at his holiday retreat on Friday, the British prime minister will be treading a well-worn path. Her mission is to try to persuade the French president that it is in the European Union’s geopolitical interest to agree to a deal that will allow the U.K. to retain frictionless access to the EU’s single market in goods while operating its own trade policy, rejecting the single market in services, the free movement of people and the direct jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Although she is proposing that the U.K. will continue to follow some EU regulations, what she wants is an intergovernmental relationship based on both sides retaining full sovereignty. She isn’t the first British prime minister to make such a bid.
The first was Clement Atlee in 1950, who refused to join the European Coal and Steel Community, the precursor of today’s EU, because he objected to ceding sovereignty to a supranational body. The ECSC was the brainchild of Jean Monnet, a remarkable French businessman turned official whose formative experience had come during two world wars, when he had played a key role trying to get the allies to pool resources in crucial areas such as transport, energy and food supplies. The central insight he drew from those years was that the countries of Europe were too small to compete in world markets and that unless they committed to find common solutions to common problems, competition between them could degenerate into fresh conflict.
Monnet’s solution was the Schuman Declaration, a bold offer by French foreign minister Robert Schuman that France, Germany and other willing partners should pool their sovereignty to create a European market for coal and steel to be overseen by a High Authority charged with setting rules in the common interest—thereby putting the two commodities most crucial to waging war beyond national control. From the start, Monnet was clear that the institutions created by the ECSC would serve as the basis for much deeper EU integration. He was also adamant that the participation of the U.K. was vital to the success of “Europe” and the security of the West.
But when the Atlee government proposed an alternative intergovernmental approach, Monnet successfully persuaded other European governments that this was simply a recipe for the kind of never-ending negotiations that had failed so spectacularly in the interwar years. He argued that: “The Schuman proposals are revolutionary or they are nothing…The indispensable first principle is the abnegation of sovereignty in a limited but decisive field and…in my view, any plan which does not involve this indispensable first principle can make no useful contribution to the grave problems that face us.” Indeed, Monnet was quite clear where the European interest lay: He told Sir Stafford Cripps, then chancellor of the exchequer: “I hope with all my heart that you will join from the start. But if you don’t we shall go ahead without you. And I’m sure that, because you are realists, you will adjust to the facts when you see that we have succeeded.”
Sure enough, the U.K. did twice try to join the European Community—as it had by then become—in the 1960s. But the U.K.’s demands for special treatment continued, prompting Monnet to warn that British membership must not be bought “at the expense of what had been achieved already or was anticipated in the future” and that any association between Great Britain and the Community “should respect the integrity of the Community itself.” Monnet was particularly suspicious of British attempts to push its own rival vision of a much looser European Free Trade Area. “To weaken the structure of the Common Market or cast doubt upon its future would on the contrary revive past economic conflicts at attempts at domination. Did anyone want Britain once again to try to dominate Europe from the outside? That was what would happen if we abandoned the rules of the Community and embrace the empiricism of the Free Trade Area.”
Both U.K. applications were famously rejected by French President Charles de Gaulle, who believed that the consequences of allowing a U.K. that he didn’t believe was sufficiently European to join the Community outweighed the geopolitical risks of dividing the West at a time when the Cold War was at its height. For his part, Monnet worried that Britain’s allies in the Netherlands and Belgium might put the brakes on further European integration to make it easier for the U.K. to join at a later date. As in 1950, he urged European governments to push ahead with integration: “The British would throw in their lot only with a Community that was active and continually developing.”
Of course, Monnet was vindicated when the U.K. joined the European Community in 1972, a decision subsequently endorsed by a two-thirds majority in the 1975 referendum, which Monnet wrote in his memoirs had “settled the issue for all time.”
Yet the U.K. and EU now find themselves replaying the debates of the 1950s and 1960s, this time in reverse. Once again, the EU must balance what would be a seismic geopolitical shock at a time of rising global tensions should the U.K. leave the EU next March without a Withdrawal Agreement against the risks to its own coherence from British demands to enjoy many of the trappings of membership without the obligations of supranationalism. On every occasion the EU has faced this choice before, its response to the U.K. has been “Non”. Will Mr. Macron’s answer be any different?
Write to Simon Nixon at firstname.lastname@example.org