John Keiger John Keiger

France and Brexit: lessons from history

Almost 50 years before Brexit, there was a ‘Frexit’: France shocked her allies in March 1966 by giving notice of her withdrawal from an international community of largely European states (plus the USA and Canada), of which she had been a member for 17 years, on the grounds that she wished to regain her national sovereignty. French withdrawal from the integrated military command of NATO was complete within two years. Though France remained a member of the Atlantic Council and subsequently negotiated a continued role in certain NATO institutions, she left the all important collective military command which France’s president General de Gaulle claimed bridled her independence and her ability to play a world role. He was particularly hostile to NATO’s strategy of ever-increasing integration.

The similarities and differences between this early ‘Frexit’ and future Brexit are instructive. France and Britain are two very similar medium-sized powers in terms of population (66 million), economy (5th or 6th world-ranking GDP), international power (permanent members of UN security council, G7, G20), military power and force projection (NATO nuclear powers with similar defence expenditure), and with comparable imperial histories. Of all the European states they are arguably the two with the most heightened sense of national sovereignty. And yet they choose to allow limits to be placed on that sovereignty by supranational bodies for dissimilar reasons.

France has been happy to see her national sovereignty subsumed in the European Union’s supranational institutions because she perceives them as a force multiplier for her economy — which has rarely cherished free trade — and for her foreign and defence policy, affording her greater world-wide influence. But NATO, after General de Gaulle’s return as head of state after 1958, was seen by contrast as a force reducer because of the limits placed on her collectivised military assets by the dominance of the Anglo-Americans

Britain, by contrast, has always been willing to see her national sovereignty and independence limited by membership of NATO and her ‘special relationship’ with the US, because, in London’s view, they allow her to punch above her weight on the international scene at reduced cost. 

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