De Gaulle and Europe

On 11 November 1942, de Gaulle invited Europeans to "join together in a practical and lasting fashion". These visionary remarks bear witness to the European commitment of a man who was anything but a narrow-minded nationalist. In his view, however, Europe should be something more than the institutional construction known successively as the EEC, Common Market and then European Union. The phrase "from the Atlantic to the Urals" clearly expressed his view of the geographic and historic extent of the concept of  Europe: there would not be time, however, for him to make this project a reality.

After 1945 de Gaulle, like others, rapidly realised that the time for antagonism within Europe was over as it was in ruins and feeling the pressure of the new superpowers. Yet slogans like "a United States of Europe" (immortalised by Victor Hugo in 1851) held little appeal in his eyes. Steeped in history, strongly attached to the values of mediaeval Christianity (although not a member of the Christian Democratic movement that produced the "founding fathers" of Europe) and of the "concert of nations", a key 19th concept, he believed that Europe, should it ever take shape, should be based on realities and constructed in stages, first and foremost in the economic and technical fields in order to create a "de facto solidarity" without undermining national sovereignties. He also believed that such a Europe could not exist unless preceded by a firm and lasting reconciliation between France and Germany, along with a deep understanding between the two peoples which would constitute its foundation and core, while allowing France to play a decisive role.  He did not rule out the United Kingdom joining one day, once its close ties to the Commonwealth and, above all, to the United States, had loosened considerably. In his eyes,  however, that moment had not yet arrived. 

From 1946 to 1958, although distanced from events the General nonetheless continued to make his voice heard on community issues. In 1950, he objected to the ECSC (the coal and steel community), as a supranational institution, but acknowledged the arguments for pooling French and German energy resources. In contrast, he was wholly opposed to the European Defence Community, a proposal finally rejected in the Assembly in 1954 by a majority composed of the Communists and the RPF plus a handful of radical socialists. This supranational project designed to set up a European army including German forces under the command of NATO (and therefore of the USA) was wholly unacceptable to him in principle. 

De Gaulle was not opposed to the 1957 Treaties of Rome, although he rejected the underlying federalist purpose inspired by the ideas of Jean Monnet. He was equally opposed to the role attributed by some to the Brussels Commission, and its ultimate ambition of becoming a sort of collegiate government, but he was well aware of the damaging effects of French protectionism on the nation's economy and realised that France must open up to outside competition as the only way of imposing the discipline necessary for her industrial and commercial development. He had the same reservations about Euratom, which established the European Atomic Energy Community. On his return to power in 1958, he took care that France implemented the Treaties of Rome with the reservations already mentioned. For Mr. Couve de Murville, "the Europe of realities came into existence in January 1959". This Europe satisfied two objectives essential to France: Franco-German reconciliation, as a prelude to close co-operation, and the opening up of the French economy to the world, bringing centuries of protectionism to an end.  The General's support for free trade within Europe, however, went hand in hand with his determination to maintain an adequate buffer of protection for Europe's potential, against the outside world and the USA in particular, through  the concept of community preference and insistence on a balanced, common, external tariff.

The truly essential element of this process of construction, as he saw it, was the political union of European states, which might serve as a balancing force between the two power blocs. In 1963 and then again in 1966-1967, he nonetheless maintained his opposition to UK entry into the Common Market, on the grounds that the UK did not accept the Common Market's constraints. More to the point, he suspected that London had far too close an allegiance to the USA, and believed that Britain's special relationship with the Commonwealth risked destabilising the EEC by swamping it in a vast free-trade zone stripped of any political component. He also knew very well that Churchill, who had once called for a Union of Europe, had never envisaged the United Kingdom forming an intrinsic part of that union.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) referred to in the Treaty of Rome but not set out in detail, which was founded on three principles (financial solidarity, community preference, single production price), provided de Gaulle with an opportunity to display his determination, even if it triggered a crisis. In the absence of any agreement on how it was to be financed – a vital question for France, the leading agricultural nation at the time – he decided on 30 June 1965 to pursue to so-called "empty chair" policy, rejecting the principle of qualified majority voting. After a six-month stalemate, the Luxembourg compromise (January 1966) on the functioning of Common Market institutions laid an obligation on the Six to seek unanimous agreement on "important issues". De Gaulle won his case and thus preserved the specific nature and the interests of French agriculture, while maintaining his support for the basic principles of the CAP. He succeeded in influencing the decision-making mechanism written into the Treaty of Rome by insisting on solidarity founded on mutual understanding.

Even before this crisis, he had perceived the inevitability of  a political dimension to the construction of Europe, initially conceived only in economic terms. He had words of contempt for those who confined themselves to a Europe of words (tirades against the  "integrated volapuk" in 1962 and "Europe! Europe! ... bleated like a goat" in 1965), and from 1958 onwards he upheld the view that the construction of Europe would only find its true significance in the creation of close political co-operation between the states of Europe. After explaining his motives to Chancellor Adenauer in 1961 in Rambouillet, he made a concrete move in that direction by setting up the Fouchet Commission, which enjoyed the support of Italy and Germany but which in the end, after many incidents, failed to reach an agreement in April 1962. The project was doomed to failure by Benelux opposition to any co-operation formula not inspired by the Treaty of Rome model, by its insistence on the immediate inclusion of the UK in the process and, last but not least, by its rejection, shared by others, of a common European defence structure more or less dissociated from NATO. De Gaulle, who wanted a "European Europe", perceived – not without reason - the hand of the USA, working through the agency of the UK, behind this sabotage.

On his retirement in 1969, the construction of Europe had helped to restore France – weakened in 1945, still convalescent in 1958 and hobbled by a long history of protectionism – to its former rank and prosperity.  Arguing for a "Europe of states" excluding any form of supranationality, de Gaulle would have liked to add to this process a political dimension that some of his partners were unwilling to admit – on condition that it subscribed to his vision of Europe.

Annex: de Gaulle and Coudenhove-Kalergi

In preference to Jean Monnet and democratic federalism, de Gaulle valued the opinions and ideas of Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, author of the 1923 Paneurope manifesto, whom he met in  July 1944. It was to Coudenhove-Kalergi that de Gaulle wrote in 1948, "No one is more convinced than I of the need to construct Europe… Between a Europe sought after by the Commonwealth and a Germany in search of itself, I have always believed that France was destined by its very geography to promote European Union". 

Coudenhove-Kalergi argued in support of all de Gaulle's decisions on Europe. He broke with the "European Movement" in 1965 because of its anti-Gaullist attitude. As a gesture of confidence, de Gaulle invited Coudenhove-Kalergi to the Reims meeting which consolidated Franco-German reconciliation, and in 1969 thanked him for his support for the action which he, de Gaulle, had taken "in the name of France, for the construction of a united Europe". Both men mistrusted supranational community institutions. Both agreed on the idea of a union of the nation-states of Europe, and both aspired to a European Europe, i.e. a Europe that was free, independent of the superpowers and, more especially, of the USA.