The maxim, audi alteram partem, ‘listen to the other side’, is not only a rule of natural justice. It is also a counsel of wisdom in negotiation, and above all in a negotiation which, once completed, is intended by its parties to be irreversible. In such a negotiation it is a good thing to listen to what the other side are saying. It is the best way to find out what they are thinking and intending; and if, in the process, we find another old adage verified, that ‘listeners seldom hear good of themselves’, we shall be all the wiser for that.
I invite you therefore to listen to the French President addressing his countrymen just after the conclusion of that memorable meeting with Mr Heath, a meeting memorable, amongst other reasons, because never were there so many smiles in so short a time. He was telling his countrymen something of the preceding events. When he became President, he said, in 1969,
‘I found that our partners (in the EEC) no longer wished to progress, that the chances, in particular, of obtaining the renewal and, if I may say, the definite establishment of the agricultural common market were very slight. That was why, at the Conference of the Hague (in December, 1969), I very clearly put the bargain to them, and I obtained, on the one hand, that the agricultural market should become permanent, in exchange, on the other, for the opening of negotiations with Great Britain.’
In fact, a few days before, the French Foreign Minister had explained what happened after that bargain was struck:
‘After the agreement (of 22 April 1970), we were told and retold: “You will never succeed in getting this agreement ratified by the six national parliaments before the end of the year, that is to say, before the date fixed for the application of the system that is to lead to integral coverage, within a specified period, of Community expenditure by Community resources.” Tirelessly we answered: “If this condition is not fulfilled, negotiations with the candidate countries will be paralysed, for to pursue them would be to give them a new goal: the substitution of a new, and moreover hypothetical, system for the Community system.” When the sixth Parliament completed the ratification procedure at the end of December, I did not say: “We have won.” I said: “The Europe whose existence springs from the solidarities based on fact has won.”’
However, before I comment I want you to listen again to the French President’s voice. He is describing his conversation with Mr Heath:
‘Fourth question, which was probably the most important of all: I asked the British Prime Minister what he thought of Europe, in other words whether Britain was really determined to become European, whether Britain, which is an island, was determined to tie herself to the Continent, and whether she was prepared, consequently, to loosen her ties with the open sea, towards which she has always looked. And I can say that the explanations and views expressed to me by Mr Heath are in keeping with France’s concept of the future of Europe.’
So now we know. The price which France required before agreeing that negotiations for British entry should even begin was the confirmation, the irreversible permanence, of that common agricultural policy, which, even on the admission of the most ardent advocates of British membership, would represent a severe burden to Britain, both indirectly in terms of higher prices and directly in terms of financial contributions or tribute from her to her neighbours. We know something else: we know the crucial question which M. Pompidou administered to Mr Heath in Paris, rather like the oath which the Bayeux Tapestry shows William of Normandy administering to the captive Earl Harold.
It was, you remember, this: ‘Are you determined to tie yourself to the Continent, and consequently to loosen your ties with the open sea to which you have always looked?’ The resemblance, both in solemnity and in finality, to the marriage service is not accidental.
Why are so many Britons, both elsewhere and in industry and commerce, willing to answer Yes to this humiliating question, and, what is more to pay a permanent tribute to France for the permission to do so? The answer lies in an error, a widely spread and sincerely held error, but an error nonetheless. It is the belief that, since our commerce with the Commonwealth is becoming less important, our only compensation is to be found in Western Europe and the Common Market in particular, and that therefore, in, short, we have no choice in the matter.
There is no truth in this belief. Certainly, our commerce with the Commonwealth is a diminishing part of our total trade – not surprisingly as the significance of the old preferential arrangements; declines: in the last six years of the 1960’s our Commonwealth exports fell from nearly 29 per cent to under 22 per cent of our total exports, True; but where was the balance made good? Where was the increase which offset that decline, within an ever-expanding total? Not in Western Europe – that only accounted for a fraction of the difference – and not at all in the countries of the Community. No; the balance was almost wholly taken up in the rest of the world outside Western Europe, in other words, across those ‘ties with the open sea’ which we have promised M. Pompidou to renounce.
It is true also, and many have been misled by this, that our trade with the Western European countries in the EEC has continued to grow, and to grow at a rising rate, even since the formation of the Community and the completion of its external tariff. That growth, however, has simply maintained our trade with those countries at the proportion of about one fifth of our total trade, the proportion which it had recovered by the early 1960’s. I use the word ‘recovered’ advisedly; for that is the heart of the matter. ‘Recovered’ from what? From the war and its aftermath, and from the severe distortions imposed upon world trade in the 1930’s by rampant economic nationalism, especially that of the dictator countries, on the one hand, and by Commonwealth Preference on the other hand. Our trade with the neighbouring continental countries has now evidently got back to the fraction which it normally represented over the long sweep of the preceding years – a valuable fraction, but far from a predominant one, something in fact in the region of a fifth. Opportunity is everywhere, and no one should ever dare to predict that it lies in this place and not in that; but the preponderant opportunity for Britain, on the trends of the present no less than the history of the past, lies where, on the first principles of economic geography, it would be expected: across ‘the open sea’, For Britain to ‘tie herself to the Continent and loosen her ties with the open sea’, in return for accepting the irreversible agricultural policy of Western Europe – that may be a shrewd bargain for others. For us it would be manifest folly.