Repository logo

A Pyrrhic Victory: Harold Wilson, Helmut Schmidt, and the British Renegotiation of EC Membership, 1974–5

Accepted version

Repository DOI



Change log


Haeussler, Mathias 


Britain’s renegotiation of EC membership in 1974-5 has commonly been praised by historians as a tactical masterpiece by Prime Minister Harold Wilson in holding a divided country and party together while also keeping Britain inside the European Community. By contrast, this article focuses on the detrimental effect the episode had on Britain’s standing inside the EC. Using the prism of high-level diplomacy between Wilson and the German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, it reconstructs precisely the changes in German perceptions of British positions, showing how initial goodwill towards Britain’s demands soon gave way to widespread scepticism over British motives and ultimate intentions. While highlighting the strong domestic pressures driving Britain and Germany apart, the article ultimately argues that these differences were unnecessarily exacerbated by Wilson’s failure at personal diplomacy on the highest level. A different handling of Schmidt may not have resulted in a radically different outcome of the renegotiations; but it may well have avoided the profound sense of distrust and suspicion over Britain’s future role in Europe that the episode stimulated among the Germans. The article is based on recently declassified sources from three countries, as well as on rare materials from Schmidt’s private archive in Hamburg.



Harold Wilson, Helmut Schmidt, European integration, Anglo-German relations, renegotiation

Journal Title

The International History Review

Conference Name

Journal ISSN


Volume Title



Informa UK Limited