To hold a referendum, or plebiscite, and then ignore the result is now a European tradition, but to call this democracy is absurd.
From the start of the Brexit debate, it’s been evident that the discussion was never just about Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe. Deeper arguments concerning the supranational ambitions presently driving the European integration project are clearly in play.
One long-term influence behind efforts to establish a supranational European state are ideas articulated in Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Essay (1795). Here Kant argued for a “league of peace (foedus pacificum)” that, in the form of a “federation,” would “extend gradually over all states and thus lead to perpetual peace.” When some European politicians speak of the EU becoming an “empire of peace,” this is partly what they have in mind.
Though Kant didn’t call for a supranational authority, he plainly regarded cooperation among sovereign states as insufficient. His interest was in “a constitution establishing world citizenship.” For many Europeans, especially liberals, Social Democrats, and Greens already inclined to emphasize their links to fraternal parties in other European nations, this remains an attractive ideal.
A similar, albeit less secular, supranational vision for Europe found expression in the Christian Democratic movements which emerged after World War II. Many postwar Christian Democrats who held high office in countries like West Germany, Italy, and France wanted to blur the significance of nation-states. Rather than drawing upon Kantian ideas, they emphasized transnational links that harked back to Europe’s common religious heritage as well as theories about political order developed by the philosopher Jacques Maritain. The influential French politician Robert Schuman, for instance, was persuaded by Maritain that a supranational political community could serve as the basis for what Maritain once called “a New Christendom” in Europe.
It’s easy to understand why such ideas would have appealed to many Europeans after two world wars, the causes of which are regularly attributed to sins and errors often lazily jumbled together under the phrase “nationalism.” But more than high ideals were—and are—at work. Trends towards supranationalizing European politics, for instance, have allowed Germany to exert soft power throughout the continent in ways that would have been more difficult prior to the European Economic Community’s formation in 1958. More generally, appeals to “higher European interests” regularly allow European politicians to sideline national electorates’ wishes.
Few Europeans understood these raw power dynamics but also the deeper forces at work better than Charles de Gaulle. His approach to Europe was unquestionably marked by a desire to advance France’s national interests. When de Gaulle said “Europe,” Britain’s Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once remarked, he really meant “France.” Yet the accuracy of that observation should not blind us to another truth: that de Gaulle’s ambitions for postwar Europe were undergirded by his commitment to a Europe des patries which embodied an in-principle rejection of supranationalism.
Essence Trumps Technique
In a 1962 press conference, de Gaulle denied ever using the expression “Europe des patries.” Nonetheless, he never disputed that it embodied much of his thinking about Europe’s future. Not only did de Gaulle regard his attitude towards Europe as more cognizant of political realities than supranational schemes driven from the top-down, but his alternative for Europe was, de Gaulle believed, truer to Europe’s nature as a distinct civilization whose uniqueness was partly captured by the fact that it consisted of different peoples.
De Gaulle was instinctively wary of those who thought about Europe largely in technocratic terms. Though he eschewed the dangerous politics of blood-and-soil, de Gaulle regarded nations as real cultural entities with specific characteristics, habits, and temptations. These features went far beyond the vague appeals to “diversity,” “tolerance,” and “openness” uttered by most contemporary European politicians whenever asked to define European identity.
Attempts to distance peoples completely from their national cultures, de Gaulle maintained, were bound to produce profound internal dissonance and highly artificial political constructs. This was one reason why he opposed an integrated Europe directed by and presided over by a vast administrative state that sought to neutralize national sovereignty. De Gaulle wasn’t inherently hostile to nations adopting European-wide policies or even establishing institutions with pan-European remits. In some instances, he thought they could help realize legitimately trans-European concerns. De Gaulle insisted, however, that such policies and institutions should be directed by Europe’s nation-states—not the other way around.
