Britain and European integration.
Chapter 1: Britain’s situation in the post war world.
Winston Churchill used an image in order to describe what he believed should be British policy in the post war world. He said Britain should always be at the intersection of three overlapping circles. One circle represented the relationship with the USA, another one those with former British colonies, increasingly integrated in the “Commonwealth”, and the third circle symbolized Europe. Britain should not give precedence to any of the three circles, which were of equal importance to her. This view dominated government thinking from 1945 to 1960.
British policy was influenced by a number of contradictory factors, including realpolitik and idealism.
Realpolitik. A traditional view of power politics.
The I945 General elections were won by the Labour Party, under Clement Attlee, which governed Britain until I951. The conservatives came back to power in 1952, with Winston Churchill, then, in 1955, Anthony Eden, followed by Harold Macmillan in 1956 and Alec Douglas Home in 1962. Labour won again in 1964. However, British politics did not interfere significantly with foreign policy. Labour foreign policy was led by a former Trade Union leader, Ernest Bevin, who was fiercely opposed to communism, and distrusted idealistic discourses, which he considered as dangerously emotional. He loathed what he called the “bleeding heart socialists”. The so called “Bevin doctrine” was a fundamentally traditional and realistic policy, based on an assessment of Britain’s assets and weaknesses.
His assumption was that, should Soviet pressure increase on Britain and Europe, the country would be indefensible unless a very strong military link was preserved with the USA. His policy was basically the same as Churchill’s. Britain was involved in containing communism, the world over, long before the official beginning of the cold war, in 1947. Britain was involved in the Greek civil war even before the end of the war, and provided military support for the royalists who opposed the Greek anti nazi resistance, led by the Communists. The idea was the persuade the USA that, in their global struggle against Communism, they sorely needed the support of Britain, which could provide not only men and a strategic location in Europe, but a global network of influence in its former empire. British interests should therefore be upheld by the USA. This strategy was largely successful, and is being emulated by the British governments of the early 21st century, against another, more ellusive enemy.
Britain was keen to restore order and stability in post war Europe. It made sure the mistakes of the Versailles treaty would not be repeated. After the First World War, Germany had been humiliated and impoverished, which had brought about the collapse of the Weimar Republic, and paved the way for Nazism. In the eyes of British public opinion and of leading experts, France was blamed for the excesses of the Versailles treaty. After the Second World War, Britain made sure France was not allowed to exert a lot of pressure on Germany. French plans to absorb the Saarland and the Rhineland were frustrated. Britain therefore reverted to its traditional policy in Europe, also explained by Churchill, who was himself a descendent of the Duke of Malborough, whose name has remained in French popular culture: Britain always supports whatever European power is the weakest. When France is strong, Britain supports Germany, but can easily reverse this when the situation changes. Europe was therefore seen in terms of power politics, the point being that no “European giant” could dominate the continent, and therefore represent a threat for the UK. Stability was necessary, because it was good for business: Britain needed markets in Europe.
Towards the rest of the world, Britain integrated the new monetary framework created by the USA. It had no other choice, tried to put up some kind of fight, but rapidly decided there was no point in opposing the US. Britain was forced to abandon the Imperial Preference system it had created in the 1930’s, which implied the existence of a common external tariff for the empire, as well as a free trade zone. This disappeared, and the former British colonies no longer constituted a separate zone, protected by tariffs. The pound, which so far had been one of the most reliable and sought after currencies in the world, was now treated like an ordinary currency. The Bretton Woods system, created by the USA, made sure all currencies were exchangeable against each other, and were rated against the US dollar, which was, in theory, guaranteed in gold. Britain accepted the American views concerning relationships with underdeveloped countries: the time of colonialism was over, domination and influence should take other forms. Instead of trying to administer and control large areas and populations, Britain, the USA and, it was believed, all developed capitalist countries should acknowledge the political independence of all countries, including former colonies, insist on free trade, penetrate their economies , influence their elites through culture, language and religion, and set up military assistance schemes. The soft touch of neo colonialism was all the more necessary since a more aggressive approach might encourage “the South” to side with the Soviet Union.
