French leader Charles de Gaulle was a key player in the formative years of the European Economic Community (EEC) – the precursor to the EU – and he predicted that the UK would struggle to “merge into a community with set dimensions and set rules”. General de Gaulle led the French Resistance during World War 2, was chair of the provisional government after the liberation, and was later the French President from 1959-1969. When the EEC was first formed with the Treaty of Rome in March 1957 with the original six members – France, Italy, the Netherlands, West Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg – the UK was noticeably absent.
Britain first began talks to join in July 1961, but its application was vetoed by General de Gaulle twice – once in 1963 and once in 1967.
The then-French President believed that a pan-European project was not a good fit for the UK, citing aspects of the economy he saw as “incompatible with Europe”.
This made him opposed from a French standpoint, but he also pointed out that it would not be beneficial to Britain, listing a series of potential issues that Brexiteers will recognise as concerns today.
In a statement issued on behalf of the French government in May 1967, he said that the UK’s reasons for not joining the bloc were “understandable”.
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He highlighted the fact that the UK, separated from the continent by a strip of water, is a sea-faring nation, and has close ties to both the US and the Commonwealth that arguably supercede ties to continental Europe.
It read: “Compared with the motives that led the six [founder nations] to organise their unit, we understand for what reasons, why Britain – who is not continental, who remains, because of the Commonwealth and because she is an island, committed far beyond the seas, who is tied to the United States by all kinds of special agreements – did not merge into a Community with set dimensions and set rules.”
He added that, because of the UK’s relationship with the Commonwealth, it benefited from inexpensive imports and may be “forced to raise the price of her food” if the country “submitted” to the rules cooked up by the original founders.
The war verteran wrote: “Britain nourishes herself, to a great extent, on food-stuffs bought inexpensively throughout the world and, particularly, in the Commonwealth.
Charles De Gaulle vetoed UK membership twice
“If she submits to the rules of the six, then her balance of payments will be crushed by ‘levies’ and on the other hand, she would then be forced to raise the price of her food to the price level adopted by the continental countries, consequently to increase the wages of her workers and, thereby to sell her goods all the more at a higher price and with more difficulty.”
Indeed, when the UK eventually joined the EEC in 1973, the price of butter skyrocketed almost overnight and almost quadrupled in the first five years, according to the BBC in 2016.
General de Gaulle’s words were echoed by former Labour MP Tony Benn, who campaigned for Britain to leave the EEC in the 1975 referendum.
Mr Benn blamed the bloc for the rise in food prices, warning in a leaflet: “The price of butter has to be almost doubled by 1978 if we stay in.”
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It claimed that the EEC, through the Common Agricultural Policy, forced Britain to buy food from other member states, effectively banning the import of cheap butter from New Zealand.
Although it is debated whether the EEC was entirely to blame for the rise in food prices, the correlation is compelling.
Mr Benn said during a debate with Labour MP Roy Jenkins: “We have butter mountains and beef mountains because the Common Agricultural Policy was developed to benefit the French and if you read de Gaulle’s famous veto speech, he said the CAP would be a crushing burden on the British economy.”
General de Gaulle also argued that the UK would be “isolated” within the EEC’s “costly regime”.
He asked: “How can it not not seen that the very situation of the pound sterling prevents the Common Market from incorporating Britain?”
These comments came around six months before he denied the UK’s application for a second time, dashing the hopes of then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
It was four years after his first veto, when Harold Macmillan’s application was dismissed amid claims that the UK was too different to the continent and too insular to join.
General de Gaulle, whose words reflect those in the UK who favour a nation outside the EU where it can control its own laws and economy, insisted that Britain was separate in “nature, structure and the very situation”.
On this side of the Channel, there were many at the time who agreed that the UK’s relationship with the Commonwealth was deeper and more important.
Liberal Party’s Jeremy Thorpe, Conservative Party’s Edward Heath and Labour Party’s Roy Jenkins
In 1951, the Labour Party’s “European Unity” pamphlet argued that: “In every respect except distance, we in Britain are closer to our kinsmen in Australia and New Zealand on the far side of the world, than we are to Europe.”
When Edward Heath successfully negotiated the UK’s entry into the EEC in 1972, the Queen’s Christmas message recognised the concern across the country that the government was choosing Europe over the Commonwealth.
The monarch, as head of the Commonwealth, sought to reassure the public that the new relationship would not replace the old, but that the UK would bring Commonwealth links to the bloc.
She told the nation: “Britain is about to join her neighbours in the European Community and you may well ask how this will affect the Commonwealth.
“The new links with Europe will not replace those with the Commonwealth; they will not alter our historical and personal attachments with kinsmen and friends overseas.
“Our friends will not be lost; Britain will take her Commonwealth links into Europe with her.”