EU and Churchill’s Views

EU and Churchill’s Views

EU Enough! In debates about the EU (Euro­pean Union), and Britain’s June 2016 ref­er­en­dum opt­ing to leave, much mis­in­for­ma­tion was cir­cu­lat­ed on whether Churchill would be for “Brex­it” or “Remain.” The fact is, we don’t know, since no one can ask him.

Promi­nent­ly quot­ed in this con­text is a remark Churchill made to de Gaulle—at least accord­ing to de Gaulle—in Uni­ty, his 1942-44 war mem­oirs: “…each time we must choose between Europe and the open sea, we shall always choose the open sea.”

Nothing to do with the EU

War­ren Kimball’s Churchill and Roo­sevelt: The Com­plete Cor­re­spon­dence (III, 169), nice­ly clears up this quo­ta­tion. Churchill was refer­ring to de Gaulle, not to any­thing resem­bling today’s EU. He wrote to Roo­sevelt on 7 June 1944: “I think it would be a great pity if you and he [de Gaulle] did not meet. I do not see why I have all the luck.” In his remark about the “open sea,” he was crit­i­ciz­ing the intran­si­gent atti­tude of de Gaulle’s Free French, and stat­ing his inten­tion to side with Roo­sevelt. Kim­ball writes:

In a letter…to Gen­er­al Mar­shall, [Eisen­how­er] com­ment­ed that only two groups remained in France: “one is the Vichy gang, and the oth­er [is] char­ac­ter­ized by unrea­son­ing admi­ra­tion for de Gaulle.” In the orig­i­nal draft Eisen­how­er had put it even more strong­ly, assert­ing that the sec­ond group “seems almost idol­a­trous in its wor­ship of de Gaulle” (Eisen­how­er Papers, III 1867-68).

Even de Gaulle recalled the phras­es, though he sur­mised that Churchill’s pas­sion was aimed pri­mar­i­ly at the ears of his British asso­ciates: “Each time we must choose between Europe and the open sea, we shall always choose the open sea. Each time I must choose between you and Roo­sevelt, I shall always choose Roo­sevelt.” (de Gaulle, Uni­ty, 153).

More definitive…

Read­er Kevin Ruane (@KevinRuane2) direct­ed me to some­thing Churchill said which would seem more to the point. In a memo to his cab­i­net on 29 Novem­ber 1951, Churchill addressed the ques­tion of Britain  join­ing the Schu­man Plan, a sin­gle author­i­ty to con­trol the pro­duc­tion of steel and coal in France and West Ger­many, open to oth­er Euro­pean coun­tries to join:

Our atti­tude towards fur­ther eco­nom­ic devel­op­ments on the Schu­man lines resem­bles that which we adopt about the Euro­pean Army. 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. (Nation­al Archives, CAB129/48C(51)32.)

“European pensioners”

In John Charmley’s Churchill’s Grand Alliance, the above is fol­lowed by a state­ment from For­eign Sec­re­tary Antho­ny Eden: “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” (Charm­ley, 250).

On 13 Decem­ber 1951, Churchill agreed with Eden’s for­mu­la­tion. He wrote to Con­ser­v­a­tive del­e­ga­tion to the Euro­pean Con­sul­ta­tive Assem­bly. His note sug­gests that the Labour Par­ty, then as now, was gen­er­al­ly hos­tile to Britain with­in Europe. From The Churchill Doc­u­ments, Vol. 31, 1951-1965, forth­com­ing from Hills­dale Col­lege Press, 2019…

We seem in fact to have suc­cumbed to the Social­ist Par­ty hos­til­i­ty to Unit­ed Europe. I take the full blame because I did not feel able either to go there myself or send a mes­sage. You know my views about the par­tic­u­lar kind of Euro­pean Army into which the French are try­ing to force us. We must con­sid­er very care­ful­ly togeth­er how to deal with the cer­tain­ly unfavourable reac­tion in Amer­i­can opin­ion. They would like us to fall into the gen­er­al line of Euro­pean pen­sion­ers which we have no inten­tion of doing.

Churchill’s 1951 state­ments clear­ly arrays him against Britain join­ing a “fed­er­al sys­tem.” But what kind of sys­tem? The con­cepts and forms of 1951 are not those of today.  It may tempt­ing and even sup­port­ing to sug­gest this proves Churchill would be pro-Brex­it. But it is not dis­pos­i­tive. Nei­ther Europe nor the British Com­mon­wealth are what they were then.

Again on 11 May 1953 Churchill told the House of Com­mons: “We are not mem­bers of the Euro­pean Defence Com­mu­ni­ty, nor do we intend to be merged in a fed­er­al Euro­pean sys­tem. We feel we have a spe­cial rela­tion­ship to both.”