When the Marshall plan was devised by the US, with the twin objectives of linking the grateful European countries to the US and providing a market for the US economy, France thought this might lead to a degree of economic integration in Europe, since a common organization was necessary to distribute the aid, the “Committee of European Economic Cooperation”. This view was not shared by Britain, which refused a drift towards supra-nationality. It benefited greatly from Marshall aid, and was in charge of distribution to parts of Europe, thus extending its own economic networks.
The post war world, and the victory against fascism and nazism, gave rise in most European countries to a wave of idealism, which took different forms. Egalitarian measures were adopted, most conservative parties were either discredited because of their stance during the war , or considered as out of tune with the spirit of the times. This was certainly the case in France, but also in Britain. In the case of Britain, this was in contradiction with the largely traditional approach to foreign policy, and with the linkage with the USA. Britain adopted a large number of reforms which turned it into a “mixed economy”, or, as the Germans say, a “social market economy”, with a large nationalized sector (20% of the economy, the whole of transport, the whole of energy generation) and a sophisticated welfare state. In this sense, Britain moved away from the typical liberal system which prevailed so far, and this took it much closer to the other European models than to the American one. Access to medical care or education in Britain today is still much more similar to what it is in Germany or France than to the American model (“American” refers here only to the USA). In the long run, the post war reforms paved the way towards the building up of a common “European model”, distinct from the unadulterated capitalism of the USA. This is the reason why Margaret Thatcher, who attempted to destroy the welfare state in the I980, was so critical about the post war achievements.
European integration was, to some extent, perceived on the European continent as part of this idealistic wave, since one of its goals was the creation of a dynamic process which would make a new European war, especially between Germany and France, inconceivable. This was not the case in the UK. British perception of European federalists was mostly negative. On the one hand, their strategic goal, linking Germany and France, was exactly the opposite of that pursued by Britain over three centuries, which consisted in dividing Europe. Besides, the fathers of European unity were mostly right wing politicians: De Gasperi in Italy was a member of the catholic Democrazia Cristiana, Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman were members of the Mouvement Républicain Populaire, also under the influence of the Church, and closer to the Right than to the Left. The British Labour leaders, who were involved in the process of turning Britain into a more egalitarian and more democratic country were able to do so thanks to the absolute legitimacy of the political process in the UK. A majority of seats in the House of Commons meant that the government had a free hand. This is all the more obvious in the UK, since the “constitution” is extremely simple, and there is an immediate, automatic link between parliamentary majority and control of the Executive. Sovereignty was therefore seen as of paramount importance. Any move which would , even in the long run, affect British sovereignty, would make egalitarian reforms more difficult in Britain, since this would curtail the power of the House of Commons. The Left was therefore particularly hostile to European integration: Hugh Dalton, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said in 1950: “ We are determined not to put those gains in peril through allowing vital decisions on great issues of national economic policy to be transferred from the British Parliament at Westminster to some supra national European Assembly”. Ernest Bevin added “ Once you open that Pandora’s box, you ‘ll find it full of Trojan horses”, which is a nice example of a mixed metaphore. Socialism and reform were, clearly , identified with sovereignty.
The worst fears of the Left were reinforced by the fact that the most outspoken supporter of the European idea in Britain was … Winston Churchill. We foreigners have difficulty understanding the way Churchill was seen in the UK. Like De Gaulle in France, he was simultaneously a hero of the second world war, whose name symbolized struggle, survival in the teeth of the most serious threats, and victory, and an extremely conservative politician, identified through his culture, speech and deeds to the upper classes, in Churchill’s case, the aristocracy. Churchill, who had fought the Trade Unions during the 1926 General Strike, opposed the decolonisation of India, refused to consider the proposals for the creation of the welfare state, had also lost the 1945 elections. He did make a number of speeches, once in the opposition, in support of European unity. He certainly demonstrated that he was a visionary, and that he had a clear view of geopolitical stakes, and a vast knowledge of history. On the other hand, critics pointed out that he was more idealistic when he was out of office than when he came back to power in 1952, since he did not change British policy at all.
