Historical Notes: Mr Bretherton's retreat from Europe

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the great myths of Britain's attitude to European integration is the tale, so often told, of how the British delegate Russell Bretherton stormed out of the meeting which set the pointers for the establishment of the European Economic Community in the mid-1950s. In one version Bretherton was at the critical meeting in Messina where foreign ministers decided to forge ahead with the Common Market.

But the more detailed version, told by the formidable French writer and statesman Jean-Francois Deniau, places the drama at Val Duchesse, a rustic royal residence situated elegantly on the perimeter of Brussels, where an inter-governmental committee was examining the possibilities for a great leap forward. So far, Deniau's story is undeniably true.

Deniau continues in his memoir, Forbidden Europe, to describe how this delightful English gentleman, an Under-Secretary from the Department of Trade, spent an uneasy few months attending the detailed daily discussion of proposals of which his government had already said they disapproved. Alternating between a tone of sceptical enquiry and retreating behind his pipe, he was in an impossible position.

Deniau tells of how Bretherton had eventually had enough, and rose to his full height to make the following speech:

"Messieurs, I have followed your work with interest, and sympathetically. I have to tell you that the future Treaty which you are discussing a) has no chance of being agreed; b) if it were agreed, it would have no chance of being ratified; c) if it were ratified, it would have no chance of being applied. And please note that, if it were 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 of institutions, which horrifies us. Monsieur le president, messieurs, au revoir et bonne chance."

Deniau goes on: "We carried on without him, rather missing him because he was such a good chap." It is a wonderful story, only slightly spoilt by the fact that it didn't quite happen that way. Bretherton was indeed in an impossible position, unable to contribute to what was going on in Brussels and quite isolated from thinking in London, where neither the Foreign Office nor the Department of Trade took a very direct interest in the sessions.

Eventually he detected that the chairman of the group, the redoubtable Belgian Paul-Henri Spaak, was determined to move the discussion on from words and ideas to action, and Bretherton felt it was most prudent to stay away. There was no thundering speech of farewell, not even what we would now call a parting soundbite.

Bretherton just didn't turn up any more and returned to London. No one else who was present at Val Duchesse has ever provided any collateral for the ringing speech which Deniau describes. One British colleague of Bretherton's recollects his talking in this way at dinner parties. But the grand story seems sadly to be apocryphal. Does this mean it is worthless? Certainly not. The quality of myth is that there is some profound truth attaching to it, and we should not be too literal.

Bretherton the man has certainly been traduced, and the record needs to be set straight on his behalf. On the other hand, there is a far deeper truth in the mix of British misunderstandings, prejudices and miscalculations displayed than we would get from the drier accounts of those years. The words have as brilliant a resonance today, as the euro makes its way, uncertainly but probably successfully, as they ever did in the 1950s. As a senior British banker remarked recently: "If Bretherton had not existed, we would have had to invent him." And that is, in a manner of speaking, what Deniau did.

Michael Maclay is the author of `The European Union' (Sutton, pounds 5.99)