Brexit has ‘shaken things up’ says Sion Jobbins
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Brexit has divided opinion in the UK for almost a decade and rows over the country’s relationship with the EU will likely rumble on for many years to come. But the wider debate about Britain’s links to the bloc is not unique to the 21st century, as the arguments stretch back almost 70 years. The perception today may well be that the Brussels project is backed most whole-heartedly by the EU’s two biggest economies, France and Germany. This has not always been the case, though.
As explored by Philip Stevens in ‘Britain Alone: The Path from Suez to Brexit’, the French in particular were uneasy when the foundations of the bloc first came into being as the EEC – the European Economic Community.
The Financial Times journalist writes: “While the impulse towards Franco-German rapprochement was powerful, it was far from inevitable that European integration would take the form that finally emerged.
“France shared many of the British concerns about sovereignty.”
And he went further still as he explained how General de Gaulle, who was not French President at the time of the Messina Conference as the Treaty of Rome was drafted, would not have signed the agreement his predecessor, René Coty, did.
Mr Stevens continued: “de Gaulle, who returned to power following the Messina conference, later confessed that had he been President during the drafting of the Treaty of Rome, he would have refused to sign it.
“France initially prioritised security over economic cooperation and pressed for a new agency to pool the continent’s nuclear capabilities.
“For its part, West Germany wanted tariff-free trade in manufactures and resisted French plans for the Common Agricultural Policy.”
Had this come to pass, France – like Britain – would not have been a signatory to the Treaty of Rome and therefore not a founder member of what went on to become the EU.
Mr Stevens’ point highlights the fragility of history and how, with the small matter of France having a different leader in the mid-Fifties, the face of Britain and Europe as we know it could be fundamentally different.
As it happens, France was a founding member of the EEC and Britain later joined in 1973 – but not before General de Gaulle said “non” to two British applications.
General de Gaulle – who served as President of France from 1959 to 1969 – rejected two Prime Ministers: Tory Harold Macmillan and Labour’s Harold Wilson.
And a statement issued on behalf of the French government in 1967 may appear profoundly prophetic to Brexiteers today.
It reads: “Compared with the motives that led the six [founder nations] to organise their unit, we understand for what reasons, why Britain – who is not continental, who remains, because of the Commonwealth and because she is an island, committed far beyond the seas, who is tied to the United States by all kinds of special agreements – did not merge into a Community with set dimensions and set rules.”
General de Gaulle echoed the sentiments expressed by Tony Benn decades later, in pointing out that Britain benefited from inexpensive imports from the Commonwealth and, conversely, would be “forced to raise the price of her food” if the country “submitted to the rules of the six” EEC member states at the time.
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The statement continued: “Britain nourishes herself, to a great extent, on food-stuffs bought inexpensively throughout the world and, particularly, in the Commonwealth.
“If she submits to the rules of the six, then her balance of payments will be crushed by ‘levies’ and, on the other hand, she would then be forced to raise the price of her food to the price level adopted by the continental countries, consequently to increase the wages of her workers and, thereby, to sell her goods all the more at a higher price and with more difficulty.”
Finally, he pointed out that Britain would be “isolated” within the EEC’s “costly regime” and asked: “How can it not be seen that the very situation of the pound sterling prevents the Common Market from incorporating Britain?”
The French Journal of British Studies notes that there were many on the other side of the Channel who agreed with his analysis.
In 1951, the Labour Party’s “European Unity” pamphlet argued that: “In every respect except distance, we in Britain are closer to our kinsmen in Australia and New Zealand on the far side of the world, than we are to Europe.”
Nevertheless, Edward Heath successfully negotiated Britain’s entry into the EEC in 1972 and, on January 1, 1973, Britain officially joined the bloc.
However, during the 1975 referendum on Britain’s entry, General de Gaulle’s comments were to resurface.
During a debate with fellow Labour MP Roy Jenkins, passionate eurosceptic Tony Benn argued that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was a “siege economy” designed to favour the French and harm Britain.
Regarding the surge in food prices, he added: “We have butter mountains and beef mountains because the Common Agricultural Policy was developed to benefit the French and if you read [Charles] de Gaulle’s famous veto speech, he said the CAP would be a crushing burden on the British economy.
“He never thought that Mr Heath would go on his knees and accept it.”
Britain’s unease with Brussels, as General de Gaulle arguably predicted, never truly subsided.
When the British people were asked about the country’s place in the EU for the second time in just over 40 years, in 2016, the result was a clear Leave majority.
Philip Stevens’ Britain Alone: The Path From Suez to Brexit was published by Faber and Faber in 2021. It is available here.
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