He delivered a speech in Zurich in 1946, saying “ France and Germany should unite for justice, mercy and freedom. Britain, the British Commonwealth of nations, mighty USA and, I trust, the Soviet Union, must be friends and sponsors to the new Europe, and must champion its right to live and shine. “ He added later, “we are with them, but we are not of them”. The message was clear: Britain should support Europe, but remain aloof. However, he was the key member of a pressure group, the United Europe Movement, together with Harold Macmillan, a much younger conservative , and a future Prime Minister, a couple of bishops, and a left wing publisher, Victor Gollancz. This group campaigned actively. It changed its name into the European Movement UK in 1948, promoted the Hague congress in I948 which gave birth to the Council of Europe.
A small group of left wingers, together with liberal intellectuals, also put forward the idea that European federalism was in practice consolidating the division of Europe into two camps, and could be considered as a by product of the cold war, and opposed as such. It reinforced the division of Europe, which also included eastern countries, and was therefore part of the problem, and certainly not a solution. Early opposition to Yalta, i.e. the division of Europe into two camps, the Soviet one and the capitalist one, can be considered, in a sense, as a harbinger of the radical movements of the 1980’s and 90’s, which opposed in Western Europe the introduction of American nuclear weapons, and in Eastern Europe, questioned Soviet rule until the fall of the Berlin wall. According to this group of intellectuals, what really counted for Britain in international terms was a successful decolonisation, which would enable the former colonies to build democratic states, which preserved good relationships with the UK. To some extent, a comparison with France tends to support this argument. French history , from 1945 to 1962, was plagued by two colonial wars, in Indochina and Algeria, which were both lost by France, seriously affected its own stability and even threatened democracy. Britain decolonised at top speed, and, with a few exceptions, especially in Kenya and Cyprus, without getting involved in serious armed conflicts. It managed to preserve some of its influence thanks to the Commonwealth.
Finally, British idealists were more interested in the notion of a “world government”, even if the United Nations were , at the time, a disappointing achievement, than in regional ones. This is largely due to the fact that the outlook of the British was , and is still, more international and global than that of continental countries, for reasons linked to the imperial past and the tradition of sea faring.
British caution towards the early attempts at achieving European unity cannot be solely ascribed to irrational feelings of superiority and aloofness, contrary to what is usually believed in France. There were very rational geopolitical arguments pleading in favour of the American option, even if the price to pay in political and ethical terms was high. There were also very serious reasons, on the part of the Left, to defend national sovereignty, as the only avenue for egalitarian reforms. British policy changed very rapidly when the circumstances themselves changed.
Chapter 2: British lack of interest in European unity. 1945-1960
The Council of Europe
The European Coal and Steel Community
The European Defence Community
The road to the Common Market.
The Council of Europe.
The first attempt at creating institutions promoting European unity was made as a result of the Hague Congress in May 1948 (The Hague = Den Haag, in French La Haye). The Hague congress was a private function, convened by pro European private organizations, including Churchill’s European movement. The goals were extremely ambitious. It was proposed to bring about European political and economic union, through the constitution of a consultative assembly. This was accepted by the French government, which attempted to promote the project, and brought about a clash between George Bidault, the French representative, and the British Ernest Bevin. Britain insisted that cooperation be limited to economics, and possibly, defence, and did not include politics.
Besides, Britain wanted delegates to the assembly to be nominated by governments, and to vote as national bodies. The goal was to avoid the creation of a European parliament, which would acquire its own logic, its own political dividing lines, and its own dynamics. France and the Benelux (Belgium + The Netherlands + Luxemburg), on the other hand, wanted delegates to be chosen by national parliaments, and to be given an individual vote. A compromise was eventually reached in January 1949, and it was agreed that each government would decide how to appoint its own delegates, which created a lot of confusion. The Statutes of the Council of Europe were signed on May 5th 1949, by France, Italy, and the Benelux, and somewhat reflected British reluctance vis a vis supra-nationality.
