Flags of Great Britain and European Union

Federal Union: when Britain tried to create a European Federation

In 1938, the European powers were desperately trying to restrain Hitler from further implementing its expansionist plan. In the shadow of this confrontation, three young British men gave birth to a groundbreaking organization: Federal Union.

As the Sudeten crisis brewed, Derek Rawnsley and Charles Kimber – colleagues and fellow students – decided to speak out against the state of anarchy of the international system which left unpunished the criminal actions taken out by the authoritian regimes. The object of the critique was the Legaue of Nations; already in the 20’s, as we wrote in our previous article, men like Kurt Tucholsky and Richard Von Coudenhove-Kalergi had argued how the anomalous structure of the League paralyzed it.

Part of the drawing on the Federal Union’s membership leaflet (1940)

The setting up of the League of Nations followed Wilson’s famous “Fourteen Points” declaration in 1918. The idealist American President outlined a new order based on the principles of peace and liberty supervised by an international organization.
The experiment ultimately failed: the League lacked of its own armed forces and no country was willing to give up its sovereignity to defend collective security. Moreover, also due to the neo-isolationaist wave that took on the country, the United States never became a member.

No military intervention was forthcoming to stop the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. When Fascist Italy declared war on Ethiopia (itself a member of the League) and unleashed chemical weapons against the population, only ineffective economic sanctions followed.  The impunity of these two regimes, as Hitler himslef claimed, assured Germany that it would not have found any obstacle on its way for Lebensraum.

According to federalists and radical internationalists then, the League was clearly not enough: the world needed a democratic supranational government that could preserve peace and face the belligerence of nation-states.

Federal Union’s logo

Rawnsley and Kimber got to know Patrick Ransome, a journalist with a degree in international law, and invited him to join the adventure; the three began distributing pamphlets which contained the principles and the ideas the new organization stood up for: a democratic European federal union. Soon hundreds of people showed their interest in Federal Union and started volounteering for the organization, spreading leaflets and setting up local branches throughout the country. At its peak, the organization could count on 200 branches and thousands of members.

A “Panel of Advisers” was formed, consisting of academics and political figures; two of them were Lord Lothian, secretary of the UK Prime Minister Lloyd George at the Versailles Peace Conference, and Lionel Curtis, founder of the Royal Institute for International Affairs. The two were already active in the federalist landscape with several articles to their name, and were engaged in spreading the ideas contained in Union Now, a publication by the New York Times journalist Clarence Streit which called for a federal union between the United States, Ireland, Canada, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Federal Union kept growing and the founders decided to split it into different departments: a Research Institute, a Public Relations Department and a Central Office. Inspired by the Federal Convention of Philadelphia – which gave the USA its current federal structure – the organization drafted a federal constituion to submit to democratic countries that, if willing, would have called for a referendum on it. In case of a positive outcome, Federal Union would have asked one of these countries to host an Institutional Conference to establish the definitive Constitution of the future federation together with the other agreeing states.

Part of the drawing on the Federal Union’s membership leaflet (1940)

The constitutional project had little success and ultimately the organization became less and less important due to internal fights, diverging ideas and a lack of support from politicians and institutions both in Britain and abroad. It was also difficult for the Europeanists to find a compromise with the Atlanticists, who wanted a broader federation.

In their enthusiastic support for unity, the British federalists were somehow anticipated by the mainland’s movement Paneuropean Union, but the latter was more elitist and mainly driven by a general sense of unity in the confederal sense rather than a federalist one.

This story sends an important message to the British people on the first anniversary of the Brexit referendum: don’t give up, there will always be a place for Britain in Europe.

Federal Union still exists today, you can visit its website here.

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