On 4 February 1969, French President Charles de Gaulle hosted a private lunch at the Elysée Palace for Christopher Soames, the former Conservative Cabinet minister who had recently been appointed British ambassador to France, and his wife, Mary, daughter of Winston Churchill. With no officials present, the General shared his thoughts with Soames on a wide range of subjects, including what he saw as the increasingly integrationist direction of the Six and the continuing need for Europe to assert its independence from the United States. De Gaulle indicated that, despite his vetoes of British membership of the European Community (in 1963 and 1967), he now felt it might be preferable for Europe to evolve in the direction of a rather wider, looser grouping of states, involving both the Community and the seven members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), with the whole to be run by a directory of the largest countries. According to the reporting telegramme which Soames sent to the Foreign Office, the President said he wanted the EC to develop into ‘a large economic association, but with a smaller inner council’ – of France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom – at its core. De Gaulle suggested that, if London found such a prospect attractive, the two governments could hold ‘far-reaching bilateral talks’ with a view to cooperation ‘in a way which our two countries have never done before’.
Ironically, Britain had advocated a similarly loose arrangement for the future of Europe in 1956-58 – its ‘Plan G’ for a free trade area within the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC) – as an alternative to the customs union and common market being formed by the Six. However, de Gaulle’s démarche over a decade later now posed a serious problem for Whitehall, which was hesitant about being a party to anything which might be seen as a French plot against the other member states, all of which had supported Britain’s two applications to join the Community in its existing form. Indeed the Five had recently begun working with Britain in the Western European Union (WEU) to revive discussions on foreign policy in a form that de Gaulle had discontinued in the EC context (after the failure of his proposed Fouchet Plan for an intergovernmental political union in 1962). Many in the Foreign Office, notably John Robinson, the key official dealing with Europe, viewed the General’s initiative as at best a clever diversionary tactic, and at worst a deliberate and dangerous trap. If Britain accepted bilateral negotiations, it risked alienating the Five and showing it did not want a communautaire Europe. If it refused them, it would suggest that it was unwilling to bury differences with Paris and seem to justify de Gaulle’s previous vetoes.
After a week of agonising in Whitehall, prime minister Harold Wilson accepted Foreign Office advice to inform both other European capitals and Washington of de Gaulle’s initiative. It signalled to partners that the UK would probably accept the French invitation to bilateral talks – of which they would be kept abreast – whilst insisting that the EC be maintained in its current form. Somewhat maladroitly, the Foreign Office appears to have done this without informing the Elysée or Quai d’Orsay of their intentions in advance. On 12 February, the same day as other governments were told, Wilson discussed the situation with Kurt Kiesinger, the German Chancellor (1966-69), on a long-planned visit to Bonn. The latter, evidently irritated by events, issued a statement which, in a calculated provocation to de Gaulle, asserted that ‘a united Europe is inconceivable without Britain’. In a parallel development, France announced that it would boycott the WEU, on the grounds that its foreign policy talks on the Middle East exceeded the body’s remit.
As it circulated, the official British report of the Soames lunch generated diplomatic shock-waves across the continent and inevitably found its way into the press (first surfacing on 17 February). The French government reacted by accusing the British of betraying its confidence and claiming that they had distorted the meaning of what the General had said. There was particular annoyance about the relevation of the proposed ‘inner council’ or directory of large states. Whitehall responded by showing Soames’ original reporting telegramme to selected journalists and pointing out that the British embassy in Paris had taken care to verify its contents with Elysée officials before sending it. The French government denied this. Soames reported to London: ‘the French government are not telling the truth and they know it’. He was also informed by foreign minister Michel Debré that no talks between the two countries were now possible.
Crispin Tickell, who served in the British embassy in Paris during the Soames affair, has recalled: ‘The mood in London at the time was paranoid about the French, so certain people exaggerated [the lunchtime conversation] far out of proportion … . It represented a substantial British misreading of the scene and over-reaction, followed by a French over-reaction to that. What de Gaulle said to Soames was unknown to the Quai d’Orsay. For us to have informed the Five meant that they knew more than the French foreign ministry. So it was a mess.’ (Interview for the British Diplomatic Oral History Programme, 1999).
Although the Soames affair represented a painful nadir in Anglo-French relations, it confirmed the UK government’s commitment to membership of the Community ‘in the eyes of people’, as Hugo Young put it, ‘who would eventually matter more to Britain than de Gaulle’ (This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair, 1998). It increased the determination of the Five to support British entry and exposed the increasing contradictions of French policy in Europe. In the event, two months later, de Gaulle chose to resign, after losing an ill-calculated domestic referendum on regional and Senate reform, and in December the French veto on any British application was formally lifted by his successor, Georges Pompidou.
Further reading: Melissa Pine, ‘British Personal Diplomacy and Public Policy: The Soames Affair’, Journal of European Integration History, Volume 10, Number 2, 2004.
Copyright: Anthony Teasdale, 2012
Citation: The Penguin Companion to European Union (2012), additional website entry