Brexit and Charles de Gaulle’s Last Laugh

Brexit and Charles de Gaulle’s Last Laugh, by Geopolitical Futures.

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.

Charles de Gaulle

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.

The British way of freedom and liberty versus the more socialist Continental way has long been a point of tension in Britain. Brexit is the latest chapter in a book that spans a thousand years. Liberty versus continentalism was essentially what the English Civil War was about, and the American Revolution too (which was not primarily about American breaking away, but was just a side effect of demanding traditional British rights for the British in America).

hat-tip Chris