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‘We ask for Europe without executive power’

‘The European unity cannot be a monopoly of any party’, argued Winston Churchill against a concept of Europe based on a left-wing political hegemony. Churchill is remembered as one of the founding fathers of the European Union, although he did not support British participation in a federalist integration during his second term. He preached a moral message of European unity and reconciliation, but as prime minister he was a pragmatic realist who was aware of the importance of representing national interests.

There is an interesting debate about Sir Winston Churchill’s historical influence on the role he played in the creation of the European Union and the type of European unity he would have considered “salutary”. From a historical perspective, his famous speeches after the Second World War, in which he hinted at the importance of a ‘united Europe’, are considered landmark. However, as a pragmatic politician, he was concerned with British interests, and in political reality some of his manifestations were at odds with the development of a federal European political structure – and he rejected, on principle, the political appropriation of the ideological foundations of European unity. 

‘We are with Europe, but not of it

Churchill was an important figure in the initial phase of European integration

Even before Churchill, of course, there were important precursors to the idea of a ‘united Europe’, but beyond the shocks of the Second World War, the British prime minister’s programme statements were able to politically energise the ideal of a united Europe. Churchill had already addressed the idea of a united Europe in 1930, when he argued in a newspaper article that common dependence and cooperation among European nation states could bring order after the First World War.[1] ‘The conception of a United States of Europe is right. Every step taken to that end which appeases the obsolete hatred and vanished oppressions, which makes easier the traffic and reciprocal services of Europe, which encourages its nations to lay aside their precautionary panoply is good in itself, is good for them and good for all.’ And later: ‘We are bound to further every honest and practical step which the nations of Europe may make to reduce the barriers which divide them and to nourish their common interests and their common welfare. We rejoice at every diminution of the internal tariffs and martial armaments of Europe. We see nothing but good and hope in a richer, freer, more contented European commonalty. But we have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it’, wrote Churchill before the Second World War[2]. Churchill, however, took the idea of European unity from the Paneuropean movement started by Count Kalergi and from the French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand. Briand’s idea of a ‘European federation’, announced at the Genoa Congress in 1929, was not merely an ideological suggestion, but also a way of defending French interests against German ambitions. Churchill, however, applauded the idea enthusiastically, which later influenced his political ideals.[3]

The Three Kings in Yalta

Churchill became British prime minister after suffering heavy defeats in the first period of the Second World War, and had to prove his practical political skills in a difficult situation, when German military aircraft were already attacking Britain. Churchill’s role in international alliance-building was also significant, and from 1941 he attended a number of international conferences, meeting mainly Soviet and American leaders, notably Stalin and Roosevelt. He travelled to Moscow several times and held talks with Stalin, and in October 1944 Churchill attended the Fourth Moscow Conference, where the Russian and British leaders discussed the post-war political situation. At the meeting between Churchill and Stalin, the division of the European spheres of influence became an important issue, and it was here that the secret agreement (‘Percentages agreement’) was reached on the distribution of political influence over the countries of Eastern Europe in proportions, by which Churchill gave Stalin decisive influence over many countries. This political manoeuvre showed that behind the scenes Churchill was very much aware of political realities and interests. (So much so that, at least in the view of some historians, Churchill, as a kind of accomplice of Stalin, essentially betrayed Poland, for example, by refusing to acknowledge the Soviet massacre at Katyn as a war crime and by remaining silent about the fatal accident of Polish Prime Minister Władysław Sikorski in suspicious circumstances. ‘Churchill’s attitude to reality was pragmatic, not just during the war’, wrote Dierk Ludwig Schaaf.[4]

The Yalta conference in February 1945 also had an important impact on European politics after the Second World War. Yalta was attended not only by Churchill and Stalin, but also—just two months before his death—by Roosevelt, who met there as the three most prestigious world leaders, given the imminent fall of Germany. According to the recollections of one military leader, the “three kings” were most concerned with bathrooms except the military situation.[5] According to recollections, Churchill and Stalin, who met in person for the fourth time, greeted each other like old friends (‘both seemed glad to meet again, and they talked like old friends’, wrote Arthur Birse). Roosevelt was very ill at the time, which annoyed Churchill, who did not realize that Roosevelt’s medical condition was an obstacle to his political plans. Churchill’s relatively good relationship with Stalin also gave space for criticism, which he portrayed as a betrayal of Europe by the Nazi government, which was then in its final days. The German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop emphasised Churchill’s political role in a quite negative way: ‘American capitalism could swagger about the world like a lord, but what future Britain saw for herself in a situation which was merely Bolshevising Europe and increasing her own dependence on America he could not for the life of him understand’, recalled the Japanese consul Ribbentrop’s assessment.[6]

