The plan that emerged—to unify Britain and France into a single state—was not entirely new: The idea of integrating the European countries had floated around political circles for a few years, but always seemed fantastical. Catastrophe was about to turn impossibility into official policy.
On June 14, German troops entered Paris. During the next 48 hours, British and French civil servants drafted a proposal for a “Declaration on Franco-British Union.” This was no beefed-up wartime alliance, or a plan for partial integration similar to today’s European Union. The goal was to effectively create one country. The document stated: “At this most fateful moment in the history of the modern world, the Governments of the United Kingdom and the French Republic make this declaration of indissoluble union and unyielding resolution in their common defense of justice and freedom against subjection to a system which reduces mankind to a life of robots and slaves.” This meant: “France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations, but one Franco-British Union.”
At a stroke, hundreds of years of constitutional history would be swept away. There would be joint control of defense, foreign policy, finance, and economic policy. The two parliaments would be united, presumably with French representatives sitting in the House of Commons in London. Churchill’s private secretary said, “We had before us the bridge to a new world, the first elements of European or even World Federation.”
Events moved fast. On June 16, Churchill was personally skeptical but presented the idea to the all-party British Cabinet. He was swept along by a wave of enthusiasm. “I was somewhat surprised,” wrote Churchill, “to see the staid, solid, experienced politicians of all parties engage themselves so passionately in an immense design whose implications and consequences were not in any way thought out.” Churchill put his doubts aside and told the Cabinet, “In this crisis we must not let ourselves be accused of lack of imagination.”
Charles de Gaulle, who had arrived that morning in London, also had qualms about ending the country of France as he knew it. But de Gaulle embraced the plan as a grand move to change the course of history: “The gesture must be immediate.”
At 4:30 pm, de Gaulle telephoned Paul Reynaud, the French prime minister, who had fled the advancing Germans, going from Paris to Tours and then Bordeaux. Reynaud listened to the proposal for a Franco-British Union with mounting excitement, as he scribbled down the details. Here lay possible salvation for France. According to one eyewitness, “His eyebrows went up so far they became indistinguishable from his neatly brushed hair.” Reynaud suddenly interrupted de Gaulle. “Does he agree to this? Did Churchill give you this personally?” De Gaulle handed the receiver to Churchill, who assured Reynaud that he approved. Reynaud was “transfigured with joy.”