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).
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.)
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 Despair, Hillsdale 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.”
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.”