The European Union Needs Its Own Charles de Gaulle
There’s nothing wrong with today’s EU that France’s legendary 20th-century leader didn’t see coming—and didn’t try to fix when he had the chance.
Julian Jackson’s new biography of Charles de Gaulle is a gripping and enlightening reflection on political power and its mysteries. The book fulfills the minimum requirements, of course, by recounting the major events of de Gaulle’s life: his heroic service in World War I, his prescient warnings in the interwar years about the deficiencies French military strategy, his creation of a government-in-exile after Nazi Germany’s invasion and the Vichy regime’s capitulation, and his founding role in the creation of postwar France, whose present constitution and most enduring myths, created in his own image, endure to this day.
But Jackson accomplishes far more than merely compiling a chronology. The book also paints a compelling portrait of its subject’s inner life and its most salient aspect—his natural affinity for power. Before French cafes and universities were overtaken by postmodernism, de Gaulle had an instinctual grasp of reality’s malleability under power’s influence. He then put that knowledge to political use, guided by his own conservative values. The result was the mission that dominated his political career: the determination, against all logic, to act as if France had never been defeated by Hitler’s armies in 1940. To a considerable extent he succeeded in convincing his countrymen and the whole world that the “strange defeat,” as one contemporary called it, never took place. The whole world is a theater, de Gaulle understood—reality is a matter of how we play our part.
Jackson is very good at examining the ambiguous facets of power for statesmen—its attractions and its slow, creeping intrusion into their lives. Throughout his life, de Gaulle variously plots, conspires, anticipates, withdraws, as dictated by the opportunities on offer to shape French history; he dances to the tune of power with the consummate elegance of the predestined. This was true in London in 1940, when de Gaulle battled against all odds to become the undisputed leader of France in exile, just as it was during his years in the political wilderness from 1946, when he was ousted after a brief stint as head of the provisional government in the immediate postwar period, until his return to political power in 1958. Jackson’s book dwells on this latter period at great length and to great effect, showing how de Gaulle was repeatedly tempted by the promise of happiness that only power could offer him during his self-exile at his country retreat in the town of Colombey-les-Deux-Églises.
If Jackson’s book feels at times less relevant to current discussions than one might hope, however, it is because he devotes scant attention to Europe: De Gaulle’s ideas and policies on the European Union or, as it was known during his time, the European Communities, occupy no more than 30 of the book’s 900 pages, the remainder devoted to the high politics of France. De Gaulle’s life is presented as so synchronized with French political events that Jackson even feels compelled to ask by his book’s end whether the General, as his supporters in France affectionately called him, made any material difference, grandiose as his symbolism undoubtedly was. It is a fair question. Without de Gaulle, France would have been liberated by the Allies in 1944 and rebuilt after the war, and for the following 30 years it would have acquired a natural ascendency over Germany, which was defeated much more completely than France had been. Contrary to Jackson’s implicit suggestion, de Gaulle did not save France, even if he may have saved its honor.
Jackson’s overweening focus on France is also odd because Europe played an indispensable role in de Gaulle’s political orientation and practice. It’s not an accident that he liked to call himself a Continental, someone who moved in the political space of geographic Europe—“from the Atlantic to the Urals.” As sentimental as he was about French grandeur, de Gaulle believed a European perspective on politics was a historical inevitability, and he channeled his keen understanding of power and politics into developing a practical vision for the Continent’s future in a competitive geopolitical landscape.
This is the figure—not the national hero whom Jackson focuses on—whom Europeans, facing precisely the sort of existential crisis that de Gaulle predicted, would be wise to study and learn from today.
De Gaulle’s famously independent foreign policy was above all an effort to liberate Europe from American hegemony. He wasn’t motivated purely by what we now call European solidarity; a common European policy was also a method for France to leverage Continental power to remain a global player on its own. As Jackson puts it, each of the configurations de Gaulle conceived for the future of Europe represented a different way his “restless intelligence sought to find a role for France as a world power.”
De Gaulle was nevertheless serious in envisaging a world where Europe could develop into a third pole of global power and even acquire the central role in the new system, the holder of the balance between the American and Soviet spheres of influence. This basic framework would not be considered controversial in contemporary Europe—but de Gaulle’s understanding of Europe as a political unit, as described by Jackson’s book, is another matter. When surveying the different options and paths open to the European project, he believed the choice was of existential significance.
