In 1965, French President Charles DeGaulle started a fight that nearly tore Europe apart — over the same disagreements that still haunt the continent. This is the story of the empty chair crisis.
You’re probably thinking, “what a clickbait title. An empty chair, really?” Well, two things. You clicked, and yes, this empty chair did nearly break Europe. This is the story of a young European Union, an old Charles De Gaulle, and an immortal dispute which still poses dangers today.
And while all this may seem like exaggeration,—after World War II, as Europe sought to build a community to try to make war impossible, even unthinkable—seemingly innocuous things like chairs, budgets, and votes took center stage in the maintenance of continental peace.
But when not all could agree about what this community should look like, and the French refused to take their seat, the European project nearly collapsed.
So, what made this empty chair so important?
And how could it be dangerous today?
I — SEEDS OF DISSENT
The fundamental disagreement over the community’s direction was simple but deadly serious. Some, especially French President Charles DeGaulle, desired a confederation of states—more united than in the past while preserving national power—while most others preferred to establish new institutions above national governments, not unlike a federal United States of Europe.
The Treaty of Rome had been their compromise. Signed in 1957 by France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, also known as “The Six”, it established the European Economic Community—or EEC—and its two core institutions—yes, we know it’s more complicated, thank you for commenting—the Council of Ministers and the European Commission. The Council—a concession to the French—was little more than a formalized meeting of the various member governments’ ministers, getting together to hash out common policies, while the Commission—a nod to the federalists—was staffed by full-time Eurocrats who would formulate policy proposals for the Council to consider and decide on.
But by 1964, this compromise was wearing thin. On December 10, the Dutch Parliament declared they would not accept any decisions on the agricultural budget—which had to be decided by June 30— without serious changes to the EEC. Their demand: a strong and democratically-elected European Parliament to hold some power over the Council of Ministers.
By May, the Commission had drafted a proposal for some changes to address the Dutch concerns.
But when DeGaulle heard the proposal, he was enraged by its apparent intention to reduce his power to guide French policy. He wouldn’t let this happen — he couldn’t.
And so, a stalemate ensued.
The showdown would take place at the end of June, as the Council of Ministers met and attempted to resolve the dispute before the deadline elapsed.
On June 30, at 7:00pm, with the budget deadline only hours away and without any progress made, the French Foreign Minister, Murville, erupted, declaring that the only matter that would be settled by midnight was the agricultural budget. There would be no discussion of any radical reforms.
The Germans fired back, arguing that the commission’s proposal could not be piecemealed out just to suit French interests.
For a moment, the room went silent, as Murville pondered his response.
Finally, he took a breath, then replied, gravely.
Either an agricultural budget would be decided, or there would be no European community.
Midnight passed, his ultimatum unanswered.
At 2:00am on July 1st, the Council Chairman informed the press that the European Community was in crisis.
II — THE EMPTY CHAIR
And indeed it was.
On July 6th, France recalled its representatives from all EEC activities. Murville’s ultimatum was serious.
At every conference table, at every meeting, the French chair sat empty. Likely in violation of the Treaty of Rome, de Gaulle’s dramatic move was a severe threat to the very agreements which upheld peace on the continent after the horrors wrought by two world wars.
But the French government saw things differently—this was a chance to rescue Europe from the federalists’ totalitarian vision.
On September 9, de Gaulle gave a speech on the crisis and said about as much. He warned—in terms similar to today’s Euroskeptics—that federalism threatened national identity, that it would wreak havoc on the democratic institutions of nation-states, rendering them weak and helpless against a Brussels-based technocracy, which de Gaulle compared—in 1965, I remind you—to the imperial ambitions of Hitler and Stalin. Only a system that relied on national sovereignty and unanimous decision-making between member states could preserve self-government on the continent.
But it’s not clear that De Gaulle’s moralizing opposition to federal integration was all that principled. After all, De Gaulle’s ministers had tried to steamroll Dutch objections to his vision without so much as a discussion. Could it have been that De Gaulle was more afraid of France losing her status as Europe’s premiere power more than anything else?
