In the run up to the British General Election on May 7th there has been a great deal of debate about Britain’s role within Europe and, more importantly, the European Union. Among Europhobes, the great threat is that the EU will evolve into a superstate, a United States of Europe. The idea of a united Europe is not a new one and chiefly arises from a wish to emulate the unity of the empires of Rome and Charlemagne. Britain, as recent history would suggest, seems to define itself as being different from the rest of the European continent. This attitude can be summed up with the traditional rivalry between Britain and France that would seem to have existed since the Hundred Years War. Britain and France have been to war countless times, and they have both defined their national identity against each other: Perfidious Frenchmen vs Albion Perfide.
However, as recently as the 20th Century, there were serious proposals put forward at varying times by both nations, for a full political and economic union between Britain and France. Strange as this may seem it is not without historical precedent. Following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 (and to some extent before) the Kingdoms of England and France shared a common language and culture. For much of the period between 1066 and the Hundred Years War, French and English borders were extremely porous; loyalties of family and blood extended across both realms. By 1172 England’s Angevin Kings had inherited roughly half of what is now France, as well as politically dominating Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
The distinction between the English and French realms began to be defined during the course of the Hundred Years War. During this long series of conflicts between the English House of Plantagenet and the French House of Valois there was a brief union of the two crowns, from 1422-29, under Henry VI of England who was also crowned King of France (his father Henry V had also been de facto King of France). However, following the fight-back, led by Joan of Arc, by 1453 England had lost all of her French territory except the city of Calais. By January 1558 the French had retaken Calais, kicking the English off the continental mainland entirely. Despite their total loss of all territory in France, monarchs of England would continued to be crowned as “King/Queen of England, Ireland, and France” until 1807.
The Entente Cordiale of 1904 would end the centuries of bitter rivalry between Britain and France (the Entente was delayed in its proclamation due to the scramble for Africa which exacerbated the rivalry). This agreement marked the beginning of peaceful coexistence, indeed, in an atmosphere reminiscent of modern times, it created a worry among nationalists in both countries that it would lead to a full union between the two nations.
In a way these fears were not baseless. While there was no concerted attempt at creating a Franco-British Union, there were proposals over the next 50 or so years to create such a union. In World War II, facing the onslaught of the seemingly unstoppable Wehrmacht, Jean Monnet (father of the European Project that created what is now the European Union), the head of the Anglo-French Coordinating Committee pressed Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill’s assistant, Desmond Morton for a union. By June 1940 France and Britain were facing total defeat in the Battle of France. In March of that year it had been agreed that neither country would sign an armistice with Germany independent of the other. French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud, true to his word, was adamant that no surrender be signed and that France should continue fighting from her colonies in North Africa. However, Reynaud’s government was quickly turning against him. Eager to keep Reynaud in power Monnet and Morton drafted a proposal for a Franco-British Union stating that:
“France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations, but one Franco-British Union. The consultation of the union will provide for joint organs of defence, foreign, financial and economic policies. Every citizen of France shall enjoy immediate citizenship of Great Britain, every British subject shall become a citizen of France.”
It was submitted to an initially sceptical Churchill who put it to the Cabinet on 15 June (along with a similar proposal from Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery). On 16 June the British Cabinet approved the proposal for a union. Charles de Gaulle also approved of the proposal and acted as an intermediary with Reynaud who also supported the union. The two governments were to meet in Concarneau the next day to make the union official. However, by 5 pm on the 16th the French cabinet had refused the agreement despite support from Prime Minister Reynaud and President Lebrun. Marshal Petain, who would head the Vichy government that collaborated with the Nazi occupiers, declared that he would rather France were “a Nazi province than a British dominion” and that the plan was nothing but a last-minute attempt by the British to “steal” France’s colonies. Reynaud was therefore forced to resign and Petain formed a new government that signed an armistice with Germany on the 21 June.
However, this would not be the last time that such a union was to be proposed. In 1956 Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, nationalised the Suez Canal. The result was “the last imperial adventure” that would bring home the fact that Britain and France were no longer world powers capable of conducting “gunship diplomacy” at will. Following the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Britain and France set up a joint task-force, coordinating with Israel, that would attack Egypt and regain the canal. While the invasion was a success in military terms, President Eisenhower of the United States of America threatened to financially cripple Britain and France if they did not withdraw their forces. Eventually the British and French would be forced into a humiliating withdrawal that left none in doubt that their days as imperial powers had come to an end. However, it emerged in 2007 that during the Suez war French Prime Minister Guy Mollet had proposed a union between Britain and France under the belief that their combined military and economic muscle would allow both countries to keep their place in the world. Under the proposal Elizabeth II would be the head of state of this new Franco-British Union and that the military, monetary, economic, and political policy would be unified. An alternative proposal was also submitted to the British government that France join the Commonwealth. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden rejected both proposals. Two years later France signed the Treaty of Rome that cemented “ever closer union” with Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg in the European Economic Community, now known as the European Union. Britain eventually joined this club in 1973 and is still stuggling to come to terms with the decision as calls for an in-out referendum have increased over the term of the last parliament.