Churchill and de Gaulle: The EU avant la lettre? (Sunny Ripon CC BY-SA 2.0)
European Union, Mark 1: let’s unite with France. So how do we make this idea popular? We’ll draft French chefs into our schools and tell them to get cooking.
Put forward in all seriousness, this was the first in a long line of attempts — the latest, of course, now in progress — to shift this country towards ever closer union. It dates back to the spring of 1940, when a “Perpetual Association” between Britain and its wartime ally was proposed, with all the features now familiar: new institutions, open movement across frontiers, a customs union and a common currency. Whitehall’s textbook response was to set a committee to work. The Foreign Office, as usual, liked ideas of this kind and tried to nudge them forward. The Treasury, as usual, didn’t.
Its resident mandarin on the committee warned that we could not afford to go on propping up the French franc. At the next meeting he fired a heavier gun: “A common currency had never been possible historically without a common government.” Sixty years later, his sucessors at the Treasury spiked Tony Blair’s attempt to take Britain into the euro. Today the EU’s “five presidents” have had to look for ways of propping up the common currency. It was always a political project in an economic wrapper.
Back in 1940, the committee’s work was interrupted by the Wehrmacht, which broke through the Maginot Line and flooded out across France. After a decent interval, Whitehall put the meetings on hold. It was left to Winston Churchill, of all people, to bring their central idea back to life. Desperate to keep his ally in the war, and with one anxious eye on the French fleet and French colonies, he offered France, on Britain’s behalf, a full and indissoluble union on June 16.
Whether this was in his gift, and how (if at all) such a union might have worked, there is no telling. In the event, his offer was sourly received. Next day Marshal Pétain announced the French army’s surrender. With the Germans, as one of his colleagues observed, at least you knew where you were. After a lifetime, the doubts still persist.