Well, it’s now well-blogged that in September, 1956, the French Prime Minister Guy Mollet made an offer of a union between France and Britain to the then PM, Anthony Eden. General reaction has been a mix of shock and amusement, rather like the disclosure of John Major’s affair with Edwina Currie. But was it really that strange?
British political discourse now uses the word “Suez” and the year 1956 as a signifier for not joining the EEC and a lot of things besides – imperialism, militarism, subservience to the US, sexual repression, governmental botching and more. As always when the national processes of mythogenesis get to work, any content of meaning has long since been painted shut like a window in a defunded schoolroom.
But in 1956, it wasn’t all that weird..
After all, Eden had taken part in the desperate discussions about union immediately before the French capitulation in June, 1940. But far more importantly, looking forward from mid-1956 would have shown a broad trend towards integration. Starting with the Anglo-French Treaty of Dunkirk, there followed the Council of Europe, then the Organisation of European Economic Cooperation (the future OECD) set up to manage Marshall aid, the European Payments Union set up to get the banking system functioning again, and NATO.
There was also Benelux and the European Coal and Steel Community. The UK didn’t join this last for fear it would turn out to be a capitalist trojan horse aimed at the National Coal Board. There was the proposed European Defence Community of 1954, which failed to be ratified by the French National Assembly. As Mollet and Eden spoke, British representatives were heading for the Messina conference to discuss the proposed EEC. The rejections were still in the clean future.
Not just that, but Jean Monnet, the tireless anti-nationalist gadfly, businessman, and wartime bureaucrat, was at the peak of his influence. Having run Anglo-French economic coordination in the First World War, he had been one of the instigators of the 1940 proposal, and now he was the director of the Commissariat du Plan, the powerful government agency that ran the indicative planning system invented to drive French postwar reconstruction. He knew both men.
Some of the apparent hurdles weren’t all that much – the Queen, for example. By 1956 the Commonwealth included more than one republic, so that could be fudged. For the rest, what of it? Free trade, integrated postal, banking, telecoms systems, a military alliance, free movement, common citizenship, reciprocal social security, a fashion for living in each other’s capitals…what strikes me is that the crazy notion of 1956 has actually been implemented.