Then is not now

Let’s also clear up the sto­ry bandied about by the oth­er side of the EU debate, from Field Mar­shal Mont­gomery, who wrote that Churchill in 1962 was “protest­ing against Britain’s pro­posed entry into the Com­mon Mar­ket” (then the EEC, pre­de­ces­sor to the EU). Montgomery’s state­ment not only took advan­tage of a pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion with an old and ail­ing friend; it also mis­rep­re­sent­ed Churchill’s views. Sir Winston’s daugh­ter Lady Soames wrote: “What I remem­ber clear­ly is that not only my father, but all of us—particularly my mother—were out­raged by Monty’s behav­iour, and he was round­ly rebuked.” (For more detail see Mar­tin Gilbert, Win­ston S. Churchill, vol. 8, Nev­er DespairHills­dale Col­lege Press, 2013, 1337.)

* * *

In his mem­oir, Long Sun­set, Sir Winston’s long­time pri­vate sec­re­tary Sir Antho­ny Mon­tague Browne wrote that Mont­gomery, while not entire­ly invent­ing Churchill’s remark, was seri­ous­ly mis­in­ter­pret­ing the old man’s opin­ion. Con­sult­ing no one, Mon­tague Browne imme­di­ate­ly released to the press a state­ment of Churchill’s views on the sub­ject in a pri­vate, unpub­lished let­ter to his Wood­ford con­stituen­cy chair­man, Mrs. Moss, in August 1961.” Extract­ing from Churchill’s state­ment, on pages 273-74 of Long Sun­set:

For many years, I have believed that mea­sures to pro­mote Euro­pean uni­ty were ulti­mate­ly essen­tial to the well-being of the West. In a speech at Zurich in 1946, I urged the cre­ation of the Euro­pean Fam­i­ly, and I am some­times giv­en cred­it for stim­u­lat­ing the ideals of Euro­pean uni­ty which led to the for­ma­tion of the eco­nom­ic and the oth­er two com­mu­ni­ties. In the after­math of the Sec­ond World War, the key to these endeav­ours lay in part­ner­ship between France and Germany.

…They, togeth­er with Italy, Bel­gium, Hol­land and Lux­em­bourg, are weld­ing them­selves into an organ­ic whole, stronger and more dynam­ic than the sum of its parts. We might well play a great part in these devel­op­ments to the prof­it not only of our­selves, but of our Euro­pean friends also…. I think that the Gov­ern­ment are right to apply to join the Euro­pean Eco­nom­ic Com­mu­ni­ty, not because I am yet con­vinced that we shall be able to join, but because there appears to be no oth­er way by which we can find out exact­ly whether the con­di­tions of mem­ber­ship are acceptable.


Mon­tague Browne admit­ted that this was “a fence-sit­ting let­ter,” with fair­ly mild opin­ions. But it “took the heat off and paci­fied” both the Euro-skep­tics and the Euro-enthu­si­asts. “Now the whole sce­nario is so out of date as to ren­der the let­ter irrelevant….”

Churchill held more stock in the “Spe­cial Rela­tion­ship” with the Unit­ed States than what was then the Euro­pean Com­mu­ni­ty, Sir Antho­ny said, but he did not think they were mutu­al­ly exclu­sive: “More­over, the British Com­mon­wealth, or at least the old Com­mon­wealth, was not then the cha­rade it has now become….If Britain had tak­en the ini­tia­tive before the Treaty of Rome in 1957 things might have been different.”

Futile speculation

In fair­ness, it has been point­ed out to me by a respect­ed his­to­ri­an that Mont­gomery was telling the truth. But Churchill’s remarks were about the EEC, not the EU, or any­thing like it. Thus, on the mat­ter of Britain remain­ing in or leav­ing the EU, they are non-sequitur.

These pas­sages rep­re­sent Churchill’s ulti­mate views on Euro­pean Uni­ty, or Union. The EEC began as a free trade agree­ment, pro­vid­ing prac­ti­cal and benif­i­cent com­mer­cial arrange­ments for mem­ber nations. It has mor­phed into some­thing entire­ly dif­fer­ent. The British elec­torate vot­ed accorcdingly.

So let’s stop all this futile spec­u­la­tion over how Win­ston Churchill would view the Brex­it debate. That was then, this is now. It is impos­si­ble to know how today’s choic­es before Great Britain vis-à-vis the Euro­pean Union would be viewed by Churchill. And to quote Sir Antho­ny: “improp­er use should not be made of him.”

2 thoughts on “EU and Churchill’s Views

  1. Reply­ing to Car­ol Haley (below): That was nev­er said by Jean Mon­net, but by Antho­ny Hilton in his book The Prin­ci­pal­i­ty and Pow­er of Europe, pub­lished in 1997. The author him­self admits the quote is fake. 

  2. Think you will find that the EU or rather Fed­er­al Euro­pean States has always been the ulti­mate goal. In the words one of the found­ing fathers, Jean Monnet …
    “Europe’s nations should be guid­ed towards the super­state with­out their peo­ple under­stand­ing what is hap­pen­ing. This can be accom­plished by suc­ces­sive steps, each dis­guised as hav­ing an eco­nom­ic pur­pose, but which will even­tu­al­ly and irre­versibly lead to federation.”

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