De Gaulle’s concern was that political decisions affecting Europe should be made primarily by national leaders attached to national realities as they sought to negotiate outcomes that would first benefit their nations and thereby Europe as a whole. No doubt, this demanded a degree of statesmanship which (de Gaulle would undoubtedly agree!) was probably beyond most national leaders. But to refer to “Europe” as a political entity without more-or-less immediately speaking about European nations risked, from de Gaulle’s standpoint, precipitating a slide into a highly technocratic conception of Europe: one which viewed the differences between European peoples which reflect the rich tapestry of European culture as atavisms that obstructed the realization of perpetual peace and an apolitical empire ruled by largely unaccountable bureaucrats.
Sovereignty as Independence
Central to de Gaulle’s thoughts about these matters was the concept of sovereignty, particularly its connection to the idea of independence. This emerged in his conflict with the first President of the European Commission, the Christian Democrat politician and German lawyer Walter Hallstein—a dispute which eventually resulted in Hallstein leaving his position in 1967.
De Gaulle’s unhappiness with Hallstein involved issues ranging from disagreements about the Common Agricultural Policy to whether Britain should join the EEC. But these were proxies for de Gaulle’s opposition to Hallstein’s desire to realize a United States of Europe. As he wrote in his Mémoires d’Espoir:
Hallstein was ardently wedded to the thesis of the super-State, and bent all his skillful efforts towards giving the Community the character and appearance of one. He had made Brussels . . . into a sort of capital. There he sat, surrounded with all the trappings of sovereignty, directing his colleagues, allocating jobs among them, controlling several thousand officials who were appointed, promoted and remunerated at his discretion, receiving the credentials of foreign ambassadors, laying claim to high honors on the occasion of his official visits, concerned above all to further the amalgamation of the Six, believing that the pressure of events would bring about what he envisaged.
Part of de Gaulle’s criticism of Hallstein was that his actions were constructed on false premises. For all Hallstein’s appropriation of the paraphernalia of sovereignty, the EEC couldn’t fulfil the most basic duty associated with real sovereignty. “Defense,” de Gaulle stated, “is always at the base of politics.” Back in 1954, Gaullist politicians had helped scuttle plans for a European Defense Community which would have created a pan-European defense force. For de Gaulle, a supranational European army was irreconcilable with France’s independence and indivisibility as a sovereign-state. It was for similar reasons that he withdrew all French armed forces from NATO’s integrated military command in 1966.
Intergovernmentalism over Supranationalism
How then did de Gaulle reconcile his insistence on independent nation-states playing the dominant role in Europe with his belief that the same Europe needed political structures which reflected particularly European realities? De Gaulle’s solution was expressed in what was known as the Fouchet Plan. Proposed by France to other EEC members throughout 1961-1962, adoption of this scheme for a “Union of States” might well have prevented the EEC from lurching in supranational direction.
What’s immediately noticeable about the Fouchet Plan’s two drafts is their emphasis upon nation-states as the central decision-makers and the strictly subsidiary role of pan-European institutions. Over and over again, the drafts refer to national governments freely cooperating in the pursuit of unanimously agreed-upon European goals. The means by which this would occur was through intergovernmental meetings and structures that didn’t involve any significant pooling of national sovereignty. This is how de Gaulle’s Europe des patries was to be accomplished.
There’s little doubt that de Gaulle wanted to find institutional means to project French power throughout Europe. Shutting down creeping supranationalism was part of this objective. Indeed, the Fouchet Plan was rejected by many EEC governments precisely because they did not want to end supranational trends, were resistant to any French effort to establish hegemony in Europe, and were worried that it would undermine NATO as well as America’s presence in Europe. That said, it’s also true that de Gaulle’s intergovernmental emphasis sought to reconcile the fact of separate European nations with their own interests and specific histories with the reality that these same nations were also uniquely bound to each other by reason of culture, geography, trade, and a common philosophical and religious heritage.
Almost 60 years later, de Gaulle’s European policies are often remembered for having resulted in France twice vetoing Britain’s entrance into the EEC. De Gaulle thought that Britain would effectively function as a Trojan horse within Europe for the other, stronger Anglo-Saxon power. The irony, however, is that the implementation of de Gaulle’s Europe de patries alternative may well have removed the specter of supranationalism presently haunting Europe—a prospect which unquestionably drove many people in Britain in 2016 to vote in favor of exiting the EU.
That’s a paradox which the General would surely have appreciated.