June 24, 2016 | By Richard C. Longworth

Brexit: A Long Time Coming

British Prime Minister David Cameron waves as he leaves a European Union leaders' summit. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Charles de Gaulle got it right the first time.

A half century ago, de Gaulle, the imperious French president, twice vetoed British membership in what became the European Union. Britain would never fit into the European project, de Gaulle said, because it harbored a “deep-seated hostility” to European unity.

It still does, and the Brexit vote this week proved it. Britain eventually joined the European Common Market, as the European Union was known then, in 1973, after de Gaulle stepped down. Now, more than 40 years inside the European club, its wants out.

The vote may be a tragedy for both Britain and the EU, but it was foreordained.

De Gaulle listed his reasons for black-balling two British applications to join the Common Market, some of them geographic and, for that reason, permanent. Britain was a maritime nation with worldwide connections, he said. It was more committed to its ties with the British Commonwealth and the United States than to its European neighbors. It was an off-shore island, “not continental.” The Common Market, by contrast, was “a compact geographic and strategic unit.” Britain, de Gaulle said, just didn’t fit.

The Common Market has become the EU, no longer that “compact geographic and strategic unit” of six nations, but a sprawling 28-nation bloc. Britain still doesn’t fit.

The British prime minister, David Cameron, acknowledged this when he proposed the referendum that he has just lost. “Our geography has shaped our psychology,” he said then. “We can no more change this British sensibility than we can drain the English Channel.” Because of this, Britain’s attitude toward the EU “is more practical than emotional.”

Cameron wanted Britain to stay in the EU. But no one has better explained why it didn’t.  

Britain’s is indeed an off-shore island, not a European nation. The English Channel is only twenty miles wide at its narrowest, but that twenty miles makes all the difference. Everything – the weather, the food, language, attitudes, national psychologies – is different north of Dover than south of Calais.

This is especially true of attitudes toward the EU. Continental Europeans may gripe about the EU bureaucracy or oppose its policies on immigration, but it’s part of the landscape there, not always loved but accepted. The British never loved it and a majority never accepted it.

When Britain first applied for membership, the opposition was led by the strident Daily Express, run by the Canadian-born Lord Beaverbrook. This year, the opposition, identical in tone and inaccuracy, was led by the strident Sun, run by the Australian-born Rupert Murdock, another colonial.

This isn’t accidental. Several European countries had empires, but the British Empire was bigger, more established, more….well, more imperial. Long after the empire died, the British, as de Gaulle said, still prize its remnants in the British Commonwealth, an association of 53 former colonies. Queen Elizabeth II is its formal head and sixteen members actually consider her their monarch. No other European nation clings so hard to its past.

At the same time, Britain has its “special relationship” to another former colony, the United States. Most Americans aren’t aware this “special relationship” exists. Washington invokes it only when it wants Britain to do something. But the British take this imagined relationship seriously. They see themselves as a vital bridge between the United States and the European Union. Which means they truly belong to neither.

The biggest gap is historical. Britain was almost the only EU member to be neither defeated nor occupied during World War II (the exceptions being a handful of other islands, plus Ireland and the Nordics.) Thus it misses the crucial historical and emotional thrust behind the European project, which is to keep another world war from happening. The EU’s methods are economic, but its purpose is to prevent another Hitler.

Angela Merkel understands this in her bones. So do most other EU leaders. The British don’t. For them, the war was their “finest hour.” They stood magnificently but, so far as the Europeans were concerned, they stood alone.

De Gaulle allowed that Britain someday “might manage to transform herself sufficiently to become part of the European community, without restriction, without reserve and preference for anything else whatsoever.”

When Cameron announced the referendum, he specifically said that Britain would not “transform herself” to remain European. Instead, he said the EU must transform itself through “fundamental, far-reaching changes” to keep Britain in. Especially it must stop its march toward an “ever-closer union.” For Britain, he said, this goal “is not the objective.” What he wanted was a sort of glorified free trade zone.

In short, he was demanding that the EU abandon its historical goal of a continental peace through greater integration and, in essence, stop being the EU.

Britain has always been an awkward EU member, demanding special treatment and budget breaks. If it stayed in, that wouldn’t change.

The EU, for its part, might unravel before the twin challenges of mass immigration and the euro crisis. It’s possible that it has brought in too many members, and that it may have reached the limits of political integration. Many Europeans, like the British, chafe under the regulations flowing from Brussels and want more power for their national parliaments.

But the EU’s success in creating a peaceful and prosperous continent from the ruins of war remains an historical achievement. To abandon this is to tempt fate.

Most likely, Brexit will hurt both the EU and Britain. The job now is to limit the damage.

For forty years, Britain and the EU pretended they belonged together. De Gaulle was right. Too bad nobody listened. 


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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