meaning and dimension' to the continent's 'economic integration and political unification'.
Accompanied by the former Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, the Foreign Secretary, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, and the leaders of Britain's negotiating team, Geoffrey Rippon MP and the diplomat Sir Con O'Neill, the Prime Minister, Edward Heath, was required to formally ratify the Treaty of Accession, making Britain an 'acceding country' until it achieved full membership at midnight on 1 January 1973. For Heath, 'Brentry' was a 'tremendous opportunity' to put Jean Monnet's desire to 'find common solutions to common problems' into practice.
Britain's delegation was bolstered by the Leader of the Liberal Party, Jeremy Thorpe and Lord George-Brown. As Heath caustically noted in his memoirs nearly 30 years later, Harold Wilson – who had tabled a motion questioning the government's use of the Royal Prerogative, trying to prevent the signing of the Treaty before an official version had been 'considered by the House' – was one of 36,670 people at Highbury to watch George Armstrong help Arsenal to a 1-0 victory over Wilson's beloved Huddersfield. While it was reported that Wilson hadn't seen a loss since 1945, he told a group of journos that his team 'can't afford to lose', as he was shepherded into Arsenal's directors' lounge.
For Heath, the ceremony – held in the grand assembly hall of the Palais d'Egmont that afternoon – was the culmination of a lifelong mission and a decade of hard-fought negotiations since Harold Macmillan sanctioned the UK's first bid for membership in 1961. Having urged Clement Attlee's government to support the Schuman Plan to establish a Coal and Steel Community in his maiden speech in June 1950, Heath finally saw the UK enter what he called an 'unchallengeable bastion' of 'free and democratic, prosperous and peace-loving' nations.
However, what Heath later described as the 'proudest moment of my life' was delayed by an hour when a Swedish demonstrator, Marie Kwiatkowski, threw a plastic bag full of black ink at the Prime Minister. Onlookers later told the press that Kwiatkowski shouted, 'that's for your face, pig!' as the ink struck. As Heath recalled in his autobiography, The Course of My Life
: 'I was shattered, people in the crowd screamed'. His Private Secretary, Robert Armstrong, led him up the staircase to a side-room where he 'started scrubbing my head and face', while an aide fetched a clean suit from Heath's suite at the Metropole Hotel.
Kwiatkowski (known as Karen Cooper) – who according to the Sunday Mirror,
ran 'a Humber Super Snipe Estate car, travelling in Europe giving lectures on business management and psychology' – was reportedly protesting the ongoing redevelopment of Covent Garden. As her business partner, Susan Harris, told the Mirror
that evening, the two had been preparing since the Wednesday before and had purchased the industrial-grade black ink called 'Rocket' from a factory near Brussels shortly before obtaining press passes from the Belgian Foreign Ministry.
Despite this minor incident, the arrival of the UK, Denmark, Ireland, and Norway was billed as a watershed for the Community. Gaston Thorn, the President-in-Office of the Council of the European Communities who opened the ceremony, argued that the Community's enlargement gave it 'a new dimension and increased weight' to influence the 'development and economic growth' of what he called 'less-favoured peoples'.
It took just 23 minutes for the representatives of the four acceding nations to sign the charter next to a metre-high pile of copies of the Treaty of Rome, which RTL journalist, Jean-Charles De Keyser, told radio listeners were 'placed there symbolically to watch over the signatories'. In his closing speech, the Prime Minister declared that the 'New Europe' would be 'strong and confident within itself' and urged his new friends and partners to be alive to their 'great responsibilities in the common struggle of humanity for a better life'. With what would become the Biological Weapons Convention taking shape and the 'SALT I' talks edging closer to an agreement, Heath proposed that the Community should 'work for the progressive relaxation and elimination of East-West tensions'.
While his unofficial biographer, John Campbell, asserted that Heath's lifelong Europeanism derived from 'sturdy English patriotism… and an ardent desire to reassert British leadership through whole-hearted participation in an integrated Europe', he was the most 'European' Prime Minister of modern times. As an internal Conservative Party memo stated in February 1972, Heath wanted his party and the Cabinet – to whom the Prime Minister offered free tuition in another European language – to 'think European' when devising new policy proposals.
John Young (Professor Emeritus at the University of Nottingham) noted in the last comprehensive reappraisal of the 1970-74 administration two decades ago, that Heath was genuinely 'communautaire in behaviour [if not always in policy], committed to the European ideal, [and] ready to extend the competency of EC institutions' in a way that all his successors – bar Tony Blair – were not.
As historians think about the legacy of our 47 years in Europe, Heath's efforts to make his administration 'define its objectives and work out how they could be met in the complex bargaining situations of the Community' provides us with an interesting window into 'Europe in Britain' – how membership shaped British society and changed the way government worked.
While Heath's premiership was typically seen as the least successful of modern times, his efforts to secure a 'wonderful new beginning' shows that even the shortest premiership can be consequential – a lesson for any aspiring premier as our disunited kingdom rethinks its place in the world.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh