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Brexit: vindication for de Gaulle but maybe a pyrrhic victory for British nationalism?

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Thursday, 20 February 2020

The UK's recent decision to leave the European Union (EU) has justified the 1963 position of Charles de Gaulle (repeated in 1967) to veto Britain's bid to join the then six country European Economic Community (EEC).

The UK did not sign the 1957 Treaty of Rome and predecessor agreements, that led to the establishment of the EEC.  Initial British reluctance was set aside following a subsequent decline in Britain's economic performance compared with Europe.  By the early 1960s the British Government had been simply bursting to join the Community, and its then PM, Harold Macmillan, also supported a world governance model based on key regional groupings (such as the EEC).

De Gaulle could not understand why the British wanted to join.


In his press conference of 14 January 1963, when he vetoed British entry, de Gaulle pointed out that"

England in effect is insular, she is maritime, she is linked through her exchanges, her markets, her supply lines to the most diverse and often the most distant countries; she pursues essentially industrial and commercial activities, and only slight agricultural ones.  She has in all her doings very marked and very original habits and traditions.  In short, the nature, the structure, the very situations, that are England’s, differ profoundly from those of the continentals.  What is to be done in order that England, as she lives, produces and trades, can be incorporated into the Common Market, as it has been conceived and as it functions?

De Gaulle had additional concerns about the UK's links to its Commonwealth and its special relationship with the United States.  De Gaulle said that the UK was "incompatible with Europe" and that she harboured a "deep-seated hostility" to any pan-European project.

The UK eventually talked its way into Europe after de Gaulle left the political arena.  It arguably never fully committed to the Community, though it did sacrifice the trade interests of Commonwealth countries, such as Australia and New Zealand.  The Treaty of Accession was signed in January 1972 by PM Edward Heath.

At that time the UK was expected to play a strong positive political role, lessening the rivalry between France and Germany.  The Brits seemed to do this initially but seemingly lost interest in later years.  Arguably, part of the problem for the UK was that, by joining the EU late, the timing coincided with a move within the EU for greater integration and expansion, that was to provoke internal dissent in the UK.

It did not take long for UK enthusiasm for Europe to falter.


Labour in its general election manifestos in February and October 1974 promised a renegotiation of the UK’s terms of membership followed by a referendum on the UK’s continued EEC membership on the new terms.  The referendum was targeted to appease Labour's left, led by Tony Benn.

On the other side, the Conservatives were overwhelmingly enthusiastic for staying in the Community on free trade grounds.  The main dissent on the right came from former Tory, Enoch Powell, who had just become an Ulster Unionist MP and opposed membership on sovereignty grounds.

Compared with the recent (23 June 2016) Brexit referendum, when 51.9% voted to leave, the 5 June 1975 referendum found only 32.7% wanting to leave.

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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