On 14th January 1963, President Charles de Gaulle of held a press conference in Paris and for the first time said “Non!”to Britain’s accession to the EEC.
De Gaulle is a much maligned figure on this side of the Channel. The British side of my family spoke of him as quite ungrateful; repaying the crucial political and military support this country gave him in the Second World War by repeatedly vetoing our EEC membership applications. For the French side, however, he was a patriot, and his vetoes were done for the good of France. Having come to admire De Gaulle and his politics, it’s my belief that he might have been doing what was actually best for Britain.
The EEC then consisted of only six countries – Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherland – all of which had been savaged by the Second World War. We had rejected the offer to join its predecessor, the European Coal and Steel Community, several years before, but now Prime Minister Harold Macmillan saw membership as vital to our future position in the world.
At the press conference, De Gaulle was asked by a journalist to explain France’s position towards Britain’s entry and “the political evolution of Europe.” The president recognised that the British would be reluctant to lose some of its preferences regarding trade with the Commonwealth and this would not only pose problem for the United Kingdom, but also for other Member States:
England in effect is insular, she is maritime, she is linked through her exchanges, her markets, her supply lines to the most diverse and often the most distant countries; she pursues essentially industrial and commercial activities, and only slight agricultural ones. She has in all her doings very marked and very original habits and traditions.
Though seemingly just describing our national character, De Gaulle also explained his opposition to our entry: If the British economy depended on the Commonwealth and the United States for much of its trade, what benefits would be gained for the EEC if the United Kingdom was admitted? It would be impossible for Member States to rival Commonwealth prices, never mind provide the range of products it offered.
De Gaulle hit the proverbial nail on the head a few seconds later:
[T]he question…[is] whether Great Britain can now place herself like the Continent and with it inside a tariff which is genuinely common, to renounce all Commonwealth preferences, to cease any pretence that her agriculture be privileged, and, more than that, to treat her engagements with other countries of the free trade area as null and void — that question is the whole question.
This is important to the current European debate, for although the Commonwealth preferences are gone, and our agriculture integrated with the CAP, and our trade with non-members conducted through the European Union, all of this was given begrudgingly. Right from the start, we were set to have an unpleasant time in Europe.
It’s been suggested that Germany only ever agreed to partner with France because of war guilt; in my opinion, it’s more likely that Britain was only admitted to the EEC because of other member’s guilt rather than a genuine belief that the country would seamlessly become part of the Common Market. After De Gaulle’s fall from power in 1969, our path was no longer blocked by that behemoth of reality and pragmatism, and thus Edward Heath was free to lead us with romantic idealism into membership in 1973. In the referendum that followed two years later, the pro-Europeans were convinced that it could only be won if loss of sovereignty was played down – a worrying avoidance of reality that has no doubt contributed to the awkward situation in which we find ourselves today.
Europhobes blame the EU for everything that is wrong with country, arguing that somehow we were lured by promises of free trade and then – SNAP! – we were caught in the trap of tariff-free, cross-border happiness. Obviously this wasn’t the case. The idea of a federal Europe was there all along, but it was downplayed because it clashed with the insular nature of the British people – a fact that De Gaulle recognised. The EU is criticised for being anti-British, when in fact they have simply been putting forward policies and legislation that suits the majority of the Member States, all of which share a continental mindset. We have not taken well to this and have been struggling as a result – another issue foreseen by De Gaulle.
I don’t believe the situation was ever fully explained to the British people; I don’t believe enough reforms were enacted to ensure compatibility with Europe (if compatibility was even possible in the first place). We need to stop blaming the EU for everything and recognise that radical changes will be needed on both sides of the Channel if our relationship is to work.
And we should also probably apologise to Charles de Gaulle…
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