The Council of Europe included two institutions:
a Committee of Ministers , which would meet in private, could only issue recommendations, and required unanimity. This was no different from ordinary diplomatic conferences.
A Consultative Assembly, which would report to the Committee of Ministers, only issue recommendations, could not decide its own agenda, and only discuss issues agreed upon by the Ministers, and could not meet for more than a month. The Assembly was totally under the control of the Ministers.
Britain joined at a later stage. The Council survived, to this day, but without exerting any kind of influence on the other emerging European institutions . It issued recommendations, which are sometimes very carefully worded, in many areas, including human rights and social rights. However, it is totally deprived of power, largely because of British influence at the time of its inception.
The European Coal and Steel Community – the “Schuman Plan”
In 1950, the French Minister Robert Schuman drafted a plan designed to pool the French and the German coal and steel industries. The goal was threefold:
Political . War, in those days, required vast amounts of energy and steel, and the German trusts, in the 1930’s , had been the most enthusiastic supporters of Hitler, and of militarism. Placing the German industry under the control and scrutiny of a supranational agency was a way of guaranteeing peace.
Economic. The French and the German industries had been badly damaged by the war, and planning rationally the reconstruction made sense. It enabled both countries to avoid competition, and to create complementary industries.
European. De facto solidarity, practical achievements, were better than grand plans which came to nothing because they were too ambitious. This was already announcing the “Jean Monnet method”. Jean Monnet took stock of the failure of the Council of Europe, and believed one should be pragmatic, and start with economics rather than with political decisions affecting sovereignty. Once economic unity had been achieved in Europe, political unity would follow. This is a key concept in the history of European integration .
The Treaty was signed in April 1951, by the 6 (Germany, France, Italy and the Benelux), and was discussed by the British House of Commons, which unanimously rejected it in June 1951. Britain was never seriously expected to join by the 6 in the first place, because the sheer size of its own coal and steel industry equalled that of France and Germany put together. The UK had just nationalized its own coal industry, which badly needed reorganization, and would have undergone another period of transition if it had joined the ECSC. Britain was also in the process of nationalizing the steel industry, which was highly controversial.
Besides, the philosophy of the Schuman plan was to some extent in contradiction with British culture. The goal was to increase the production of coal and steel. The French habit of state intervention in industry implied that public bodies would take strategic decisions, plan production, centralize decision making. British economic culture implies on the contrary that the market, ( i.e. supply and demand, and profit making), should remain the chief regulator. This was still true in the nationalized sector.
Britain therefore kept aloof from the ECSC (CECA, Communauté Européenne du Charbon et de l’Acier in French), which became not only a model for the economic integration of Europe, but, in practice, one of the most successful European policies. It planned, and delivered, the increase of output for which it was intended, and, when the industry contracted in the 1970’s, organized an orderly scaling down, and prevented aggressive competitive strategies between European countries.
In December 1954, an agreement was signed with Britain, defining the relationships. A permanent consultative body was set up.
3.The European Defence Community.
With the beginning of the Korean war, American forces were slightly overstretched, since the USA was involved in fighting Communism in Korea, and intended to maintain a large standing army in Europe, designed to keep the USSR at bay – and consolidate its control of Western Europe. The philosophy of the EDC (CED Communauté Européenne de Défense in French) was simple. Europeans should shoulder a greater part of the burden of their own defence. Germany in particular, which had been forbidden to create its own armed forces as a result of the Second World War, should be mobilized against the Soviets. This was a highly controversial issue. German rearmament was unacceptable for the Soviet Union, which had suffered more than any other nation from Nazism (20 million dead, against 400 000 in Britain), but also for the political forces which, in France, had appeared during the Resistance, or were identified with it: Gaullists, Communists, and a section of the Socialists. The EDC was seen as a way round this difficulty: a European army would make use of the German potential, without offending the victims of the Second World War, or threatening Germany’s neighbours.
