The idea that a first-rank British politician could be at the very centre of the European integration process seems unthinkable, indeed almost absurd in today’s Brexit Britain. In January 1977, however, the Labour heavyweight Roy Jenkins became the first—and quite possibly the last—Briton ever to be appointed to the top job in Brussels, namely, the Presidency of the European Commission. Piers Ludlow’s masterful study not only sheds light on how Jenkins adjusted to his new role and sought to pursue his political objectives in office but it also reveals something more fundamental about the nature of the European Commission Presidency, as well as about the underlying tension between national and supranational dynamics at the very heart of the European integration process. It is perhaps not surprising that the search for a British candidate for the Commission Presidency in 1976 quickly led to Roy Jenkins: after all, Jenkins had been one of the most vocal proponents of British membership of the European Community (EC) since the 1950s, gaining him the deserved reputation as ‘Britain’s leading pro-European alongside Edward Heath’ (p. 14). Apart from his intellectual support of the integrationist project, Jenkins also displayed strong enthusiasm for Continental lifestyles and culture, notably of course for French wines and cuisine. Yet, the main reason why key figures like the French President Giscard d’Estaing or the German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt lobbied so strongly for Jenkins’ appointment was due to the fact that he was a first-rank politician, having played a key role in several Labour governments under Harold Wilson. Thus, Giscard and Schmidt hoped that a prominent politician of Jenkins’ stature would inject a new sense of dynamism and vitality into the workings of the EC Commission, which was—not entirely without foundation—seen as the very embodiment of technocratic and bureaucratic governance at the time. In light of the manifold political and economic crises of the 1970s, Jenkins’ appointment therefore constituted a clear sign of the EC’s growing ambitions to assert itself as a visible and capable political actor on the international stage. As the book shows, such hopes were not entirely misguided: Jenkins played a key role in setting the agenda for the two major integrationist projects of the late 1970s, European monetary integration and EC enlargement of Greece, Spain, and Portugal. In both cases, Jenkins had a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve, and lobbied strongly for his ideas both in public and in private. It helped that Jenkins felt most at home at the very highest level of international politics, displaying the confidence and expertise to talk to his respective counterparts on an equal and authoritative level. At the same time, however, Jenkins clearly lacked the institutional power commensurate to his personal standing: decisions in Europe, as Ludlow argues strongly throughout the book, still depended overwhelmingly on the interests and consent of the key member-states. Therefore, Jenkins would frequently find himself pointing ‘the way boldly forward only to discover that absolutely nobody [was] prepared to follow’ (p. 245). This underlying structural problem did more than anything else to limit Jenkins’ ultimate influence: not only did national resistance frequently prevent any initiatives for which there was no political will but it also meant that the elected leaders of key member-states, such as Giscard or Schmidt, could eventually seize upon and hijack many of Jenkins’ ideas for their own political ends: the eventual design of the European Monetary System, for example, was much closer to French and particularly German fiscal preferences than to Jenkins’ initial blueprint. If Jenkins’ high-profile political background proved both opportunity and obstacle to the fate of his Presidency, the same might be said about his background as a British newcomer in Brussels. To be sure, his extensive knowledge of the Westminster and Whitehall machineries brought some valuable changes to the Commission’s inner workings, not least a certain British pragmatism vis-à-vis the more legalist Franco-German habits and approaches. At the same time, however, Jenkins never completely managed to shake off his image as a relative outsider. In the testy negotiations over Britain’s contributions to the EC budget under Margaret Thatcher, for example, Jenkins’ nationality triggered frequent suspicions over his personal impartiality and ultimate goals, even though his role as dual-interpreter may well have been crucial to the interim compromise negotiated in May 1980. Ironically, such aloofness in Brussels politics mirrored his similarly detached role within the Labour Party, where he had also never quite managed to free himself from charges of elitism and lack of working-class pedigree. In a sense, then, Jenkins remained an outsider in both worlds: in 1977, he freed himself from what he perceived as a personal dead end by escaping to Brussels; in 1981, he then took another escape route back to Britain as founding member of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Yet, while it is tempting to read rather a lot into Jenkins’ personality in this regard, there might well be another explanation, namely, that the Commission Presidency is rarely seen as a job ‘sufficiently tempting or powerful’ to lure high-calibre candidates away from domestic politics altogether (p. 242). This book constitutes a major achievement for 1970s international history: not only does it add considerable depth to the still fragmentary historiography on Britain’s first decade inside the European Community but it also poses much bigger questions about the European integration process and its underlying structural dynamics. As one of Britain’s leading historians of European integration, Piers Ludlow is as much at home in the bureaucratic jungles of Brussels as he is in the rather more ancient corridors of Whitehall and Westminster—indeed, much like the protagonist of his book. This expertise shines through clearly in his authoritative treatment of the findings from a rich diversity of supranational and national archives, as well as in his utilization of hitherto largely unknown sources such as the unpublished version of Jenkins’ diary and the private papers of Jenkins’ Chef de Cabinet Crispin Tickell. Given such density of primary sources, it is particularly refreshing that Ludlow does not confine himself to getting the Jenkins story ‘right’, but that he instead uses it as a case study to draw out some much bigger themes—about the ingrained conflicts between national and supranational dynamics in the integration process, about the opportunities and dangers of appointing a first-rank politician to the Commission Presidency, and about the potential pitfalls of lecturing Japanese waiting staff on French claret (p. 110). It is a well-rounded book that constitutes an excellent complement to John Campbell’s more extensive personal biography of Jenkins. © The Author . Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: email@example.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Twentieth Century British History – Oxford University Press
Published: Aug 11, 2017
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