Regardless, undeterred by de Gaulle’s grandstanding and inflammatory language, the other member states remained committed to the European project. The Council of Ministers invited the French to a meeting in Brussels, to negotiate an end to the crisis. The French barely acknowledged the invitation and suggested they would only participate in a meeting between the Six countries’ foreign ministers away from Brussels, and emphatically not as the Council of Ministers.
Finally, it was agreed in December that a meeting would take place between all six nations, not in Brussels, but in Luxembourg, where the French could plausibly deny that they were returning to the EEC’s fold. But this eventual agreement to advance negotiations, an entire six months after France’s unceremonious suspension of its participation in the future of Europe, was hardly without costs. The year would end without an approved budget for the EEC. If the parties couldn’t agree to a resolution quickly, there might not be a future for European integration at all.
III — THE SHOWDOWN
As ministers shuffled into the Luxembourg meeting room on January 17, briefcases in tow, everyone was wondering if their dream of a European community was dead in the water.
The French were late — a big surprise.
Finally, Murville entered the room calmly, handed out some papers headed, “Our Ten Complaints,” and took his 6-months-vacant seat. At first, worry set in, but as the ministers began to read, the anxiety faded away; most of these were either reasonable, irrelevant, or negotiable.
Except—there was one matter not included in the decalogue, as it would come to be known: voting. France wanted any country to be able to veto any policy if a vital national interest was at stake. This was not so easily negotiable.
The other countries saw the demand for what it was—an effort to slow integration and revert power back to the states, a revision of the Rome Treaty’s clear procedures for qualified majority rule.
Nevertheless, attempts were made to find a compromise, with the Belgians—ever the middle-men between the French and the rest of Europe—taking the lead. But Murville refused. There would be no negotiation.
By the end of the second day, with no agreement, they had failed. But the six agreed to meet here again in 10 days: one last ditch effort to save the European project.
When they reconvened on January 28, the five had an answer for France’s decalogue of complaints—seven promises to adjust and accommodate. Sadly for the Dutch—and most others—there would be no strong European parliament.
France had won, but Europe would survive.
Yet there remained the issue of the veto.
The French stuck stubbornly to their demands, as the others insisted that this egregious violation of the Rome Treaty would doom European integration and perhaps peace itself.
Eventually, all six agreed on a statement that would become known as the Luxembourg Compromise—and this would seem miraculous given each side’s intransigence…except, it was hardly a compromise at all.
In essence, the statement was an agreement to disagree. No formal veto was implemented, but the other members acknowledged that the French effectively wielded one with their willingness to withdraw.
As a result, integration did slow and even took some steps back. Most importantly, though, this crucial question which plagued the European project right from the start—what kind of community would this be?—remained entirely unanswered, as the EEC persisted as a confused pseudo-compromise between two mutually exclusive visions.
IV — EUROPE'S DILEMMA
As such, it’s hardly surprising that the argument has continued to haunt Europe. Only after fifteen more years of bickering, did the Dutch demand for direct elections to a European Parliament finally materialize. And, though voting procedures have been altered, the Council of Ministers still needs supermajorities or even unanimity to implement policies for a wide variety of issues, resulting in persistent incapacity: a direct legacy of de Gaulle and his empty chair.
As the EEC evolved over time, growing its membership and transforming into the EU we know today, it has moved slowly in the direction of federalism. But there are exceptions, not the least of which was Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc. Moreover the EU’s problem children, Hungary and Poland, have exploited the Council of Ministers’ unanimity requirement to protect one another from punishment for their violations of EU principles on democracy and the rule of law.
The contradiction at the heart of the empty chair crisis was left intact—what would Europe be?—and as a result each new member saw in the community the half they wanted to see. Some states joined expecting to flourish in a tight union with its own democratic governance structures, capable of exacting compliance from members even in the absence of unanimity. Others saw the community as embodying de Gaulle’s confederalist vision. By failing to choose, Europe made itself vulnerable to a narrative of democratic deficit—the belief that the Union deceived new members with promises of independence only to subject them to a domineering bureaucracy. And as new crises wash over the continent—from war to spiraling inflation to the persistent threat of populism—the Empty Chair Crisis remains a profound reminder that the deepest threats to the European project today, as then, come not from the outside, but in a very real sense from the Union’s division against itself.
“The Constitutional Crisis 1965-66” by John Lambert in Journal of Common Market Studies