Military Union: British Government Policy Since 1948

As pressure builds for the issue of EU Military Union to enter the Brexit debate, government becomes ever more vociferous that Britain will not be part of any such project. Strangely, though, history seems to suggest that Military Union was British policy from the beginning. Is it credible that Britain would not be part of something it has spent so much effort building?

In March 1947, claiming concern over a possible German resurgence combined with changing attitudes towards Soviet Russia, Britain and France signed a mutual assistance pact in Dunkirk. Tensions continued to rise with Russia as Britain in particular increased its anti-Soviet rhetoric.

So in January 1948, Ernest Bevin, British Foreign Secretary, came to the House of Commons to give a speech in which he used the ‘threat’ of the Soviet Union to justify his determination that Britain’s cooperation with France should be increased, and that a ‘Western Union’ - a military union between Britain, France and the Benelux countries of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, should be established.

Bevin said:

…there is no doubt that, as it has evolved, it has revealed a policy on the part of the Soviet Union to use every means in their power to get Communist control in Eastern Europe, and, as it now appears, in the West as well …

I would remind the House that it is under three years since the war ended, and I hope still that, with the right use of power and organisation, these difficulties may be overcome. Meanwhile, we must face the facts as they are. Our task is not to make spectacular declarations, nor to use threats or intimidation, but to proceed swiftly and resolutely with the steps we consider necessary to meet the situation which now confronts the world.

… perhaps the most important development, which brought all this to a head and caused the whole issue of Europe to be focused, was the proposal by Mr. Marshall for a European recovery programme …

The conception of the unity of Europe and the preservation of Europe as the heart of Western civilisation is accepted by most people. The importance of this has become increasingly apparent, not only to all the European nations as a result of the post-war crises through which Europe has passed and is passing, but to the whole world. No one disputes the idea of European unity. That is not the issue. The issue is whether European unity cannot be achieved without the domination and control of one great Power. That is the issue which has to be solved …

… all these developments which I have been describing, point to the conclusion that the free nations of Western Europe must now draw closely together. How much these countries have in common. Our sacrifices in the war, our hatred of injustice and oppression, our Parliamentary democracy, our striving for economic rights and our conception and love of liberty are common among us all. Our British approach, of which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke recently, is based on principles which also appeal deeply to the overwhelming mass of the peoples of Western Europe. I believe the time is ripe for a consolidation of Western Europe.

First in this context we think of the people of France. Like all old friends, we have our differences from time to time, but I doubt whether ever before in our history there has been so much underlying good will and respect between the two peoples as now. We have a firm basis of co-operation in the Treaty of Dunkirk, we are partners in the European recovery programme, and I would also remind the House of the useful and practical work being done by the Anglo-French Economic Committee … We are not now proposing a formal political union with France, as has sometimes been suggested, but we shall maintain the closest possible contact, and work for ever closer unity between the two nations.

The time has come to find ways and means of developing our relations with the Benelux countries. I mean to begin talks with those countries in close accord with our French Ally. I have to inform the House that yesterday our representatives in Brussels, The Hague and Luxemburg were instructed to propose such talks in concert with their French colleagues. I recall that after I signed the Dunkirk Treaty … I was asked by a newspaper correspondent, “What about a treaty with other countries including Belgium?” My reply was—I will quote it: ”I hope to sign a similar one with Belgium and with all our good neighbours in the West.”

The Five Power Treaty

Two months later, on 17 March 1948, Bevin signed the 'Five Power Treaty', also known as the Brussels Treaty or the Brussels Pact, alongside his counterparts from France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. The Five Power Treaty was the founding treaty of the Western Union, which established an organisation of five 'member states' enabling military, economic, social and cultural cooperation, plus a mutual defence clause.

A month later, Bevin met his foreign ministerial colleagues in Paris to discuss progress on the implementation of the new treaty.

The main purpose of the Paris meeting was to reach agreement on the organisation of a ‘Consultative Council’ and, in particular, “the choice of a capitol as its permanent seat”.

So we can already see that Britain’s policy was to establish a pan European state with legislative powers; otherwise why the need for a ‘capitol’?

Military Union

Bevin reported following the Paris meeting that:

The other Foreign Ministers, particularly M. Bidault were naturally much concerned with recent events in Europe. In consequence, emphasis was laid on the urgent need for an early examination of the military situation. It was felt that whilst American support was essential and every effort should be made to secure it, the Five Powers should simultaneously initiate military conversations designed to build up gradually to combined military force and a single defensive organisation for all the Treaty Powers.

It was agreed that “a permanent military committee shall be set up in London under the authority of the Council and under the control of the political representatives [of the Five Powers].”

It is clear that Bevin understood the potential domestic hurdles to such military union, even in the years immediately following the war. “If the idea of the Western union was to grow amongst our peoples,” he said, “it was necessary to show the ordinary man that Western Union had something for him.”

By September 1948, the implementation period was complete and the Western Union, an EU-lite, was established. It took the form of a military union, plus cooperation on political, economic and cultural issues. Over the next few years, the Western Union was transformed into the Western European Union, as the Five Powers became seven, joined by Italy and West Germany.

The Western Union’s defence arm was merged into NATO, and it could be said that with the current de-merging of EU defence from NATO, that the Western Union was the precursor to both NATO and the military arm of the EU.

The policy of unification, and particularly military unification, appears to be driven through, and by, the British Government, over a period of decades and mostly in total Parliamentary and democratic silence. As for the other areas of unity and cooperation, economic, financial, social and cultural, I leave it to Bevin himself: “[these] will help to keep the policies of the governments in line and so serve the common purpose.