By Mathias Häussler
Born in the North German port city of Hamburg in 1918, Helmut Schmidt was an enthusiastic Anglophile in his early life, to the point that he abstained from voting on the Treaties of Rome in the German Bundestag in 1957. Much as he was convinced about the necessity of European integration, he simply did not believe that the proposed European Community (EC) would succeed without Britain.
In the early 1970s, he even tried to convince a highly sceptical Labour Party conference of the virtues of EC membership, comparing himself to “a man who, in front of ladies and gentlemen belonging to the Salvation Army, tries to convince them of the advantages of drinking”. During his eight years as German chancellor from 1974 to 1982, however, his views would change profoundly, largely as a result of British European policy.
Harold Wilson‘s renegotiation of EC membership in 1974-5 and Margaret Thatcher’s crusade over Britain’s budget contributions left Schmidt bitter about British attitudes towards Europe. In his eyes, Wilson and Thatcher had deliberately tried to hijack the European Community, fighting domestic political battles on the backs of other member states. In 2012, Schmidt even claimed that de Gaulle had been right to veto British membership during the 1960s.
Almost nobody in Britain, he would muse frequently in his later years, seemed to think “that the Atlantic Ocean between England and America is broader than the channel between England and continental Europe”. While such judgements of Britain’s post-war European role are somewhat harsh, they nonetheless reveal a lot about why Britain and Germany continue to be at loggerheads over the basic principle of European integration to this day. Continue reading