The Yalta Conference caused one other major fault line in Europe because of the the absence of the leader of the French resistance, De Gaulle, who was not invited to Yalta. De Gaulle attended only one of the major international conferences during the Second World War, with Churchill and Roosevelt, in Casablanca in 1943. For de Gaulle, this was a personal affront which he could not forgive and which made him distrustful of the American–British alliance. It was no coincidence that he later vetoed Britain’s entry into the European Union (‘the European Community’) in 1963 and 1967. In the long term, this had a significant effect on the political destiny of the Union as France rejected the concept of a British-led Europe.

 ‘Let Europe arise!

After the Second World War, Churchill made clear his support for a united Europe on several occasions, most famously in a speech at the University of Zurich: ‘We must build a kind of United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living. The process is simple’, said Churchill.[7]  ‘The structure of the United States of Europe will be such as to make the material strength of a single State less important. Small nations will count as much as large ones and gain their honour by a contribution to the common cause’, Churchill argued to the audience of students, and concluded his speech with the exclamation, ‘Let Europe arise!’

During Churchill’s second term in office (1951–1955), it was clear that the legendary British prime minister was, in fact, also primarily concerned with the British national interest. In practical politics, Churchill took a more restrained approach to European integration and saw it primarily as an economic and defensive community against global challenges, such as the threat from the Soviet Union. Churchill did not envisage a federal union of nations, so he also spoke of a ‘force (militars) of nations’, for example, in terms of a military-defence community.[8]

Churchill is thus a good example of how, after the Second World War, the dreams of European unity differed in the world of ideas and in political reality. This is also reflected in the institutional confusion that prevailed in Europe until the Treaty of Rome. 

One of the reasons for the acceleration of European integration was already indicated in Churchill’s famous 1946 speech at Fultonm in which he spoke about ‘an iron curtain [that] has descended across the Continent […]

The safety of the world requires a new unity in Europe, from which no nation should be permanently outcast’.[9]) It was therefore basically the safety of the European nations, so that a new emerging empire, the Soviet Union, could not threaten peace in Europe. The other reason was the obvious need for an economic unity in the face of the total economic collapse and infrastructural destruction caused by the Second World War. Hunger and poverty, a total breakdown in international trade and payment mechanisms, social disintegration and shock, severe damage to facilities, cultural monuments, road networks and buildings. There were basically two responses to all these problems in the context of European unity: one was the federalist approach and the other the functionalist approach. Common to both policy orientations was that the pre-1939 nation state structures were fundamentally no longer considered adequate to deal with the new problems. The important difference is that, while the functionalist reaction sought rather rational institutional solutions to existing problems without any particular ideological considerations, the federalist movements thought in terms of political proclamations, manifestos of shared values, constitutional changes and, of course, a European government at federal level.[10]

Europe ‘without executive power

Basically, two important questions have arisen in relation to Churchill’s vision of Europe: the first, which has been the subject of fierce debate in the context of the BREXIT debates, is what role did Churchill envisage for the British in a “united Europe”? The second, and perhaps more important in the context of the future of the European Union, is whether Churchill supported the building of a federal structure.

It is true that Churchill, with his verbal skills at his best, made some of the most eloquent speeches in favour of the concept of a united Europe. It is also true that he repeatedly stated that the British political leadership should support the ‘Europe movement’, whether it meant a federal or a functionalist approach. It is also true that, after the Second World War, Churchill discussed not only the breaking down of economic barriers but also, for example, the possibility of a common European currency (for example, in a January 1947 issue of Collier’s Magazine).

