The dust is finally beginning to settle after the UK’s decision via referendum to leave the EU. However, somewhat bizarrely, the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote has given us few concrete ideas about what the Brexit will look like, with many different models and proposals being touted by the key players, both on the Isles and on the continent, in the negotiations.
Furthermore, some of the most ardent Brexit supporters in the British political elite (and even amongst the public) have seemingly got cold feet which additionally clouds what kind of exit Britain will aim for. Given this time of uncertainty, the UK should take heed of an important historical lesson to guide their decision as to what kind of Brexit they should undertake, one which has largely been overlooked in the discourse to date: the immediate regret of their decision to not partake in European integration in the 1950s.
In the initial post-WWII setting of Europe, it was clear to all parties involved that the mistakes of the post-WWI period could not be repeated. Thus, instead of imposing harsh reparations (along with alienation) against Germany, it was hoped that through creating deep interdependence in areas of trade and economics (starting with coal and steel), war on the continent could be made unthinkable.
The UK strongly agreed with this. In fact, Winston Churchill famously said: “There is a remedy which would in a few years make all Europe free and happy. It is to re-create the European family, or as much of it as we can, and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom. We must build a kind of United States of Europe.”
While the UK supported the idea of European integration, it did not see itself partaking in any sort of deep Europe integration. Rather, key British leaders – such as Churchill, Clement Atlee, and Anthony Eden – romantically believed that the UK needed to assert itself globally in order to remain a superpower in its own right, rather than subordinate itself in the European project.
To do this, instead of involving itself in the grand integration plans that were being debated and weighed across the continent, the UK decided that it should prioritise its Commonwealth (especially South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand) and strengthen its transatlantic partnership with the United States. Thus, when the European Coal and Steel Community (the precursor to the EU) was created by the original six in 1951, the UK was nowhere to be seen.
However, the 1950s proved to be a harsh reality check for the UK. Its desire to maintain an empire and consolidate its relations with the Commonwealth did not produce the envisaged concrete outcomes. Despite the “sterling area” accounting for roughly half the world’s trade in the early 1950s, Britain struggled to successfully manage its Commonwealth, and by the end of the decade, thanks to events like the Suez crisis, its romantic hopes had died.
Furthermore, the UK’s relationship with the United States did not pan out as expected in the 1950s. The UK’s belief that the transatlantic relationship should remain symmetrical was not reciprocated by the United States. The United States now represented the unquestioned strongest international power (despite Soviet counter-claims) and quickly sought to dictate the terms of its relations with its allies, turning the transatlantic relationship into a conduit for American interests.
At the same time, the quicker than expected rebound of West Germany in the 1950s (known as the Wirtschaftswunder) with the French aptly riding on their coattails, spurred exceptional growth on the continent amongst the six founding members of the European Economic Community. Although the 1950s was still a period of prosperity for the UK, this paled in comparison to what was happening on the continent. In fact, by the 1960s, the UK’s GDP per capita was only comparable with Italy’s, the poorest of the six Community countries.
The growth of Europe even threatened the UK’s position as the most important ally to the United States. The United States had been taking a proactive role in Europe since the end of WWII and saw fostering integration as a necessary bulwark against perceived Soviet expansionist aims. With the Cold War intensifying in the late1950s-early 1960s, Britain risked a reduced role in international affairs if it remained outside of Europe.
Thus, ten years after unequivocally rejecting any participation in the European integration project, in 1961 British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan undertook a complete u-turn and applied to join the European Economic Community. Unfortunately, noted Anglophobe Charles de Gaulle was France’s President at the time, and he twice vetoed British accession applications, and it was not until 1970 that the UK’s application was accepted.
The lesson the UK needs to take from this in light of the pivotal decisions currently being discussed is that divorcing itself completely from the continent in order to pursue some grandiose idea of making Britain great again will likely end in ignominy and regret . Thus, while the Brexit referendum outcome needs to be adhered to in some shape or form, it is imperative for the UK (and for the EU) that it maintains some level of integration with the EU, as to do otherwise would be a sad case of history repeating.
Image attribution: https://www.flickr.com/photos/alexwhite/27945701052/