De Gaulle and Brexit, was it all inevitable?

In 1963 and again in 1967, to the bitter chagrin of Britain’s rulers, Charles De Gaulle vetoed Britain’s entry into the EEC. De Gaulle saw an incompatibility between Britain’s historic outlook, its Atlanticism (and the Commonwealth), and the requirements of what would become the EU. While clearly interested in maintaining France’s power, De Gaulle’s point was that philosophically and politically, Britain’s membership would, sooner or later, prove incompatible with a European system which secured peace and prosperity through integration. In 1973, once De Gaulle was out of the way, Britain did join.

Exactly 48 years later, in January 2021 Britain leaves. Over the medium term, there will be significant economic cost, a cost that will only marginally be improved by the last-gasp Free Trade Agreement. Britain will not be re-joining for many, many years, if ever, not least because this would be available only on significantly worse terms than what 40 years of negotiating from the inside had secured. But also because every EU national parliament, as well as the EU’s own Parliament and Council will have to agree. It simply won’t be in Britain’s power even if it wanted to re-join.

De Gaulle, who was remarkably prescient on many matters in international relations, and although perhaps 50 years early, was right. And Brexit is the product of these deep and ever-growing inconsistencies.

‘Ever closer union’

Today the EU faces the same existential dilemma it has faced for at least 30 years. Does it splinter into a relationship based largely on trade and selective cooperation (one, incidentally which Britain consistently strove for), or does it continue with ever deeper integration? The status quo has never been tenable, nor does it remain so today as the political and economic tensions are too great. The EU must advance or fall apart. The clearest example of this is the half-way house that is the Euro: centralised monetary policy with fixed exchange rates, but decentralised fiscal policy; this has led systemic tensions and a transfer of wealth and jobs from the uncompetitive south to the productive north. Borders and immigration are other policy areas of current deep tension that require integration (or separation). Power projection, international relations, and risk-managing the EU’s near-abroad are other problematic areas; regulation around data, regulating AI and the internet are further examples; trade another. The list goes on. Put simply, the EU must integrate further or give up all aspirations of federalism (including the Euro), to solve for these tensions.

And, seemingly hidden to many Remainers in the UK, this is precisely what is happening. The European Council meeting of 10–11 December agreed an astonishing depth of new policies. The EU, with COVID-19 acting as accelerant, has chosen to supercharge integration and to cede more powers to the centre. This is entirely sensible and logical. The EU has doubled its budget to €1.8tn. This now includes the requirement that the EU Commission directly raises €750bn in loans (backstopped by the richer nations) and then grant and lend these funds to countries badly affected by the pandemic and, implicitly, the Euro. The EU also agreed ‘rule of law’ provisions which include financial penalties; a legally binding cut to carbon emissions as well as sanctions on NATO member, Turkey. It is naïve to believe this is a one-off. It is the latest, albeit very significant, set of steps towards the greater pooling of sovereignty. None of this would have been possible with Britain as a member.

Rebates and opt-outs… for a while

In 2016 Britain arguably had the best of both worlds. It had secured rebates and multiple opt-outs. But comforting as that felt, it assumed that the EU would remain static. It could not and did not. Britain simply could not expect to remain one foot in and one foot out. Federalists in the UK would have welcomed greater participation and commitment by Britain, but this had to mean ever greater loss of sovereignty. That was not politically viable in the UK not least because Britain’s influence was also waning. The heady days of the creation of the Single Market had long gone, and Cameron like May and Johnson afterwards became almost figures of fun in Brussels, safely bullied or ignored, (arguably in no small part due to their own incompetence). Certainly the timing owed much to the culmination of the bitter Tory civil war on Europe, and perhaps Brexit could have been ‘softer’, but the British had consistently been by some distance the most Eurosceptic member. How could that square with ‘ever closer union’?

Much is made of recent UK opinion polls showing Brexit was a mistake and generally positive views of the EU. But these polls can be safely ignored given the complete loss of interest by Britain in what is actually happening in the EU, combined with the daily grind of COVID-led incompetence from the Johnson government. Think, for a minute, what these polls would have looked like if Britain had remained in the EU and been on the hook for a large part of the €1.8tn fund helping to ease the design flaws of the Euro alongside further transfers of power to Brussels and all during the COVID second wave. Consider where this would lead in the 2020s. Brexit, a tragedy, no doubt, in some form or other and sooner or later, was inevitable.

Now to rebuild the relationship

So while Brexiters must come clean, Brexit means the UK will be poorer and more isolated globally, Remainers also must accept that the EU was always likely to change in politically untenable ways for Britain and that it has a legitimacy/democracy problem. We must accept that Brexit does give Britain greater democratic control and yes, sovereignty, than otherwise would have been the case.

Whatever happens now, this is not the end of the story. Longer term, Britain and the EU must rebuild a close relationship, Britain will trade away some sovereignty for certain economic benefits but that will need time and goodwill. We (ex)Remainers have to attempt to ensure that any new powers are used sensibly and forget about re-joining.

What is often forgotten about De Gaulle is that he also recognised Britain’s essential role in European strategic cooperation. Although ever suspicious of ‘La perfide Albion’, he nevertheless accepted and encouraged close international cooperation across the Channel for mutual gain. Perhaps we can all continue to learn from the great statesman.

Fintech investor/director. Brit in Barcelona. LSE IDEAS MSc graduate in International Relations.

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