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Portrait of a president

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During his tenure as president of the European Commission, Roy Jenkins helped the institution emerge from a period of crisis and laid the foundations for the European Union (EU). In this article, Dr Piers Ludlow discusses Jenkins’ legacy in relation to Europe, British politics, and how his gregarious personality was both a help and a hindrance in his political career.  

Roy Jenkins, who died in 2003, remains a compelling political figure. During the 1960s he was a liberal and reforming home secretary, successful chancellor, and a likely future leader of the Labour Party. In the 1980s, he helped create the Social Democratic Party (SDP), and in the 1990s he became one of the forefathers of New Labour.

But a new book by Dr Piers Ludlow focuses on his four year spell as president of the European Commission in the late 1970s; his successes and his failures, and how his experience shaped modern British politics.

When Jenkins began his tenure as president in 1976, the European Commission was struggling to cope with long-term economic malaise. Dr Ludlow says: “When I was writing the book I was struck by the parallels between that period and the present era. The 1970s was the West’s first big brush with economic crisis after the Second World War.

"Issues like the lack of credit and relations between northern and southern European countries came to the fore, and those same issues returned to haunt us during the 2007 financial crisis.”

Dr Ludlow does not stretch the comparison too far: “It was a much smaller community then, in terms of member states and the number of policy areas it operated in. I think we live in an entirely different world now.”

Despite the challenges, Jenkins used the pulpit of the presidency to both enhance the office’s status and engineer real policy change. Dr Ludlow says: “His headline grabbing achievement was his role in the launch of the European Monetary System, which led,  albeit indirectly, to the Euro. The policy was delivered by his French and German contemporaries, but Jenkins fired the starting gun.”

“Jenkins also supported the enlargement of the community towards Greece, Spain and Portugal. Many European colleagues were sceptical towards this, but he realised the geo-strategic imperative of welcoming countries that had recently emerged from authoritarianism into the European mainstream.” Dr Ludlow adds.

Dr Ludlow speculates that Jenkins’ response to the EU's current challenges of stagnant economic growth and migration would have been a pragmatic one: “Jenkins’ view was that for monetary integration to work, the richer countries would have to make substantial payments to the poorer countries. And he was advocating money transfers on a much larger scale than anything that followed.”

Dr Ludlow adds: “On mass migration into Europe, while he believed in internationalism and would have rejected a closed-door policy, he would have recognised some of the sensitivities that large-scale migration can cause.”

In June 2016, Britain will hold a referendum on its EU membership, the culmination of years of ‘semi-detached’ relationship, according to Dr Ludlow. He says: “My book offers a contrast between the 1970’s, when Britain was able to secure influential positions in Brussels and exercise leadership, with the current climate, where there is little chance of a British politician occupying a top EU job.”

Dr Ludlow adds: “Not being at the heart of Europe means that policy decisions are not always taken in Britain’s interests.”

The dearth of ardent pro-European politicians of Jenkins’ stature has also had consequences for contemporary British political debate. Dr Ludlow says: “The near complete disappearance of strong pro-European politicians making the case for membership also helps explain why the referendum is being held.”

Dr Ludlow offers a comparison of Britain’s 1975 referendum on membership to the European Economic Community (a forerunner to the EU), and the current referendum campaign. The then prime minister, Harold Wilson, remained outside of the debate until the end of the campaign, allowing him to manage the competing factions within his party relatively harmoniously.

Dr Ludlow says: “This contrasts with David Cameron’s approach to the current campaign. In the absence of figures like Jenkins, he has had to lead the ‘remain’ campaign, rather than being able to emulate Wilson and remain above the fray. If Britain votes to remain in the EU in June, Cameron will have to deal with the fallout from the losing side.”

Soon after his spell in Brussels, Jenkins became one of the ‘gang of four’ who created the SDP. Dr Ludlow says that the new party became inevitable during his term as president: “He drifted away from the Labour party quickly after leaving parliament for Brussels. Jenkins was a Europhile in a party that was becoming increasingly anti-Europe, a social democrat in a party that was moving rapidly leftward.”

A number of the accounts of Jenkins’ life have highlighted his sociable character. Dr Ludlow says: “The bon viveur side of his character was certainly an asset in Europe. Politicians have to be comfortable with that world, international diplomacy functions away from the meeting room as well as in it. He enjoyed the dinners, the conversations over alcohol, and the company of European elites.”

It seems that Jenkins was less adept at building similar relationships in Westminster; despite being the son of a Welsh coal miner he was unable to win over the Labour party’s rank and file. Dr Ludlow says: “Jenkins was very good at hobnobbing with the elite; the rich and the talented. He was less good at interacting with his constituents or ordinary members of the Labour party.”

Dr Ludlow adds: “His failure to reach the top of domestic politics can be partly explained by his reluctance to sit in the Commons bar and win over backbenchers. This is something Jim Callaghan (prime minister from 1976 to 1979), an earthier character, did much better than him.

"Jenkins always preferred the fine wine at a dinner party to chats in the pub. In the end, that probably helped prevent him from reaching 10 Downing Street.”

Posted May 2016

Additional notes

Dr N. Piers Ludlow is Associate Professor in the Department of International History at LSE. His main research interests lie in the history of Western Europe since 1945, in particular the historical roots of the integration process and the development of the EU.

Roy Jenkins and the European commission presidency, 1976 –1980: at the heart of Europe. Palgrave Macmillan, London, UK. ISBN 9781137515308

Image: Roy Jenkins, 1977 (CC BY 3.0)

 

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