The idea was supported, and possibly suggested by the USA. Contrary to a common misconception in France, early attempts at reinforcing the unity of Europe were encouraged, if not more , by the USA. Europe was NOT seen as a way of counterbalancing the influence of the US, at least in the 1950’s. Things changed later. The conservative French politician who put forward the idea, in October 1950, René Pléven, was in no way critical of the American model or of American influence. The principle of German participation in a European force was agreed , in September 1950, by Bevin, for the UK, Robert Schuman, for France, and Neal Acheson for the USA. Germany was uneasy about the idea of its manpower being made use of, whilst its sovereignty was still denied, but was not in a position to argue, since the memory of nazi atrocities was still in everybody’s mind.
Official conferences started in February 1951. Britain remained cautious, and only sent observers, since it refused to commit itself. The conference proposed a detailed institutional framework, copied on that of the ECSC, complete with defence commissioner, (i.e. a European defence minister) assembly, court and committee of ministers. It planned a 1.5 million men army, divided into 43 units, each corresponding to a division. France was to provide 14 units, Germany 12, Italy 12, the Benelux 5. The plans were detailed, but wrongly assumed that political unity existed. Britain withdrew officially in November 1951. This opened a period of diplomatic difficulties between France, the UK and the USA. The USA were committed to the scheme, their strategic goal was to obtain the de facto rearmament of Germany. They exerted pressure on both France and the UK, pressing France to go ahead even without British involvement, and encouraging Britain to join the scheme. This was the first dent in the special relationship between the UK and the USA, which believed Britain had no ground to resist US pressure.
When it became clear that Britain would not commit itself, France also withdrew, since it did not want to be left on its own, facing German armed forces single handed. British policy, until 1955, consisted in reinforcing NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization, OTAN in French) and the Brussels Treaty, whose twin goals were , on the one hand, the introduction of Germany in NATO, and on the other hand the continuing US military involvement in Western Europe. Britain pledged itself not to withdraw from Europe without the consent of a majority of signatories of the Brussels Treaty. A European wing of NATO was created, on paper, called the West European Union, and including the UK. The WEU never exerted much influence. British involvement in Europe was, at that time, welcomed by France, as a guarantee against possible German pressure. Mentalities were still dominated by the Second World War, and the relationships between France and Germany only warmed up later, after the Common Market was set up, and with the De Gaulle/Adenauer meetings.
The Road to the Common Market.
Since political union, and the pooling of sovereignties which the EDC would have implied proved over ambitious, it appeared that the only way towards unity was through economic union. A conference to that effect was convened in Messina, in Sicily, in June 1955. The 6 (Italy, Germany, Benelux and France) agreed to negotiate on the basis of a proposal, tabled by the Benelux, in view of creating a common market and an atomic energy pool. By May 1956, the experts had drafted a detailed blueprint, which was accepted, at a conference in Venice. Negotiations opened officially in Brussels in June 1956. They were not easy, and France was somewhat frustrated that social policy would not be included. On March 25th 1957, the Rome Treaty was signed. This is the founding stone of the European Union.
The document was significant, not only for its economic aspects, but also because it clearly indicated that the political goal of the signatories was political unity. In this sense, the Rome Treaty was practically as advanced and ambitious as the Maastricht Treaty and the Amsterdam Treaty on the 1990’s. The march towards political union has proved slower than expected, but the strategic vision has remained constant, and coherent.
The Rome Treaty created a uniform external tariff for the 6, and provided for the gradual abolition of quotas and customs between them.
The economic policies of the member countries should be gradually approximated.
European agriculture would be supported.
A social fund would be created for the resettlement and training of workers.
A European Investment Bank would be created
An overseas development fund would be set up for former colonies.
A common organization, Euratom, would be created in view of promoting research and production of nuclear energy.