Nevertheless, one has to understand the period when Churchill was making historic speeches in Fulton, Zurich and The Hague (the growing Soviet threat, the search for a way forward for British policy after the loss of imperial status, the tragedy of the Franco–German confrontation, etc.). And a distinction must be made between what Churchill did, or ‘did not do’, as an opposition politician seeking political popularity, and what he did, or ‘did not do’, as prime minister, already in power—in his position as a realpolitician—in the context of European integration. 

‘The whole movement of the world is towards an inter-dependence of nations’, Churchill stated in a heated political debate years after the Second World War. If the sovereignty of nations is inviolable, how is it that individual states belong to different world organisations and that, for example, the British government worked to get financial aid from the United States? – Churchill asked. ‘It can only be justified and even tolerated because on either side of the Atlantic it is felt that inter-dependence is part of our faith and the means of our salvation. (…) we are prepared to consider, and if convinced to accept, the abrogation of national sovereignty, provided that we are satisfied with the conditions and the safeguards’[11], explained Churchill, whose statements were thus already sometimes a mixture of high-minded ideas and pragmatic conditions.

It was not only sovereignty but also the federal structure that was the subject of heated debates in the British parliament on the ‘European movement’. Churchill’s views on European federalism were often distanced and later explicitly dismissive: ‘We ask for a European assembly without executive power. (…) The structure of constitutions, the settlement of economic problems, the military aspects – these belong to governments. We do not trespass upon their sphere’[12], said Churchill in 1948, who also—importantly (!)—rejected the political appropriation of the shaping of European integration: ‘The movement towards European unity cannot be a monopoly of any party.’

The picture is even more complex if we also examine Churchill’s attitude to the process of European integration during his second term of office (1951–1955). For example, Churchill refused to allow the British to join the federalist and later failed European Defence Community and treated the other elements of the integration process unfolding under the Schuman Plan with the detachment of a pragmatic realist: ‘We help, we dedicate, we play a part, but we are not merged with and do not forfeit our insular or commonwealth character. (…) United Europe, to which we are a separate closely-and specially-related ally and friend (…) It is only when plans for uniting Europe take a federal form that we ourselves cannot take part, because we cannot subordinate ourselves or the control of British policy to federal authorities’[13], said the former British prime minister, perhaps the most popular politician of the twentieth century.


[1] Wendell R. Mauter, ‘Churchill and the Unification of Europe’, The Historian, 61/1 (1998), 67.

        Patrick Smith, Green Meadows (London: Print House, 1989), 173, www.elibguide.edrt8.doc, accessed 1 May 2021

[2] Hardev Singh Chopra, De Gaulle and European Unity ( New Delhi: Abhinav Publications,1974), 166.

[3] Felix Klos, Churchill’s Last Stand: The Struggle to Unite Europe. (London – New York: I.B. Tauris, 2018) 22.

[4] Dierk Ludwig Schaaf, Der vertuschte Verrat – Churchill, Stalin und der Tod Sikorskis (Osnabrück:Fibre, 2013) 212.

[5] Diana Preston, Eight Days at Yalta. How Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin Shaped the Post-war World (London: Picador, 2019) 137.

[6] Fraser J. Harbutt, Yalta 1945: Europe and America at the Crossroads (New York: Cambridge, 2010) 335.

[7] Winston Churchill, ’speech delivered at the University of Zurich, 19 September 1946. https://rm.coe.int/16806981f3, accessed 14 Dec. 2021.

[8] John W. Young, ‘Churchill’s “No” to Europe: The ‘Rejection’ of European Union by Churchill’s Post-War Government, 1951-1952, The Historical Journal, 28/4 (1985), 924.

[9] Text of speech given by Churchill at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri in which he first used the phrase ‘iron curtain’. Original Scan. https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/116180, accessed 14 Dec. 2021.

[10] Alan S. Milward, Politics and Economisc in the History of the European Union (London – New York: Routledge, 2005) 31–33.

[11] House of Commons, Commons Sitting, Schuman Plan, 27 June 1950, 476 2158-2159. https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1950/jun/27/schuman-plan, accessed 14 Dec. 2021.

[12] House of Commons, Commons Sitting, Foreign Affairs, 10 December 1948, 459 712. https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1948/dec/10/foreign-affairs, accessed 14 Dec. 2021.

[13] Churchill, 29 November 1951, National Archives, CAB 129/48C (51) 32.

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