Charles de Gaulle: Why the EU and UK Will Never Understand Each Other


Divorce can be a messy and expensive business. In the same way that people don’t get married with the intention of filing a divorce, I’m convinced that the UK didn’t initially join the EU (or European Economic Community, as it then was), in order to cause chaos and leave it. However, at least one notable statesman would sharply disagree with me, if he were alive today.


“Non, c’est non!”

French president Charles de Gaulle was vehemently opposed to the UK joining the EEC, and vetoed the UK’s application for membership no less than 3 times. Amidst the chaos surrounding the impending Brexit, I want to find out why de Gaulle was so stubbornly opposed to the UK joining “le Club”, and maybe more importantly, if de Gaulle was a visionary.

Well, there’s no better way to find out what he said that to actually watch him on YouTube. The videos I found are in French of course and, as there were no subtitles, I’ve not posted them. So you’ll have to trust me on this one. But don’t forget that “je suis Français”, and I assure you that the quotes are exactly what he said.

It’s quite interesting to relate what de Gaulle said at the time (1963 to 1967) to what is happening now, and going to happen in 2017. His basic argument is that the UK and the EEC are like chalk and cheese, and are, to all intents and purposes, incompatible.

The nature, structure and conjuncture characterising the UK differs profoundly from that of the Continentals.”

Basically, what de Gaulle said is that there was no place for the UK in the common market due to fundamental differences in the way the UK functioned, compared to the 6 member countries (France, West Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries). How could the UK possibly join the common market whilst, at the same time, importing cheap lamb from New Zealand and subsidising its farmers? The answer was a categorical “NON”. No is no, and there’s nothing “UKan” do about it. Apart from joining in 1973, that is.

De Gaulle goes on to severely criticise the UK which he describes as “inward looking” and “maritime” nation, preferring to trade with North and South America, and its former colonies, rather than Continental Europe. What is there to add? Good point Charlie, we’re not called the British Isles for nothing. And, as for trade, that’s probably what it’s going to be like after Brexit is done and dusted. Harsh words all the same, from a man who enjoyed the relative freedom of London during the war. When I listen to him, I must say that I feel more British than French. For de Gaulle though, what’s past is “passé” and now only the future counts. And it’s a future without the Brits. He even becomes sarcastic when evoking the UK’s persistence in applying for EEC membership ASAP and at any cost.


A five act tragedy

For Charles de Gaulle, the UK’s attitude towards the 6 founding members of the EEC was nothing short of dramatic. A drama in 5 acts that was impossible to follow due to the erratic and illogical behaviour of its main protagonist. From refusing to participate in the founding Treaty of Rome in Act I, Act II saw the UK denouncing preferential EEC tariffs, trying to impose its own conditions for membership in Act III, favouring the Commonwealth over the EEC in Act IV, only to unconditionally “surrender” to EEC membership demands by Act V.

“Why would you want to negotiate clauses if you have completely accepted them in advance?” 

Why indeed, Sir. It’s a bit like now wanting to “negotiate” Brexit having already refused to accept free movement of people. How little has changed.


A monumental exception

I must be fair to de Gaulle and say that he did make valid points when referring to the fact that the UK’s very weak economy would have to change radically to be able to “fit in” with the other member countries. A permanent trade deficit, a weak currency, exchange controls, and absence of free movement of capital. Together with archaic UK employment laws, these were just a few of the problems that the UK faced at the time. To be able to adapt to the emerging “new world order”, the UK would have to change so radically, that it would probably be in danger of losing its identity. In any case, according to de Gaulle, the UK wouldn’t even be able to pay its share of the EEC contribution fee.

“The UK could not change these facts without modifying its nature….If UK membership were imposed, it would lead to the break up of the community based on rules that cannot support such a monumental exception.”

For Charles de Gaulle, the UK’s political, economic and social policies were not compatible with the construction of the European Community.

“The Community could not support the introduction of a major member who, because of its currency, its economy and its politics, is not, at present, part of the Europe that we have started to build.”

Who is to say that he was no visionary? And who’s to blame for it all going wrong in the first place?

In 1967, President Charles de Gaulle did not want the UK to join the common market. He had severe reservations about the UK’s economic situation and its ability to adapt.

In 2016, Theresa May has made it clear that article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty will be triggered. “Reverse” negotiations are to begin, with the UK, as in 1967, already having decided its position, and the EU not prepared to compromise. This time round, however, the problem is not free circulation of capital and economics, but free movement of individuals. This is a much more serious situation to be in, and is an entirely different ball game.