Britain shared neither the political aims, nor the economic ones. It did not attend the negotiations, and was happy with sending a junior civil servant to Messina, as a modest observer. The Jean Monnet method was perfectly unacceptable for Britain, which refused the long term political objective of pooled sovereignties. If economic union was the thin end of the wedge, it should be distrusted. However, it saw the economic measures as a major threat as well.
The creation of a common external tariff was unacceptable to the UK, because its economy was much more open towards the rest of the world than that of other European countries, which traded mostly with each other. It imported and exported to the USA, and to many countries, some of them in the Commonwealth. Britain was a privileged partner for the US. Until the I960’s, 50% of American investment in Europe went to Britain. Joining the Common Market would have required Britain to reorient its foreign trade, which was eventually done – over several decades. This was a serious argument, and an issue which did not go away on its own. The crisis of the I980’s, on the British contribution to the budget, was largely due to this structural problem.
Besides, it became increasingly clear that the defence of European agriculture was a major motivation for the Common Market. The Common Market guaranteed its farmers prices which were higher than world levels: if European prices were lower, farmers would receive subsidies. This guaranteed their survival, and explains why France remained a powerful producing country and a world class player in agri-business. France’s motivation was not just economic, but also social and political. Conversely, Britain had always followed liberal principles, since the beginning of the XXth Century, and had imported food stuff from all over the world (USA, Canada, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand). Its consumers benefited from cheap (but industrially processed) food, and the number of its farmers diminished radically. Only the most efficient ones, who were competitive in world terms, could survive. They did not need any subsidies. This policy changed the face of British society, even before the First World War, when Britain already imported 50% of its alimentary needs. This had advantages in terms of retail prices, but drawbacks in terms of quality, of security of supply and, ultimately, of sovereignty : during the two world wars, Britain was heavily dependent on convoys of ships bringing food from the USA.
Given the incompatibility of agricultural policies, and the impossibility of accepting the common external tariff which discriminated against foreign trade, the abolition of internal tariffs between Europeans also became a problem. This would give coherence to a group of countries which Britain could not be part of .
The UK decided not just to keep aloof from the Common Market, but to prevent its creation and dilute its philosophy. It attempted to create a rival organization, together with some European countries which felt peripheral to the Rome Treaty project, and which refused the political logic of the master plan for integration: Ireland, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland and Austria. This group, called the European Free Trade Association (EFTA, or Association Européenne de Libre Echange in French), was proposed in February 1957 and set up in 1960.
It s main provisions were:
The abolition of internal tariffs only. There would be no common external tariff, and each state would adopt its own policy. This left the UK free to trade with the US and other partners.
Only industrial products would be concerned. This left aside agriculture.
Unanimity would be necessary for all decisions. This would make any evolution towards supra-nationality impossible.
EFTA was never seriously intended as an alternative to the Common Market. The bonds between the member countries were loose, and their motivation mostly negative. The size of the economies of the member countries was small, with the exception of Britain, in comparison with that of the 6. It was set up in order to help Britain negotiate, and exert pressure on the Common Market, on the twin issues of the external tariff and sovereignty. Edward Heath, who, at the time, was a young civil servant working for the Board of Trade , but who became the most pro European Conservative Prime Minister ever (1970-1974), said of EFTA: “The primary purpose of founding it was to enable us to reach agreement with the other countries”.
The negotiations failed, the Common Market went ahead, and EFTA fizzled out.
Britain was left without an alternative.
Until 1960, the philosophy of the three circles prevailed. Britain kept aloof from all attempts at improving European unity. Retrospectively, all analysts consider that, had Britain joined the negotiators at an early stage, she would have been in a position to exert influence on the Common Market, whose outline and policy would have been very different. The feeling that a mistake was made at the time dominates thinking in government circles in the early XXIst century, and explains their wish never to be excluded from the UE, in spite of the most serious disagreements. However, one can only understand British policy at the time by taking into consideration the exceptional circumstances of the post war world, which underwent great changes in the 1950’s.