anti-brexit second chance BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

A Second Chance for Britain

In 1950, the British reacted with a mixture of horror and disdain to the proposed European Coal and Steel Community, suspecting a French plot to lure a pragmatic people into some utopian foreign project. The basic arguments against “Europe” have not changed at all since then, unlike the consequences of acting on them.

NEW YORK – On May 9, 1950, when European countries were just beginning to emerge from the ruins of war, the French statesman Robert Schuman announced his plan to create the European Coal and Steel Community. By pooling these vital war materials under a common European authority, violent conflict between France and Germany would become unthinkable. The Germans were delighted. The Benelux countries and Italy would take part as well. A first step toward a European union had been taken. Shortly after Schuman’s announcement, the British were invited to join in the discussions.

They reacted with a mixture of horror and disdain, suspecting a French plot to lure a pragmatic people into some utopian foreign project. The Labour Party, then in power in Britain, couldn’t imagine sharing sovereignty over the United Kingdom’s vital industries. And Conservatives failed to see how a global power could possibly be part of such a narrow European club. It was all very well for the Continentals to band together. But Britannia would continue to rule the waves, together with the other English-speaking peoples in the Commonwealth and the United States.

It is easy, in hindsight, to mock the British for missing the European boat with such blithe arrogance. But it is at least understandable. After all, the British with their proud democracy had stood alone against Hitler’s Germany and helped to free the European countries that had surrendered to the Nazis. One cannot really blame them for feeling a trifle superior.

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