On one side, there was the path of depoliticization: Supranational institutions slowly weakening national states without replacing them with a new political entity, leaving the Continent with the rule of technocrats without a mandate, and specialists without spirit or vision issuing their pronouncements from what de Gaulle called a modern-day Areopagus, the court charged with guarding the laws in classical Athens. De Gaulle was haunted by the thought that politics could be replaced by a form of technical rule; he thought this would negate every form of human greatness, rooted on the ability to chart new collective courses of action and assume responsibility for their consequences. It is against this strictly economic project—technical might be a better term—that he wanted to impose his own vision of a “political Europe.”
De Gaulle understood that realizing this vision today would require changing the unusual way that politics has operated in the European Union. The EU, seen in the history of political forms, is an unprecedented and perhaps unintelligible entity. That states may form associations is a phenomenon carefully detailed and theorized in all classics of Western political thought, but it was always assumed that their creation would be for the purposes of defense and foreign policy, leaving to each state full autonomy in its domestic affairs. This is the pure definition of a confederation and its logic was to make up for the inherent deficiencies of small states, which would always struggle to preserve their independence against larger neighbors. By coming together, they could hope to combine forces, while preserving the advantages of a smaller population and greater proximity between rulers and ruled.
The European Union does not simply deviate from this scheme—it turns it on its head. The Brussels institutions—the European Commission above all—are turned inward, penetrating all elements of domestic policymaking, often in areas that are essentially regional or local. Over the past two years, for instance, the commission and the European Parliament have attempted to appeal directly to public opinion by announcing initiatives to provide people with free wireless internet and train tickets. More generally, the impetus for further integration is now concentrated almost exclusively in the pursuit of a fiscal union—the development of a common budget whereby decisions about taxes and public expenditure would be centralized in Brussels.
At the same time, defense and foreign policy continue to be treated by the European Union as the exclusive preserve of member states. Lately, even previous attempts at increasing diplomatic and military coordination—never very successful to begin with—seem to have been abandoned. In Libya, France and Italy deliberately torpedo each other’s foreign-policy moves, while France has not hesitated to join Britain—now very close to leaving the union—and a hostile Trump administration to strike Syrian government positions in response to evidence of a chemical weapons attack against the civilian population.
The divergences are widening at a time when great-power rivalry is making a comeback, which only increases the need for joint European action on the global stage. This will become only more apparent in the years ahead, as China becomes a serious rival to German and French technology and Russia continues to wreak havoc in the disputed borderlands separating it from the European Union. Nevertheless, the idea that joint foreign-policy initiatives should be taken at the EU level seems to each and all an impossibility unworthy of discussion.
It is here that de Gaulle offers an alternative vision. In August 1962 he explained to Alain Peyrefitte—a long-term confidant and spokesman, and his minister of information in the French government at the time—what Europe was all about: “What is the point of Europe? The point is that one is not dominated by either the Russians or the Americans.” On the critical question of what justifies the European project—a question that today fewer and fewer dare to even ask—de Gaulle never wavered, nor showed any hesitation. Something like what we now call the European Union is necessary because all European states, left to themselves, are too small and too weak to survive in the harsh competition between the existing superpowers without joining one of their respective blocs of subordinate allies, thus forfeiting their own autonomy and historical destiny.
That consideration naturally led de Gaulle to think of Europe as a classical confederation, emphasizing a joint foreign and security policy. He would probably argue that if Europe’s contemporary policymakers are unable to offer as clear a rationale for their collective activities, that’s because they’ve allowed their ideals to cloud their understanding of the Continent’s needs and the basic logic of international politics itself.
Certain that the future of Europe was a confederation, de Gaulle set out to build one. The story of these efforts forms an important chapter in the history of the European Union, even if Jackson spends only a couple of very perfunctory pages on it. De Gaulle’s unsuccessful attempt in 1961 and 1962 to create a new “union of states” is remembered today as the Fouchet plan. The magical word “union” survived the attempt; nothing else did.
After a meeting with the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in Feb. 1961, de Gaulle moved to create a working group, led by a close aide, Christian Fouchet, including representatives of the six member states and tasked with developing concrete proposals to move toward political union. His vision was of an institutionalized framework to decide matters of defense and foreign policy, meeting at the level of heads of government and foreign ministers. He wanted the framework to enjoy public support and legitimacy by means of a “solemn European referendum.”
It is worth noting what distinguishes the Fouchet plan from the many reforms of the EU since that time. De Gualle wanted to put in place a strong executive authority to make decisions on matters of the highest importance—on war and peace, and Europe’s place in the world. To ensure the legitimacy of those decisions, he wanted the meetings envisaged by his plan to be treated as regular meetings of an independent European confederate government rather than informal summits among national leaders.
