As we watch the British government tear itself apart over its relationship to Europe, it is useful to stop and consider the deeper origins of the crisis. They go back decades, to the long-standing tension between Britain and Europe, and in particular between Britain and France. Britain was not a signatory of the 1957 Treaty of Rome or any of the prior agreements that led to European economic integration. But in the 1960s, it applied to join the European Economic Community. At the time, Britain was economically weak, having never fully recovered after World War II, and saw the EEC as a free trade zone with relatively few complexities. The country had stayed clear of excessive entanglement with continental Europe but felt that having less limited access to Continental markets would help in its recovery.
But the British application to join the EEC was blocked by France in 1963 and 1967. French President Charles de Gaulle argued that the British economy was in many ways incompatible with the rest of Europe’s. He also argued that Britain had a deep-seated animosity toward any pan-European undertaking and would perceive a united Europe as a threat to its independence. De Gaulle didn’t view Britain as a fully European country, since its history ran counter to Europe’s history. Since the Norman conquests, Britain had been fencing with Continental powers, playing one off against the other to prevent any one power from becoming strong enough to storm the English Channel and conquer it. Whereas the other European powers were primarily land powers, forced by geography to focus on the threats posed by their neighbors, Britain was a naval power, whose primary response to Napoleon, for example, was to protect itself through a blockade that weakened France. From de Gaulle’s point of view, Britain fought World War II the same way – by shielding itself and abandoning France.
The British understanding of economic life, according to de Gaulle, was also incompatible with Europe’s. The British economy was driven by private investment, innovation and risk-taking. Continental economies had a much more intimate relationship with the state, which helped shape the direction of the economy and cushioned the impact of capitalism on workers. The state’s relationship to the market, therefore, was also very different. De Gaulle did not see the state as intruding on the nation but as the embodiment of the nation.
The European Union derives from the same tradition de Gaulle did. Neither objected to private property, but they believed in the need for state intervention in all aspects of life. The EU has a regulatory bent that is far more intense than the British, and sees its bureaucracy as having authority far greater than Britain’s.
De Gaulle had other bones to pick with the British. Britain’s relationship with the United States troubled him deeply. De Gaulle saw the U.S. as the logical and extreme expression of British ideology and strategy. The U.S. marginalized the state and, like Britain, was prepared to fight to the last European to block the Soviets. De Gaulle recalled the U.S.-British alliance in World War II, and the degree to which he had to resist having France reduced to a dominion of the United States and Britain during and after the war. The tension between Britain and the Continent didn’t end with World War II, and Britain’s relationship to the United States compounded it.
De Gaulle saw the alliance between the Anglo-Saxons as representing a multi-faceted threat to the Continent. In particular, he did not want Europe in a fixed alliance that committed the Continent to military action under certain circumstances. He didn’t want another war in Europe and was not prepared to take the same risks the U.S. was claiming it was prepared to take. He saw NATO as a threat to the EEC in many ways. He also saw the Soviets as a manageable threat, and the Americans as reckless. From de Gaulle’s perspective, then, if Britain were to join the EEC, it would act as a tool of the United States, and he was not willing to let that happen.
For de Gaulle, the cultural gap between Britain and a united Europe couldn’t be bridged. They were just too economically incompatible and their strategic interests too different.
De Gaulle’s goal in all of this, however, was not simply to build a European community. He wanted to build a European community that France could dominate, something that was still conceivable in the 1960s, while Britain remained outside the bloc. And in trying to achieve his goal, he actually anticipated the problem that would arise with the Maastricht Treaty, which established the European Union.
Britain has a very different economic and political culture than the Continent. It has a different history that gives it a different view of the Continent. Leaving other matters aside, it does not fit into Europe, and the attempt at bridging this gap has led to the worst political crisis in Britain since the fall of France.