The topic of Winston Churchill’s speeches – particularly his postwar speeches – first brings to mind his “iron curtain” speech. During the recent round of discussions over the future of the Euro after the financial crisis, Churchill’s name is occasionally invoked as a one of Europe’s founding statesmen. He was not, like Jean Monnet, an architect of the system that developed into the modern European Union. However, as a leader of the Allied defeat of the Axis powers, Churchill wanted to see a postwar Europe that contained Germany and remained prosperous enough to ward off an encroachment of communism on the continent. I knew vaguely that Churchill had advocated a “United States of Europe” in at least one public speech. In light of the present debates over the future of the Euro and the Union itself, I thought examining the particulars of Churchill’s speech on Europe’s union would be timely.
Turns out, there weren’t any. Churchill’s September 1946 speech is an impassioned plea that Europe’s nations, just beginning to recover from World War II, join together to dispel any risk that they might turn on each other again. The speech contains dramatic rhetoric on the need for union during the immediate postwar period, but no specifics about how this would be done, and certainly nothing that would assist the present debate about the future of Europe’s common currency and fiscal policy. Churchill envisioned neither. His argument centered entirely on Europe’s collective security; a united Europe would reinforce a newly constituted United Nations as a guarantor against large-scale conflict.
Some of Churchill’s specific wording seems problematic in retrospect. In a phrase that would likely cause current EU officials to do a spit-take, Churchill suggests that the process of creating “a kind of United States of Europe” would be “simple,” and would amount to setting aside narrow national allegiances in favor of “a sense of enlarged patriotism and common citizenship.” It’s a long way from his wartime rhetoric invoking British nationalism, and it if didn’t seem so at the time it certainly would to UK conservatives currently seeking to extricate the country from the EU. Churchill’s identification of Europe as “the fountain of Christian faith and Christian ethics” is also dated. Former French President Valery Giscard D’Estaing caused a kerfuffle a decade ago during negotiations on a European Constitution by evoking a similar notion of Europe’s Christian identity. It remains an idea more likely to sew discord than unity.
Students of history like myself have many reasons to look back to Churchill’s writings. But I see two other practical reminders in this speech. The security mandate from which Churchill pushes for European unity has expired; other rationales for strengthening European Union have been made by Churchill’s direct successors (see my previous post on Tony Blair’s speech on the topic last month.) It’s as important to note that Churchill advocated “a kind of United States of Europe.” He didn’t expect a future European Union to model the United States exactly. Neither should we.