Her opportunity came when she made clear the rejection by French and Dutch voters of the planned constitution would not stop the EU project. "It is true that anyone who hoped that 50 years after the Treaties of Rome we would have a Constitutional Treaty will be disappointed," she said. But a newly-agreed "Berlin Declaration" would get the project back on track - because the political shape of Europe had to be constantly renewed. Failure was not an option, she added, then citing "the example of Britain's attitude to the original treaty" which, she averred, "showed there was no need to talk about failure."
Needing no further encouragement, The Guardian (and others) rushed to publish a piece by the Press Association headed, "Blair 'haunted' on EU anniversary", telling us that "Britain's legendary resistance" to the European Union (sic) came back to haunt Tony Blair at the 50th anniversary celebration in Berlin.
The Prime Minister, it claimed, "grinned wryly" and other EU leaders applauded as German Chancellor Angela Merkel recalled the UK's original reaction to plans for a common market, recounting how the British diplomat Russell Bretherton, "dispatched as an observer to the June 1955 Messina conference preparing the Treaty of Rome" told delegates of the six founding member states the project was doomed before it started. If the treaty was agreed it would not be ratified, and if ratified, it would have "no chance" of coming into force, Merkel had him say.
Perhaps someone more generous would balk at the term "lies", in preference to "myths" but any which way you cut it, this account is not true. Firstly, as a matter of absolute, verifiable historical record, Bretherton was not at Messina in 1955. In fact, there were no British observers at all at the conference - as the official "family photograph" shows. Merkel is confusing this with the later Spaak Committee meetings, held from July 1955 through to the December, the end result of which was the Spaak Report, on which the two treaties of Rome were based, Euratom and the Common Market treaty.
As to the conduct of those meetings, and Britain's part in it, this is indeed the stuff of legend.
When the talks began, Bretherton made it clear, under instructions from London, that Britain did not subscribe to the so-called "Messina goals" which had come out of the Messina conference. Instead, he pursued his government's traditional intergovernmental line, attempting to steer the Six towards a limited alternative of a trade agreement – an option which was rejected by Spaak as it "offered no prospect of a European political union".
Crucially though (and often ignored by contemporary commentators), in parallel with the common market talks, details of the proposals for an "Atomic Community" - to be known as Euratrom - were also being discussed, and it was here that any possibility of British participation foundered.
From the talks it emerged that the new organisation would require all fissile materials, including supplies of uranium, to be placed in a common "European pool" under Euratom's full control and ownership. A central intention was to prevent military programmes using them, which was wholly unacceptable to the British, as Europe's only nuclear power. It was clear that her interdependent civil and military programmes would not fit into this European mould. On 7 September 1955 therefore, Britain had no option but to withdraw from the Euratom talks.
Spaak was formally notified of the reasons for this in a letter from the British Ambassador in Brussels, George Labouchere. Informing Spaak that the UK government recognised "the strong impetus towards multilateral co-operation in Europe", he pointed out that Britain's civil nuclear operations were so closely integrated with her military programme that there would be "overriding difficulties in the defence field. These would prevent the UK from putting her resources, including supplies of nuclear material, into the European pool".
As discussions ground on, Bretherton was told how Spaak intended to organise the final stages of the committee’s activities. In late October, there would be a meeting of delegations to hear reports from the committees, restricted only to the Six. Spaak then intended to set up a small drafting group to write the final report, and to hold a meeting of heads of delegations in November, from which Britain would also be excluded. Between these meetings there would be a meeting of the full steering committee, to keep everyone informed of progress. To this Britain was invited.
