It was about midnight when the lights went out in Brussels. It happened during a 1965 meeting of the foreign ministers of the six member countries of the European Community, the forerunner of the EU.

I was the only American present, serving as an “official spokesman” for the international staff. That night, I could not realize that I was witnessing a piece of history that would play out in 2021.

Soon after the lights went, so did the French foreign minister. Refusing to be outvoted on a policy that France opposed, he walked out. He stayed out six months until the others caved in.

After World War II, France, Germany, Britain and the U.S. promoted the idea that by integrating the economies of Western Europe, a third world conflict could be prevented. That would remove a major threat to Britain and offer the U.S. a strong ally rather than yet another world war.

General Charles De Gaulle, the leader of France’s comeback against Nazi Germany, was the French president. While he favored ties with Germany, he disliked the British and worried about American influence on Europe through its English-speaking ally. He believed France could lead Europe.

De Gaulle openly sneered at the “Anglo-Saxons” – Britain and America. He wanted a European defense force independent of the U.S. and would quit NATO military cooperation. In 1963, France vetoed Britain’s application to join the European Community. I joined the international staff that year, and the French were not pleased.

In 1967, Britain tried again. This time it was led by British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and seemed anxious to commit to Europe. By then I was a journalist and one evening joined three British colleagues in Brussels to have a beer with Wilson, who laid out his case for membership.

Through its walkout, France had made sure it dominated European affairs, so it was no problem for De Gaulle to dash Wilson’s hopes.

After the French tired of De Gaulle and he left the presidency, Britain was at last able to join the European Union in 1973. In succeeding years, the Brits proved some of what De Gaulle had said was correct. The U.K. demanded special treatment to protect its own historic ways of governing.

As Europe continued economic integration, Britain increasingly found itself forced to follow rules made by the EU, including admitting workers from Eastern Europe. Putting their seal on De Gaulle’s objections, in 2016 the British people voted to leave the EU. Painfully, by 2020 Brexit had happened.

De Gaulle’s forecast lived on. It has just cropped up again last month, and this time the U.S. played the central role.

The U.S., U.K, and Australia have just agreed to the AUKUS pact, giving the Land Down Under its own nuclear submarines. The Aussies and Brits could help the U.S. discourage China from deploying its growing fleet to back its false maritime claims in Asian waters. The U.K. already has its warships there.

But Australia had previously agreed to buy from France diesel-powered subs, vessels not really up to the task. It suddenly reneged, though no AUKUS participant gave the French much advance notice. Not only had France seen Britain quit Europe, but it also saw the U.K. throw itself into an “Anglo-Saxon” alliance. Echoes of De Gaulle.

The split could encourage French President Emmanuel Macron in his efforts to promote a European political-military operation independent of the Americans and British. Since Donald Trump, who favored Brexit and spurned NATO, European trust of the U.S. has fallen.

The result might yield an independent Europe rather than a dependent U.S ally. That could force the U.S. to take account of differing and sometimes opposed European strategies even if developed by countries that share many of America’s views of the world.

But there’s also a broader lesson from this story.

Every day, news reports arrive accompanied by instant analyses of what events mean. Heated and hasty opinion drowns out the news.

When Trump or Biden have made controversial moves, the pundits have wasted little time drawing conclusions and pontificating about dire long-term effects. What seems to be a major mistake often fades in importance, hardly derailing the presidency. The analysts’ views mostly reflect their biases, which they want us to swallow.

When De Gaulle vetoed the British, my instant analysis, based on my biases and wishful thinking, was that he would be proved wrong. It looked that way for a while. Now, Brexit and AUKUS show “the General” nailed the Brits. It only took 58 years. What goes around, comes around, sometimes awfully slowly.

The lesson? We should pay more attention to knowing and understanding what’s happening, not let our biases overwhelm our thinking, and skip snap judgments on current events.

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman. 

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