It’s one of history’s great national rivalries.
For centuries, France and Britain have viewed one another across the Channel with a mixture of jealousy, contempt, and good-natured exasperation.
To those standing on the British side, their Gallic cousins are a bunch of insufferably smug, over-sexed cowards whose national pastime is surrendering; while to those living on the continent, the Brits are overly-polite, unfunny Brexit-mongers obsessed with eating horrible food.
Little do those on either side know, though, just how close they came to being not rivals, but partners. Partners united in a single nation, under a single government.
Today, we’re exploring the top-secret wartime plan to permanently fuse France and Britain… and how this plan – and others like it – could’ve transformed our world forever.
It was evening on June 16, 1940. Sat onboard his private train, Winston Churchill was preparing to make history.
Just 350km to the south, Europe was in chaos. Nazi tanks rolled through the streets of Paris. In the countryside, French villages burned.
Yet, as he waited for his train to depart, it wasn’t despair that Winston Churchill claimed to feel, but excitement.
In just a few hours, he and other high-ranking members of the wartime coalition government would be boarding a ship for one of the most-important meetings ever attended by a British Prime Minister.
If all went well, by the time the sun rose the next day, the United Kingdom as a political entity would have ceased to exist…
…and been replaced with a superpower known as the Franco-British Union.
The idea of joining Britain and France into a single political entity had been around since the early days of the 20th Century.
But it had been a fringe idea, the province of chin-strokers and people with too much time and too few croissants on their hands.
Then 1938 had arrived and everything changed.
That fall, Neville Chamberlain had signed the Munich Agreement, effectively throwing Czechoslovakia to the Nazi wolf.
As alarm spread across Europe, three London academics founded the Federal Union Movement.
Their goal: to fuse Britain and France into a single super-nation. One capable of resisting Hitler’s Germany.
In the panicked months of early 1939, plenty latched onto their plan as the only logical step. Even government ministers voiced support.
But it would take an even-bigger crisis to nearly make it reality.
On May 10, 1940, Nazi Germany launched a Blitzkrieg assault on France.
In those dark days, catastrophe piled upon catastrophe. French forces fell, the British failed to help, and the month climaxed with both armies being evacuated at Dunkirk.
As the last rescue boats sailed away, there was a scramble in both governments to find a way to keep France’s navy and her colonies out of German hands.
Suddenly, the Federal Union Movement’s time had come.
On June 14th, 1940 – as Nazi troops marched into Paris – British and French civil servants hastily drafted the most-radical document in their shared history: the Declaration on Franco-British Union.
Opening with the line “the Governments of the United Kingdom and the French Republic make this declaration of indissoluble union,” the Declaration announced a merging of both nations.
There would be a single Parliament. A single economic and foreign policy. One passport.
Less than 48 hours later, Winston Churchill was handed a draft, which he presented to the Cabinet. He expected resistance.
Instead, he got a blank check to make the Union happen as soon as possible.
Of course, this was only the British side. Churchill still had doubts the French would be so eager to end centuries of history.
But then he met Charles de Gaulle and all those worries melted away.
De Gaulle – then France’s undersecretary for defense – had just arrived in London that very morning.
By lunchtime, he was being wined and dined by Churchill, who pressed him to accept union. By 4:30pm, he was on the phone to French PM Paul Reynaud, declaring it was a go.
Plans were quickly laid. Reynaud would convince the Council of Ministers to support the deal, while Churchill and his wartime Cabinet would dash to Dover via train, and board a ship.
Before the night was over, Reynaud and Churchill would’ve met and signed a treaty forever making France and Britain a single state.
But, as you already know, that never happened.
When Reynaud went up before the Council of Ministers, he was beaten down by a gang that coalesced around WWI hero Marshall Pétain.
Pétain declared Britain was only after France’s colonies, and that it was better to be a Nazi province than in partnership with London.
Reynaud later claimed that, had the plan been put forward just a few days earlier, he could’ve convinced the Council.
But with Paris fallen, Pétain’s defeatism carried the day.
