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The brief moment when Britain was at the centre of European federalism

A large crowd of young English soldiers cheering as they wait to leave for France during the Second World War - Credit: Corbis via Getty Images

JAMES DUNNE looks back on a brief moment in British history where the country was at the forefront of pro-European federalism

Following the outbreak of the Second World War, a wave of pro-European, federalist sentiment swept the United Kingdom. While the popular movement of that period is now largely forgotten in 
Britain, its leaders’ writings shaped the views of the European Union’s post-war founders.

On June 16, 1940, the British cabinet made a famous offer to the French government: An indissoluble union of the United Kingdom and the French Republic, effective immediately. The offer came too late. A not-yet-famous general de Gaulle telephoned it over to Bordeaux, to a prime minister whose government was dispersed and in flight from advancing enemy forces. The following day, a new French government sought an armistice with Germany.

Mythologies of the Second World War loom large in the Brexit debate. The contemporary British public is regularly reminded that they are the inheritors of an island nation with form for standing alone in adversity. Viewed from 2019, the principled isolation of the early war years may seem glorious. For contemporaries it was a regrettable reality, from which they sought escape.

The proposed Declaration of Union with France is evidence of the clear understanding, among politicians and policy-makers, that isolation, far from being glorious, was an uncertain and dangerous state, in which the threat to the United Kingdom was existential.

The proposal of June 1940 is generally interpreted as a last, desperate throw of the dice – an attempt to keep France, even a France with a government-in-exile and without territory on the European mainland, in the war. Yet the idea of federal union was not plucked out of thin air. When Churchill put the proposal to the coalition war cabinet, he was surprised by the broad consensus in support.

That support reflected the debates of the previous year, in which federal union had been the subject of vigorous discussion, had generated new organisations with popular support, and had become a cause célèbre among leading public figures. As John Pinder, the late British historian, noted, Churchill had “underestimated the hold that the federal idea by then had on people’s minds”. From the outbreak of war until the fall of France, Britain became the leading hub of thinking and writing on European federalism. Faced with the failure of the League of Nations to prevent the second continental war in a generation, British thinkers and writers turned to the question of war aims, and to planning a post-war world where a third such catastrophe could be prevented. In so doing, they did not seek refuge in Britain’s colonies and dominions, nor in reliance on a transatlantic alliance with the United States. That was to come later, but in the early phases of the war, it was the idea of a European federation, with Britain at the centre, that gathered the strongest support.

Dreams of a European federation were not new. In the 1920s, it was a matter of serious consideration for continental intellectuals, among them the charismatic Austrian-Japanese Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, whose calls for what he called “Pan-Europa” generated a campaign organisation with chapters across Europe, and counted among its members Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein, and Sigmund Freud. By 1929, one of its members, Aristide Briand, then serving as the French foreign minister, even made a formal proposal for European political federation to his colleagues at the League of Nations.

The spread of fascist and authoritarian regimes in the 1930s put paid to the dreams of Pan-Europa, which had, in any case, been ambiguous on the role of Britain. British federalists of the inter-war years, prominent among them Lord Lothian, shared this reluctance to engage in schemes of European federation. Lothian, who had acted as Lloyd George’s private secretary during the Paris peace conference at the end of the First World War, represented the dominant strand of British federalist opinion, in imagining that the British empire would be best reorganised along federal lines. The continental Europeans might form their own federation; indeed, that would be desirable. But Britain had its own interests to attend to.

By the late 1930s, the spectre of another war challenged such assumptions. Once more, the British public had to confront the reality of their involvement in European politics, whether they liked it or not.

From September 1939, a slew of press articles in Britain critiqued the very idea of state sovereignty. The concept of national sovereignty, today the declared objective of the pro-Brexit cause, was roundly condemned as incompatible with peace. For contemporaries, the impotence of the League of Nations, an international organisation in which no sovereignty had been pooled, and which required unanimity among its members to take action, offered the final proof of sovereignty’s danger.

In was in this environment that, in November 1938, three young British graduates founded Federal Union, an organisation committed to European federation. By June 1940, when the British cabinet made their offer to France, Federal Union had 225 local branches around the country, with 
over 12,000 subscribed members. Its regular meetings, held in towns and 
cities across Britain, regularly attracted several thousands, and The Case for Federal Union, a book published in autumn 1939, sold 100,000 copies in six months.

Aside from its popular movement, Federal Union also launched a research institute at Oxford, led by William Beveridge, who later created the blueprint for the post-war welfare state. The Institute created detailed proposals for a federation of European democracies, envisaging an initial union of Britain with France and a post-war democratic Germany, together with a collection of smaller democracies on the continent.

In the months after war broke out, as Britain’s political parties sought to articulate what they were fighting for, these ideas became common currency in the search for a more peaceful future. Addressing a meeting of the Labour Party in November 1939, Clement Attlee declared that “Europe must federate or perish”. By June 1940, he was among those Cabinet members who gave enthusiastic support to the proposal for an immediate union with France.

Attlee’s words reflect the tenor of the debate in 1939-40. For the British at war, the idea of a European federal state was not something foreign to British tradition, or a threat to the United Kingdom’s democratic institutions. It had become a necessary condition of survival, and Britain, they hoped, would lead the way in building a federal union of Europe’s democracies.

After France fell, the conversation changed. With the continent occupied by the enemy, there were few partners left with whom to contemplate federation. Yet while Britain’s focus shifted, across the Atlantic and to the Empire, and the vast body of British federalist literature was largely forgotten at home, its influence elsewhere only grew.

The initiative in federalist thought shifted to resistance groups across Europe, which began to plan for a post-war future. Key to such plans were Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi, imprisoned on the Italian island of Ventotene, from where they issued a manifesto now regarded as a founding document of the European Union. Spinelli, who later served in both the European Commission and parliament and played a crucial role in setting up the Community institutions, explained the inspiration he gleaned from “the polished, precise and anti-doctrinaire thought of the English federalists”, whose books he received while in prison from Luigi Einaudi, an economics professor who later became president of Italy.

British governments may have opted out of the early moves towards European integration in the 1950s, but the inspiration of British federalists had played its part in the historic departure to a new Europe.

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