Britain was to be excluded from the drafting group because it was felt it might thus be possible for the Six to go further than Britain would wish. Her presence "might in some way act as a brake on the others". In conclusion, Bretherton was told:
Monsieur Spaak felt that it was unrealistic to expect that the United Kingdom would become an equal member of the Common Market, which, with the Atomic Energy proposal, represented the most important elements of under consideration. He felt, however, that it was highly desirable that we should be associated with whatever Common Market arrangements emerged... we should not feel that we were being in any way excluded from the community. The fact that we were not expected to be present at the restricted meetings of heads of delegations was solely designed to ensure that the Six reached as great a measure of agreement among themselves as possible.The steering committee meeting was held on 7 November 1955. It was at this meeting that Bretherton announced that Britain was to withdraw from the talks on the common market. The way in which he communicated this has become a legendary episode in the history of Britain's relations with "Europe", subject to the most bizarre historical disagreement. According to the account offered by Roy Denman, Bretherton asked for the floor and spoke "in the following terms":
The future treaty which you are discussing has no chance of being agreed; if it was agreed, it would have no chance of being ratified; and if it were ratified, it would have no chance of being applied. And if it was applied, it would be totally unacceptable to Britain. You speak of agriculture, which we don't like, of power over customs, which we take exception to, and institutions which frighten us. Monsieur le president, messieurs, au revoir et bonne chance.Bretherton then apparently walked out. But to support his version of what happened, Denman, curiously, cites only a secondary source, a book by Charles Grant published in 1994, nearly forty years after the event. Grant, in turn, can only cite as his own source Jean François Déniau's L'Europe Interdite, quoted in Le Monde in October 1991.
Hugo Young also offers this version of the incident, giving a slightly different wording, citing Déniau as his source (referring to him as "J.-F. Denian"). Young claims that Bretherton's text was drafted in Anthony Eden's own hand. But Wolfram Kaiser, a respected German academic expert on European integration who writes in detail about Britain's role in the EU, believes the speech to have been "a Foreign Office statement", which Bretherton read out "word for word". As to the alleged "walk-out", Young concedes that "there is no documentary evidence that anything so exciting occurred".
Nevertheless, according to Young, after Bretherton delivered his speech, "Spaak just blew up", saying: "I am astonished and very hurt at this. You are just sticking to your guns. England has not moved at all, and I am not going to move either."
Kaiser gives a very different account:
The Six were not surprised. Spaak commented ironically that some governments could not understand the new context for European integration that had been created by the Messina conference, but separation was peaceful – as long a Britain refrained from torpedoing the Messina initiative.While Denman has it that Bretherton walked out and did not return, Young had Bretherton denying that he made "the spectacular exit legend attributed to him". In any event, he could hardly have "returned", since this was the committee's final session and Britain had already been told that it was not invited to the final drafting session. Nor could the Six have had anything to be surprised about. Bretherton had made Britain's position abundantly clear from the outset.
Still more oddly, neither Young nor Denman refer to the account of Miriam Camps, a US State Department observer, although they both cite her as a source elsewhere and list her book in their bibliographies. Young calls her book "the most authoritative history of the time".
Yet, at the closing meeting of the committee, Camps describes Spaak as having decided to ask for comments only from those who had not accepted the principles of the Messina resolution: "that is the British representative...". Bretherton, "when asked for his comments" indicated, "on instructions from London", that his government "could not take a definite position on the common market until it knew all the details of the plan": an entirely reasonable point, since the committee had yet to produce its report.
This is echoed by a Treasury memorandum dated 17 November 1955, recording notes of a meeting with Spaak. This stated "we cannot join Euratom" and then observes viz-à-viz British membership of the common market that, until Spaak had produced his report, "it would be impolitic for us to take a formal position". It concludes: "It would indeed be a major reversal of UK policy to say that we should join a common market and the Europeans would be very surprised if we did".
Spaak himself, who does not mention the Bretherton incident in his memoirs, dates Britain’s withdrawal from the common market from a memorandum dated 19 December 1955, addressed to the German government. It declared that "…it is our view that Britain cannot join such a project".
Yet despite Camps's account and all the other evidence, Bretherton's departure is the point at which Denman insists that Britain "walked out of Europe", and which Young describes as her "self-exclusion".
However, Britain had already withdrawn from Euratom because she was being asked to accept terms to which she could not possibly agree. And when the proposed treaties on Euratom and the common market became linked, Britain would have found it impossible to proceed. By leaving the Euratom talks, as she had to, Britain had, in effect, been excluded from the common market because of the way the treaties were subsequently linked.
More than 50 years on, in the mouth now of Angela Merkel, the legend survives, the legend that the UK deliberately excluded herself from the founding treaties, from which all subsequent woes devolve. And upon this lie rests the whole foundation of Britain's relations with the EU.