When Churchill got the news, he was devastated, stepping back off his train with a “heavy heart”.
Shortly after, Reynaud resigned. Six days later, France signed an armistice with Germany.
Instead of a cross-Channel union, French citizens got Pétain’s collaborationist Vichy regime.
But while it was ultimately a failure, the Franco-British Union wasn’t the only joint-nation nearly born in the face of the Nazi advance.
On the other side of the continent, a similar project would come close to transforming Eastern Europe forever.
One of the tragedies of WWII’s pre-game had been the inability of threatened nations to come together in the face of a common threat.
When the Munich Agreement led to Hitler annexing the Sudetenland, for example, Poland had used this as cover to grab its own piece of Czechoslovak real estate.
But by September 1939, it was clear that no-one – not the Poles, not the Czechs or Slovaks – was safe from Germany.
That same month, Polish leader in exile, Władysław Sikorski, did the unthinkable.
He floated the idea of joining Poland and Czechoslovakia into a single nation.
The earliest talks between the two exiled governments began the very next month. But it wasn’t until fall of 1940 that they turned serious.
At a dinner in London, Czechoslovak president Edward Beneš outlined a list of red lines for his nation.
Those lines went further than the Poles had ever dreamed.
The proposed Polish-Czechoslovak Confederation would’ve created a single currency, a common economic and foreign policy, a joint military command, and joint infrastructure.
While the two parliaments would’ve remained separate – unlike in the Franco-British Union – it would’ve pushed the countries as close together as Austria and Hungary had once been.
Fascinatingly, Beneš also insisted on a clause that would allow other Central and Eastern Europe states to join.
In another timeline, the east of Europe could have gotten its own version of the EU before WWII was even over.
By Mid-1941, both governments had signed and adopted a basic, joint constitution.
On January 23, 1942, the 14 Points of Confederation were published, effectively announcing this new state to the world.
So why don’t modern maps show this Central European behemoth – a state that would be second in size only to Ukraine and Metropolitan France in modern Europe?
For that, you can thank Joseph Stalin.
Although the Nazis had invaded the USSR at this point, Poland still hadn’t forgiven Stalin for that whole ‘joint-invasion’ thing in 1939.
But Edward Beneš was convinced that keeping the Soviets onside was the only way to ensure his nation’s survival.
So when Stalin contacted Beneš in July of 1942 and told him the confederation was unacceptable, the plan died then and there.
Although talks would limp on for another ten months, the dream of a Central European confederation was over.
There are other, similar tales from this period. Tales like that of the Balkan Union, a 1942 proposal that would’ve seen Yugoslavia, Greece, Romania, Albania, and Bulgaria join into a southern superstate.
But perhaps the most-interesting aspect is in imagining how these new nations would’ve affected modern Europe.
Both the Franco-British Union and the Polish-Czechoslovak Confederation had planned to let other countries join. Countries like the Netherlands for the former; countries like Hungary for the latter.
Assuming Nazi Germany had still been defeated, and assuming Stalin hadn’t been able to break up the new nations, post-1945 Europe would’ve dawned with three major unions in the west, east, and south.
In our timeline, it wasn’t until 1951 that anything like this appeared: when France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg created the European Coal and Steel Community – the forerunner of today’s EU.
But with three unions already in existence, the ECSC wouldn’t be necessary.
Instead, you’d simply see the three super-nations grow and change.
Maybe they’d eventually merge, creating something close to the European Union.
But maybe they’d stay separate. Three great, supranational European powers occupying one continent. So alike, and yet completely distinct.
In some ways, this might’ve made for a better world.
The 2016 Brexit campaign played in part on a mythic idea of Britain standing alone against the world, invoking metaphors of Blitz spirit and the image of Winston Churchill.
Had history instead remembered the War as a period when fraternité with France had saved the day, and Churchill taken the nation into a grand union with its neighbor, the hard nationalism of Brexit may have been unthinkable.
Ironically, a Europe made up of separate unions might’ve wound up being more united than today’s EU could ever dream of.