On June 16, 1940, with Nazi Germany on the brink of crushing France, British prime minister Winston Churchill and French undersecretary of defense Charles de Gaulle met for lunch at the Carlton Club in London. These two great symbols of patriotism and national independence made an incredible agreement: Britain and France should be united into a single country called the “Franco-British Union.”
This was just two weeks after British and French troops were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk, where they had become surrounded by German troops—a story captured in the new Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk. Although that battle story is fairly well known, the accompanying political drama that almost saw Britain and France merge is now largely forgotten. But the drama of that near-fusion can help explain the origins of European integration—and the reasons why Britain ultimately pulled away from the European Union in the decision we know as Brexit.
(…) On June 14, German troops entered Paris. During the next 48 hours, British and French civil servants drafted a proposal for a “Declaration on Franco-British Union.” This was no beefed-up wartime alliance, or a plan for partial integration similar to today’s European Union. The goal was to effectively create one country. The document stated: “At this most fateful moment in the history of the modern world, the Governments of the United Kingdom and the French Republic make this declaration of indissoluble union and unyielding resolution in their common defense of justice and freedom against subjection to a system which reduces mankind to a life of robots and slaves.” This meant: “France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations, but one Franco-British Union.”
At a stroke, hundreds of years of constitutional history would be swept away. There would be joint control of defense, foreign policy, finance, and economic policy. The two parliaments would be united, presumably with French representatives sitting in the House of Commons in London. Churchill’s private secretary said, “We had before us the bridge to a new world, the first elements of European or even World Federation.”
Events moved fast. On June 16, Churchill was personally skeptical but presented the idea to the all-party British Cabinet. He was swept along by a wave of enthusiasm. “I was somewhat surprised,” wrote Churchill, “to see the staid, solid, experienced politicians of all parties engage themselves so passionately in an immense design whose implications and consequences were not in any way thought out.” Churchill put his doubts aside and told the Cabinet, “In this crisis we must not let ourselves be accused of lack of imagination.”
(…) The scheme collapsed as quickly as it arose. In the days prior to June 16, the French government had become consumed by defeatism, as well as anger at Britain for the perceived abandonment at Dunkirk (over 100,000 French troops had been rescued but thousands more were left behind on the beach, where they were forced to surrender to the Germans). Reynaud presented the proposal to the French Council of Ministers, but it was rejected as a British plot to seize the French empire. Marshal Pétain, 84 years old and the great hero of World War I, believed it was his duty to save France from total destruction and accept an armistice with Germany. Britain was doomed, he said, and union would be “fusion with a corpse.” Another minister concluded: “Better be a Nazi province. At least we know what that means.” Reynaud later wrote in his memoirs, “Those who rose in indignation at the idea of union with our ally were the same individuals who were getting ready to bow and scrape to Hitler.”
After hearing news of the French decision, Churchill left the train “with a heavy heart.” He drove to Downing Street and got back to work. Within days, Pétain took over the French government and pursued an armistice with Germany. Britain was alone.