The European Commission and European Parliament were not invited to observe or participate in its deliberations—and this was not an oversight. De Gaulle’s special form of political physics dictated that one should preserve power where it existed, create it where it was lacking, but never cancel or weaken it. His core assumption was that one could bring states to decide together on matters where they felt powerless to decide alone—but to replace them with supranational institutions, in which national leaders themselves had no role to play, was to indulge in “fantasy.”
According to Jackson, de Gaulle believed that Europeans who wanted to concentrate powers in new centralized institutions were either deluding themselves about the nature of history, in which nations have an ordained role to play, or cloaking national ambitions in the language of internationalism. Either way, as applied to foreign policy, the elimination of national sovereignty in foreign policy would necessarily mean the disappearance of Europe as a global actor.
What’s worse, technical rule by administrators, de Gaulle believed, would fail to satisfy even the economic needs of citizens, because these needs are never strictly economic. They are intimately connected to larger issues of justice and dignity, calling for difficult and arduous political choices. In that sense, de Gaulle would not be surprised by the EU’s current travails as it deals with the migration crisis. The European Union has tried repeatedly to solve political questions by technical means, without realizing it is engaging in a category mistake.
De Gaulle’s plan ultimately failed; the Netherlands and Belgium stayed faithful to a supranational framework where the power of the large states could be contained. With the failure of the plan, the very practice of regular meetings between heads of government was dropped. When it returned with the establishment of the European Council in 1975, everything had changed. Europe’s supranational ideas and practices had grown in influence; even France, now under the presidency of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, essentially agreed that further integration should be fueled by giving powers to Brussels. Today, the European Union still replicates the framework of economic integration created by the founding Treaty of Rome from 1957, even as the six original members have expanded to 28. At the core of the system stand a customs union and a common market administered by the civil servants of the European Commission and European Central Bank.
The European Council, which convenes Europe’s heads of government, has also grown in importance, as was evident during the recent eurozone crisis, when the world turned to the regular and extraordinary meetings at the Justus Lipsius building in Brussels—often lasting until the morning—for answers and solutions. Nobody would mistake those meetings of presidents and prime ministers, however, for the convening of a government. The European Council resembles nothing so much an international organization to which member states turn in times of crisis to propose new paths for supranational integration—a far cry from de Gaulle’s vision of a Europe built to master geopolitical competition.
Would de Gaulle feel vindicated by the current state of the union? To a considerable extent, yes. Just as he feared, overlapping centers of authority have served mostly to cancel power entirely. Member states feel increasingly powerless to make difficult decisions and they may sometimes even feel delegitimized to do so; meanwhile, supranational institutions have not filled the void. Depoliticization has spread.
It is not that Europe lacks the material for grave political decisions. To give but one example, a decision of the highest importance is now raised every day: Should Europe remain culturally homogeneous or should it renounce its cultural legacy to include many different cultures and religions? The question is asked, but no one—in Brussels or the national capitals—feels confident and competent enough to answer it.
Many among the new class of populist leaders and parties have thus called for a return to the nation-state. Those who still feel themselves part of the European project—this is for the time being the majority—may then appeal to de Gaulle’s “union of states.” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki did so explicitly in his recent appearance at the European Parliament. The Italian Lega party has clamored in a very Gaullist way that it wants the powers of the Italian state back, given that they are left languishing in Brussels.
But all these appeals sound less convincing now than when de Gaulle made them. If European nation-states were as organized and vital as the populists claim, should they not be able to cast off the cloak of supranational oppression much more easily than they have shown so far? One suspects, on the contrary, that they have projected their own weakness onto a mirror they call Brussels. Were they to shatter it—and that may still happen—all European peoples would find out that the reflection they deplore is their own. The European Union may well be weak and uninspiring, but we Europeans would be better off accepting that its troubles are our own troubles—that the age of European hegemony is now over, and the Rhine River has no claim whatsoever to be what it still was when de Gaulle was born: the center of the world.
Does Europe need a new de Gaulle? The question can only make sense if we are no longer talking of a national de Gaulle but of a European one, as concerned with the preservation of European greatness and vitality as he was with saving French grandeur. It also implies circumstances analogous to those in the mid-20th century. A future, united Europe, with a providential new leader, would inevitably be born of existential danger—not to a single country, such as France in 1940, but to the Continent as a whole.