We should not construe, from anything Churchill did in his time, how he would react to today’s issues. But the temptation for conjecture was irresistible in the debate surrounding Britain’s 2016 decision to leave the European Union (“Brexit”). Proponents of both the “Leave” and “Remain” campaigns repeatedly alluded to Churchill’s statements, particularly in the early postwar years, as if to convey his approval or rejection of the European Union — an entity of which Churchill never conceived.
We cannot proclaim how Sir Winston would react to Brexit, though he was ardently in favor of British sovereignty. What we can do at this distance is to consider his thoughts about European unity and cooperation from an early age — and, perhaps, learn something along the way.
After the horrors of World War I, a movement arose for European unity. By the late 1930s, with Germany acquiring more and more territories to which she was not entitled, it found a parallel in what Churchill and others termed “collective security.” In 1938 Churchill penned an article, “The United States of Europe.” Any step that would make Europe more prosperous, peaceful, and free was, he wrote, “conducive to British interests.” Nothing but good lay in diminution of tariffs and armaments. Britain would support such developments.
He did, however, add a critical qualification with respect to his own country, its transatlantic relations and global responsibilities: “…we have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked, but not comprised. We are interested and associated, but not absorbed. And should European statesmen address us in the words which were used of old, ‘Wouldest thou be spoken for to the king, or the captain of the host?,’ we should reply, with the Shunammite woman: ‘I dwell among mine own people.’”
His familiarity with the Bible notwithstanding, Churchill insisted he was “not a pillar of the church but a buttress — I support it from the outside.” Such was his view toward European unity. Early in World War II he expressed his hope that when peace returned “there would be a United States of Europe, and this Island would be the link connecting this Federation with the new world and able to hold the balance between the two.”
In a 1943 conversation with U.S. Vice President Henry Wallace, Churchill imagined a postwar Europe of a dozen “states or confederations,” which might form a “European Council.” France, a key power, would stand by herself, but there might be Danubian and Balkan federations of smaller states, and the Low Countries might group themselves with Denmark. “Each of the dozen or so European countries should appoint a representative to the European Regional Council,” he told Wallace, “thus creating a form of United States of Europe.”
It is significant that Churchill here spoke of sovereign states and small federations as members of a “council,” whose functions he never defined. Nor did he include Britain, except as buttress.
During the Brexit campaign the “Leave” campaign widely circulated a wartime remark of Churchill to de Gaulle: “… each time we must choose between Europe and the open sea, we shall always choose the open sea.” The quote was accurate, but incomplete. In the very next sentence Churchill said: “Each time I must choose between you and Roosevelt, I shall always choose Roosevelt.” Clearly, he was referring not to European unity but to de Gaulle’s intransigence over Allied war strategy.
After the war, Churchill urged Europeans to adopt his maxim, “In Victory, Magnanimity.” Speaking at Zurich University in September 1946, he went further, with words he said would “astonish” his listeners. And they did:
[T]he first step in the re-creation of the European family must be a partnership between France and Germany…. There can be no revival of Europe without a spiritually great France and a spiritually great Germany. The structure of the United States of Europe, if well and truly built, will be such as to make the material strength of a single state less important. Small nations will count as much as large ones and gain their honour by their contribution to the common cause.
By 1948 there was a Congress of Europe, and Churchill addressed it at The Hague: “A high and a solemn responsibility rest upon us here this afternoon in this Congress of a Europe striving to be reborn.” His speech at Fulton, Missouri, in March 1946, was mainly remembered for bringing down the “Iron Curtain.” Yet there too, in middle-America, he reminded listeners: “The safety of the world requires a new unity in Europe, from which no nation should be permanently outcast.”
With Churchill Prime Minister again in 1951, Britain was invited to join the European Coal and Steel Community, comprising France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries — an early step toward unity. Churchill’s response reveals what he then thought about a federal Europe:
We help, we dedicate, we play a part, but we are not merged with and do not forfeit our insular or commonwealth character. Our first object is the unity and consolidation of the British Commonwealth. Our second, ‘the fraternal association’ of the English-speaking world. And third, United Europe, to which we are a separate closely and specially-related ally and friend…. It is only when plans for uniting Europe take a federal form that we ourselves cannot take part, because we cannot subordinate ourselves or the control of British policy to federal authorities.
If that wasn’t dispositive enough, Churchill later added: “I do not myself conceive that federalism is immediately possible within the Commonwealth. I have never been in favor of it in Europe….”
Again in 1953, on Britain joining the European Defense Community, Churchill said: “We are not members…nor do we intend to be merged in a federal European system. We feel we have a special relation to both. This can be expressed by prepositions, by the preposition ‘with’ but not ‘of’ — we are with them, but not of them.”
These statements were definitive at the time. It is easy to say they prove Churchill would support Brexit, but European concepts and forms of the 1950s have changed beyond anything he imagined. (Incidentally, Churchill did foresee a single currency, in 1933; but his vision was the “sterling-dollar.” Nothing like the Euro ever occurred to him.)
In 1962, when Sir Winston was 88, Field Marshal Montgomery said he was “protesting against Britain’s proposed entry” into the European Economic Community, predecessor to the EU. In the ensuing uproar his private secretary, Anthony Montague Browne, issued what he called “a fence-sitting letter”: “I think that the Government are right to apply to join because there appears to be no other way by which we can find out exactly whether the conditions of membership are acceptable.”
The EEC, a free trade community, has since morphed into something Churchill never conceived of. His repeated vision from the 1930s to the 1960s was a sovereign Britain linked to the Commonwealth and Atlantic community, with a “special relationship” to Europe. It is impossible to know how he would judge Britain’s options now. And as Sir Anthony wrote, “improper use should not be made of him.”
Mr. Langworth is Senior Fellow of the Hillsdale College Churchill Project. This article is excerpted from his book, Winston Churchill, Myth and Reality (McFarland, 240 pp.), available from Hillsdale College and from Amazon.com.