Great Britain still has protectorates

Brexit and Britain's special role in the EU

Ursula Lehmkuhl

is a professor at the Chair of International History at the University of Trier. She conducts research on 19th and 20th century British, American and Canadian history.

Geopolitical tensions and economic policy ambivalences in the immediate post-war period

After the Second World War, Great Britain developed from an empire to a middle power within a few decades. With the lost status as a world power came the search for a new role.

Queen Elizabeth II opens the Seventh Post-War Conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. (& copy picture-alliance, empics)

The decline of the empire and the search for a new role

At the end of World War II, Great Britain was one of the four victorious powers. The United Kingdom was considered a world power, despite the significant economic and financial problems that resulted from the war effort. In 1945 the British Empire comprised a quarter of the earth's surface. 700 million people were subjects of the British King. London took an active part in shaping the global post-war order. The institutional foundations of international finance, trade and security policy - the Bretton Woods system and the United Nations - were designed and established in close cooperation with Great Britain. In the 1960s and 1970s, most of the British colonies and protectorates had become independent as a result of decolonization. The British Empire had disintegrated and Great Britain had developed from a world power to a European middle power.

Until the 1960s, however, Great Britain acted as a world power in terms of foreign policy. It saw itself as a third force in global politics and pursued its three-circle theory in foreign policy, according to which Great Britain is at the center of three circles: the Commonwealth, the USA and continental Europe. [1] The special relationship with the USA should be continued and stabilized on an equal footing. At the same time it was necessary to consolidate British leadership in the Commonwealth and to strengthen relations with Western Europe. On the one hand, security policy considerations in the context of the East-West conflict that developed into the Cold War were at the center of British attention; on the other hand, the process of the decolonization of the British Empire and the associated domestic and foreign political identity crises. A closer connection to Europe within the framework of European integration was not a real option until the late 1950s. [2]

The reasons for distancing ourselves from the European integration project were complex. In addition to the self-image as a globally active world power, the power-political rivalry between Great Britain and France, which continued after 1945, stood in the way of British participation in supranational European institutions. And vice versa, France prevented British membership in the European Community in the 1960s because of its fears that a rapprochement between Great Britain and Europe would mean a stronger influence of the USA in Europe and thus a weakening of its own position of power. Ultimately, the British policy on Germany, whose frame of reference was security and not cooperation with Germany, hindered rapprochement with Europe. [3] The most lasting effect, however, was adherence to the nation-state principle of sovereignty against cooperation in the political project "Europe". Instead of supranational integration, the British favored the idea of ​​a unified economic area on the basis of a federation of states, a confederation. Overall, British European policy was much more oriented towards questions about the economic advantages of membership in the community than towards the idea of ​​"Europe" as a peace order and community of values. The ambivalent attitude of Great Britain to Europe in the founding phase ultimately resulted from the fact that the road to Europe coincided with the decline of Great Britain as a world power. [4]

Great Britain between Commonwealth and Europe: The 1950s

In 1951 the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was founded on the initiative of French politicians Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman. This created the first supranational institution in Europe. It placed "the entirety of Franco-German production of coal and steel under a common supreme authority". Through the "solidarity of production" "every war between France and Germany should not only become unthinkable, but materially impossible". [5] With the ECSC, all trade restrictions for coal and steel were abolished and the formation of a free trade area for coal and steel between the six contracting parties - France, Italy, the Federal Republic of Germany and the Benelux countries - was established. The founding fathers of the ECSC hoped that economic cooperation between European states would automatically result in political cooperation.

In the ten years before the founding of the ECSC, Jean Monnet had made two attempts to win Britain over to the idea of ​​European integration, in June 1940 and again in April 1949. His aim was to establish an economic union between France and Great Britain, which as Should act as the foundation stone for a European economic union. Britain and France should cooperatively take the lead in Europe. Both initiatives failed because of Great Britain's lack of interest. Jean Monnet and Robert Schumann then changed their strategy. With the support of the USA, they were now working on establishing a Franco-German duopoly as a motor for European integration. Politically, this management structure was implemented with the establishment of the coal and steel union.

The negative attitude of the British towards the French offers resulted on the one hand from the continued effect of the political tensions between France and Great Britain. On the other hand, at the time of the negotiations on the establishment of European cooperation structures, the British economy was still too closely interwoven with the Commonwealth for economic integration with Europe to be conceivable. In 1950 just under 50 percent of British exports went to the Commonwealth of Nations. Conversely, Britain imported 42 percent of its goods from the Commonwealth. Twenty years later, about a quarter of all British exports and imports went to and from the Commonwealth. The British government initiated and supported early European organizations such as the Western Union (Brussels Pact) (1948) or the Council of Europe (1949); On the other hand, it consistently rejected supranational organizations in the economic sector such as the ECSC (1951). With reference to imperial interests and obligations, Great Britain did not participate in the planned European Defense Community (EDC) (1952-54), the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) (1957).

Food was rationed after the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. In addition, the Ministry of Food issued "Ration Books" to the population.
The British attitude towards European integration did not change until the late 1950s. The internal economic problems became more pressing and the relative strength of the pound sterling against the European soft currencies made it difficult to establish trade relations with Europe. This, in turn, adversely affected the welfare state growth program initiated by the Labor government after World War II and continued by the Conservatives. It is true that, compared to the 1930s, the British were better off economically than ever in the first twenty years after the end of the Second World War. In an international comparison, especially with neighboring European countries, the British economic development lagged significantly behind and could not keep up with the global post-war boom. While food rationing in the Federal Republic of Germany had already been lifted in 1950, the British population had to shop with food stamps until July 1954. [6] The British economy was repeatedly shaken by serious balance of payments crises, which were due, among other things, to the fiscal policy structures of the sterling area. [7] After the Suez debacle in 1956 [8], the realization that the Commonwealth would not be able to meet the expectations placed in it neither in terms of security policy nor in terms of economic policy became increasingly accepted. [9]