Churchill and the Unification of Europe

By Mauter, Wendell R. | The Historian, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Churchill and the Unification of Europe

Mauter, Wendell R., The Historian

Winston Churchill's call in 1945 for a "United States of Europe," a federation of European states to promote harmonious relations between nations, economic cooperation, and a sense of European identity, has caused him to be regarded as the father of European unity. From 1945, when the Labour Party's electoral victory forced him to resign as prime minister, to 1950 Churchill argued forcefully that a united Europe was the best means to heal residual hatreds from the Second World War, prevent future wars, and ensure economic prosperity. At home, he rallied his own Conservative Party and lobbied the opposition Labourites to support his cause. Abroad, he used his renowned rhetorical skills to persuade other nations to organize transnationally. Yet Churchill's rhetoric promoting European unity is sometimes difficult to reconcile with his ambivalence regarding Britain's role in his proposed federation, particularly after he returned to power as prime minister in October 1951 when he effectively abandoned the issue.(1)

This paper explores Churchill's efforts toward European unification before 1945, during his years in opposition from 1945 to 1951, and after his return as prime minister in 1951. The focus will be on five areas. First, what did Churchill mean by a United States of Europe? In other words, did he conceive European unity simply as intergovernmental cooperation or did he envisage some merging of national sovereignty, that is, supranationalism? Second, what was to be Britain's role in a unified Europe, and did this role change over time? Third, how did Churchill's commitment to European unity fit with his deep commitment to preserving Britain's status as a global power? Fourth, how did Churchill's political ambitions affect his European unification initiative? Did he use the initiative for domestic political purposes and to regain an international stage for himself?. And finally, how did Churchill's beliefs and actions change upon regaining office after October 1951?

Churchill's interest in European unity dates to 1930, when he coined the term "United States of Europe" in a Saturday Evening Post article in February of that year. Churchill believed that national hatreds and distrust from the First World War could best be dispelled by mutual cooperation and dependence. "[T]he conception of the United States of Europe is right," he said. "Every step taken ... which appease[s] obsolete hatreds [and] makes [for] traffic and reciprocal services ... is good in itself" Churchill argued that "Old World" problems could be solved by the American federalist model. Britain would not belong to this new European United States, however, since "[w]e have our own dreams.... We are with Europe but not of it. We are linked but not compromised."(2) Such public pronouncements even had him considered as French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand's successor in 1932 as president of the Pan European Union, founded nearly ten years earlier to promote European unity.(3)

As Churchill became increasingly preoccupied with the threat from Nazi Germany, though, he put aside the subject of European unity until he became prime minister in spring 1940 upon Neville Chamberlains resignation. When France faced imminent defeat by the Nazis in June 1940, Churchill, though initially reluctant, called for an Anglo-French union with common citizenship, a single war cabinet, and associated parliaments. This concept actually had originated earlier that month with Jean Monnet, a prominent French economist and strong proponent of European unity. Though Churchill's proposal came to naught with the surrender of the French government a few days later, it incorporated both the merging of national sovereignty and direct British involvement with continental unification.(4)

In December of that year, when panic over the fall of France and a threatened German invasion had subsided, Churchill spoke of a postwar Europe of five Great Powers (United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain, and Prussia) and four confederations operating in a "Council of Europe" This council would include a "supreme judiciary and a Supreme Economic Council to settle currency questions.

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