European Union, Origins | See European Union.

‘In 1955 the foreign ministers of six European countries began hammering out the details of an economic and political union that would eventually become the EU. To these momentous meetings Britain sent a mustachioed, middle-ranking civil servant named Russell Bretherton. Sucking on his pipe, Bretherton calmly explained that the project would not get off the ground. If by some chance it did, Britain would not sign up,” (‘Europe: Channel deep and wide’, The Economist Special Report: Britain, 9th Nov 2013).

‘The section in your special report (November 9th) examining the relationship with Europe cited Russell Bretherton, a British civil servant, telling a meeting of foreign ministers in 1955 to discuss political and economic union that the project would not get off the ground, and Britain would not sign up if it did. This is one of many versions of the words mischievously but quite erroneously attributed to Bretherton by a member of the French delegation, Jean-François Deniau. The full version reads: “Gentlemen, you are trying to negotiate something you will never be able to negotiate. But, if negotiated, it will not be ratified. And if ratified, it will not work.” When these alleged remarks were quoted by the then president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, in 1991 as illustrating the attitudes of the then British government they were widely covered in the British press and have been often repeated. The reality was quite different, as revealed by Bretherton’s contemporaneous memos. The key point, Bretherton wrote in August 1955, was that: “We have, in fact, the power to guide the conclusions of this conference in almost any direction we like, but beyond a certain point we cannot exercise that power without ourselves becoming, in some measure, responsible for the results”. He said publicly that: “If we had been able to say that we agreed in principle, we could have got whatever kind of common market we wanted.” But Bretherton’s official brief was not to commit Britain to anything, and eventually he was simply asked to leave the meetings, which he did with much regret. How different subsequent history would have been if Britain had taken a more positive attitude in 1955,” says James Bretherton, son of Russell Bretherton, in a letter from Oxford to the Economist which the latter published in its 30 Nov 2013 print edition.