Brexit Was Decades In the Making

Winston Churchill. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

The UK has never wished to be part of the European project.

There has been a near total absence of historical context since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in June. The British have had a tortured relationship with European integration for several decades now. In 1945, after two global conflicts had concluded on the European continent in twenty-five years, some European (and many American) policymakers began the process of bringing Europe together in way that would spawn unprecedented interdependence and thus reduce the likelihood of yet another major war. Winston Churchill famously espoused a “United States of Europe,” but he did not intend for the UK to be a part of it.

The British were never enthusiastic about this process. Even collective defense and the creation of NATO—both hailed today by most proponents of Brexit—were viewed with skepticism by UK political elites and many citizens in the wake of World War Two, despite their clear-eyed appreciation of the emerging Soviet threat. While British leaders saw the value and necessity of European unification, the United Kingdom was skeptical of its own participation in continental integration projects.

Two factors drove these sentiments. First, the UK wanted to safeguard what Churchill called its “special relationship” with the United States. Less than a year later, London notified the United States of its inability to finance Greece and Turkey in the face of internal communist threats and external Soviet pressure. It was now clear that the UK’s younger cousin would inherit leadership of the Western world and spearhead its confrontation with Soviet communism. A collective Europe with the UK as its member would surely undermine the special relationship it was thought.

Second, the British Empire would soon be greatly reduced, but its leaders refused to engage in a corresponding adjustment of their imperial mentality. After being the world’s most dominant nation for over three centuries, the British did not want to be treated as just another European country—neither victorious but war-torn France, nor vanquished Germany. They would not allow themselves to be dragged into a nebulous union to advance the interests of others, that is, in order to assuage French fears of long-term German domination and help create conditions that would justify U.S. withdrawal from Europe.

The latter was certainly on the minds of American policymakers at the time. It was neither their desire nor their intention immediately after WWII to maintain a large U.S. troop presence in Europe and to keep European countries dependent on the United States. They soon concluded that the rapid political, economic and military revitalization of Europe could only be achieved on the basis of European integration, which was far more likely to succeed with British involvement. The United States put substantial pressure on the UK to take part in Europe’s unification. It succeeded with respect to collective security and NATO—only because the United States itself was willing to join, which preserved the special relationship—but failed to convince London to participate in the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and the European Economic Community (EEC).

Both Labour and Conservative governments under Clement Attlee and Anthony Eden declined to participate in the creation of a common European market. But by the late 1950s the UK’s attitude toward Europe and its economic integration project had shifted. This shift, however, was on pragmatic rather than philosophical grounds. The British did not suddenly see the merits of European integration like the French and Germans who viewed continental union as a way to achieve stability and—for the Gaullists at least—independence from the United States. The British viewed the European project almost purely in the context of economic growth. While European output surged in the decade after hostilities ended the British economy sputtered and could not seem to gain traction.

In 1961, the European common market looked far more attractive to the UK than it did just several years prior. That year the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan formally applied to the join the EEC. While Macmillan seemed to embrace the economic and even political rationale behind European integration, he also emphasized the importance of UK relations with the rest of the world and told the House of Commons:

“I believe that it is both our duty and our interest to contribute towards that strength by securing the closest possible unity within Europe. At the same time, if a closer relationship between the United Kingdom and the countries of the European Economic Community were to disrupt the long-standing and historic ties between the United Kingdom and the other nations of the Commonwealth the loss would be greater than the gain. The Commonwealth is a great source of stability and strength both to Western Europe and to the world as a whole, and I am sure that its value is fully appreciated by the member Governments of the European Economic Community.”

Because of his concerns related to the UK’s special relationship with the United States and its global rather than European focus, Charles de Gaulle vetoed British EEC membership in 1961 and again in 1967 when it applied to join under Harold Wilson’s Labour government. De Gaulle explained his decision: