Following the devastation and the huge loss of life of the Second World War, the second time in a generation that Europe had been engulfed in war, six European countries agreed to find a way of preventing this happening again. France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands and Italy agreed that the best way to prevent a repeat was to work together on coal and steel production as these were the main resources required for fighting wars. They therefore created the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951.
The one of the intended outcomes of the formation of the ECSC was to try and make the economies of European member countries so interdependent that they could not possibly wage war upon one another without destroying themselves. Britain was in favour of the European industrial and economic integration that the ECSC provided, but the political alliance that was a “spillover” as a result of this integration was not what Britain wanted at the time. Britain tried to convince the ECSC to make their charter a more trade related one but failed, and as a result didn’t join. The reasons for Britain’s avoidance of a political alliance with European countries were due to existing considerations with the U.S and Commonwealth, or the three “circles” of external relations as Churchill put it. Britain at the time was also committed the theory of free trade, whilst the ECSC put tariffs on certain imported goods from non member countries, contrary to this.
In 1960, Britain formed the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), in cooperation with Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, and Switzerland, and later Finland, Liechtenstein, and Iceland. As the name shows, this organisation was more focused more on an economic alliance than a political one. EFTA, was created as a direct response to the ECSC refusal to change to less of a political entity at its inception. There was a feeling that British government and institutions were superior to those of other European states and a resistance to change from the traditional British approach. Because the ECSC was a supra-national organisation, it was also seen to be a threat to traditional monarchical tradition which was an integral part of the Commonwealth and also diminishing to the sovereignty of Britain.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill often referred to the three “circles” or pillars of British foreign policy. These pillars were; the United States, the North Atlantic and the Commonwealth. These were seen to be the most important groups when Britain made policy changes and are still important in current politics. They were seen to be more important than the matters concerning continental Europe and that “certain British interests conflict with strong interests in other [ECSC] member states”1 “Financial transactions of the [London] City and its world trading relationships gave The UK stronger overseas links than with the continent”2 “In 1949-1950, 53% of British exports went to the Commonwealth, and 46% of its imports came from there”3. At the time the financial benefit would not have warranted the political alliance that could have potentially damaged The UK’s relationship with one of its other “circles”.
It was only in 1933 that the British Empire had been at its height, controlling one seventh of the World land mass, but the decline of the Empire was not foreseen. The expression “The sun never sets on the British Empire” still rang through many peoples. The UK had always remained aloof from European affairs. Riding high on the victory in World War Two, British nationalism grew. This, coupled with a post imperial hangover, which Jean Monnet called “the price of victory – the illusion that you could maintain what you had without changing”, caused Britain to question why it needed to join a European political alliance.
Britain is an island nation, and for years had followed Lord Sailsbury’s policy of “Splendid Isolation”. “Although imperialism had played a part in the development of French nationalism, there was never any doubt about France’s European Identity”4 The same could not be said for the British people, few of whom ever considered themselves to be European. It is also possible that Britain did not want to enter an organisation where Germany and France had such a high level of control over certain British policies. This leads back to a resistance to surrender some sovereignty.