An examination of British policy with regard to European Unity during the period 1945 to 1949: Why did Britain did Britain diverge from the emerging European Community and was it justified in doing so?

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An examination of British policy with regard to European Unity during the period 1945 to 1949: Why did Britain did Britain diverge from the emerging European Community and was it justified in doing so?

British policy towards Europe has been described as half-hearted and even compared to “haphazard meanderings” (Dell, 1995: 69) since 1948. In many ways British policy was unclear and confusing during the immediate post war period. During 1946 and 1947 Britain appeared to be a strong advocate of European unity; indeed it was a leader of Western Europe and generally assumed that Britain would continue to play such a role. It was Churchill who’s request for "a kind of United States of Europe" during his 1946 speech in Zurich, whom not only sent out a positive message regarding union within Europe but was also one of the founding father’s of the concept. During this time "Britain was regarded as the leader of Western Europe" (Croft, 1988: 617).  Britain had come out of the war relatively unscathed and was considered the strongest European nation during this time. Having attained wartime prestige and maintained political strength Britain had "placed herself in the vanguard of the movement to achieve European Unity". Newman potently displays her assets: "She could have played a determining role in shaping the institutional form of a new community" and "others would have followed her" (Newman, 1996: 6).

In-spite of this, British Policy was however, to take a significant leap away from European unity. From mid 1948 Britain began to put up resistance against proposals for a Council of Europe in 1949 and rejected notions of pooled economic sovereignty proposed by the OEEC. These years are of great importance as they set in motion the culminating events in 1951 when Robert Schuman’s plans for a free market coal and steel industry were rejected out right. Thus its is evident that Britain had shifted it’s position of power in Europe utterly. Not only had Britain lost an opportunity to lead Europe, but following the Schuman doctrine  "their place in future political developments" (Croft, 1988: 617). Thus is outlined the general sequence of events regarding British policy and its reaction to conceptions of European Unity.

This period of policy was so important as it shaped and molded British/European relations to come. Indeed, abstaining from Europe during these years cited, had the considerable ramification of a belated entry to the European Economic Community; A community that Britain would not join until 1973 under the governance of Edward Heath. This was a delayed entry that was to cost Britain the loss of potentially significant economic gain.  The consequences of Britain’s decision to opt out of European unity plans were extensive; hindsight tells us this. However what the essay seeks to underpin is the events, reasons and justification behind Britain’s decision to ‘go it alone’ and seek a future without partaking in a broad European union.


a) The first half of the essay will delineate British policy towards European Unity. This will be answered initially with reference to the years of 1945 to mid 1948. This period will be cited to highlight that Britain has not always been in opposition to Western European integration. Following this British foreign policy from the period of mid 1948 to 1949 will be delineated and discussed. This was when notions of Britain as an ‘awkward partner’ emerged and the point from which Britain diverged from the European union ideal. The essay will refer to events leading up to the creation of a Council of Europe and the OEEC. These progressions will be cited as evidence of an increasingly isolationist British stance with regard to European Unity. In such fashion this phase of the essay will outline the extent to which the concept of ‘unity’ was rejected and abstained from.  

b) Having outlined and discussed events of the post war period, the reasons behind British policy can next be established. This will form this main part of the essay. The extent to which the 1945-1951 Labour government’s anti-European Unification stance was warranted will be viewed and the major explanations of an isolationist British policy, outlined. The essay will refer to Labour’s socialist principles and commitments, the relationship with the Commonwealth, and the argument that Britain still viewed its self as on of the ‘Big Three’ pillars of global power. These facets will be cited as the prime reasons for British policy during these years.

The Labour government will be criticized with regard to its decision to abstain from Europe. The extent to which British policy was justified and right to adopt an increasingly peripheral and obtrusive role with regard to policy on economic and political European integration will be assessed.

a)1945-1947: Britain’s immediate post war foreign policy

The driving force at the heart of Britain's foreign policy during this period was the Cold War. Britain feared the encroachment of communism into central Europe and as Pilkington (2001) notes there was reason for this fear. An outbreak of civil war in Greece, the Berlin blockade as well as the coup d'etat against Jan Masaryk in Czechoslovakia and the upsurge of communist parties in Italy could all be cited as evidence of an impending Soviet and communist threat to the West (Pilkington, 2001). In light of the Soviet threat Britain sought "European states to provide collective security against the preponderance of power possessed by the Soviet Union" (Croft, 1988: 619). For Bevin and Churchill alike Europe needed to form union in order to quash Soviet menace and overt Europe from the threat of a third and this time atomic World War. British policy was stern; "Europe must unite or perish" (Attlee, date in Shlaim, 1978). Thus it is evident that for Britain "union was fundamentally a Cold War concept" (Croft, 1988: 619). Only in unity could Western Europe "stem the further encroachment of a soviet tide" (Croft, 1988: 620) and it is to this end that British policy was targeted (Croft, 1988).

The first step towards the building of a Western Union Bloc was evident on 4 March 1947 when the Anglo-French treaty of Dunkirk was signed. Alliance between Britain and France was established and ensured that each country would help the other out if needed. By pooling common resources the two powerhouse nations of Europe could create stability. More over France was protected from the prospect of a German offensive. Following these developments manifested the signing of the Brussels treaty in March 1948. The treaty was born from debates in the House of Commons and thus was the brainchild of an assertive, pro-active British policy that was shaping the way for the future of Europe. The treaty of Brussels brought together countries of Britain, France, The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg in mutual consolidation over an unstable Europe. Such are the origins of European Unity and Britain’s central part in it (Pilkington, 1995).

Economic suability was seen as a fundamental pre-requisite for staving off the Soviet threat. In March 1947 Britain sought America's financial aid and political endorsement of its peacekeeping aims. Truman pledged full support, which manifested in the proposal of the Marshal plan; a plan aimed initially at securing economic stability in the eight non-communist European nations in order that the 'communist creep' would be stemmed.  As Newman notes the "US involvement ... was essential to both for the economic recovery and security of Europe" (Newman, 1997: 9). The fact that Britain had brought about US involvement therefore further highlights the notion that Britain was playing a decisive role in the 'building' of Europe. The government too was decisive in signing such protective and stabilizing mechanisms as the OEEC and the North Atlantic Treaty. Both of which further pooled together Western Union and US commitments for stability and security (Pilkington, 2001).

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The evidence thus far supports Newman’s claim that Britain had placed herself  "in the vanguard of the movement to achieve European unity" (Newman, 1997: 6). This was the nature of British policy during this immediate post war period. Having thus far taken charge it was generally assumed that the United Kingdom would grasp the opportunity to play a continued domineering roll in an increasingly unified Europe. This was not to be the case.

With regard to the pro-active nature of British foreign policy at this time, one important consideration must be taken into account. Croft notes that "it ...

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