It is interesting to speculate upon what Europe might have become now if the foundation stones of the EU had not been laid in 1951 in the European Coal and Steel Community This was a unique international venture, based upon the principle of the equality of the participant states before laws jointly made and working under the umbrella of supranational authority. The forces in play in Europe immediately after the end of WW II were still driven by very much the same national attitudes and ambitions as had been the norm in Europe for several hundred years, only the principal actors had changed leaving two non-Western European powers, the Soviet Union and the USA, to command the scene. It seems likely that without Monnet the fragmented authority inherent in the old Europe would have led to a situation of rivalries and one–off alliances some probably fuelled by outside interests. Would NATO, if launched, have evolved to its present form would? Germany have been reunited? would we now still be struggling to trade with nationally imposed import quotas and tariffs, differing health and safety standards, competitive definitions of ‘chocolate’ and so forth? would the continent have reaped the benefits of the recovering world economy, would pockets of discrimination have lingered on and , a not insignificant factor, would Europeans have been much slower to grasp the fact that Europe is their tiny patch of the world’s land mass and they and they alone are corporately responsible for solving its many problems ?
Europe in its wider geopolitical shape is unique in the world in that in a comparatively small area there is, squashed together like trees in an overgrown forest, a large population, over 500 million in the EU plus around 300 million more if Russia and non EU nations are included. This potential political volcano is divided into over 30 different countries each containing smaller groups of people with massively differing views and historical experience. The essential problem has been and remains how this multiplicity of peoples can be brought to live together in peace and solidarity while preserving diversity and independence, and maintaining a capacity to promote the general good and protect their interests in the face of outside pressures. It is essentially a work of synthesis rather than building upon the traditional ‘balance of power’ thinking that has been embedded deep in Europe’s DNA. There is no historical precedent for this work and while lessons can be learned from other political and social cultures there is no other part of the world in a similar situation. Dreams of a ‘United States of Europe’ are misleading, at least when they suggest unexamined parallels with North America for what is certain is that Europe will go its own way and its evolution cannot be forced into any existing mould. As Robert Schuman said in 1950 ‘Europe will not be conjured up by at a stroke or by an overall design; it will be attained by concrete achievements creating a community of interest’.
The present EU project has developed from what might be called the ‘Monnet shock’ which led directly to the Schuman Plan and the treaty signed in Paris in April 1951 establishing the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC ). For Monnet the aim was to pull out the roots of European nationalism, the ‘curse of the modern world’, and create a new political framework that channelled national attitudes of the old rival states and their traditional patterns of behaviour into joint cooperation . At the heart of this was the central task of giving the long established western European geopolitical ethos a centre of gravity that nurtured peace as a context in which to further national ambitions, rather the accepted manoeuvrings around power and the threat of force.
Monnet produced a practical solution to the problem out of the need to resolve the re-emergence after WW II of the old Franco-German rivalry which he did by recognising and allaying fears around the potential imbalance between the two countries industrial strength, in particular iron and steel production and Adenauer’s desire to establish Germany as a peaceful nation fully and equally integrated into the western community. There was to be no German steel, no French steel, only European steel, and an end to the age old default fissures that had left deep scars in the continent.
Hence the ECSC which incorporated six countries, that is France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux states and was open to any European democracy willing to observe the rules. This Community was supervised by a Higher Authority exercising supranational monitoring, aided by a Court of Justice while democratic accountability to national parliaments was vested in a Common Assembly of national ministers. The crux of the matter was set out clearly by Monnet who was keen to make it clear that the Higher Authority was not just another international talking shop with fuzzy notions comforting to its members but ultimately of no practical use. In his inaugural address in August 1952 in Luxembourg he noted that the six parliaments had established the ‘first European Community merging part of its members national sovereignty and subordinating it to the common interest’. His aim was to further the organisation as a ‘group endowed with real authority and the intention to exercise it without reference to national governments ‘. At the same time he stressed that the Authority had no role in directing firms themselves but would base its work on consultation across the board, with governments, workers, consumers and their associations. ‘We shall submit our decisions to the test of debate’. The beginnings of the present European experiment were firmly laid down and as Monnet noted ‘All these institutions can be modified and improved in the light of experience . But there is one point on which there will be no turning back: these institutions are supranational and , let us not shrink from the word, federal.’
Thus the Monnet ‘shock’ the resonance of which has endured until the present day, surviving early British attempts to undermine the system and other blows like the defeat of the European Defence Community in 1954, the apparent intergovernmentalism that followed , de Gaulle’s championing of national power and the end of the post war economic boom in the recession that followed the Yom Kippur war ( 1973-1974) and the oil embargo. Monnet was not a professional bureaucrat, nor a politician neither of which situations would have been an advantage in pursuing his ultimate aims for Europe. He was man with a vast network of friends and collaborators among leaders and politicians both in Europe and the USA and the practical insight to see how to get his ideas across to the real ‘movers and shakers’ of the time. When in the 1950s the waters appeared to be muddying he was able to set up the Action Committee for the United State of Europe which became a forum for exchange of views and close examination of proposals to which leaders of political parties and unions form across the Community came as delegates. The Action Committee kept the flag of Monnet’s Europe aloft until 1975 when it was dissolved ( Monnet died in 1979- aged 90) . A new Action Committee was set up in 1985 by Max Kohnstamm of the Netherlands and worked in coordination with Jacques Delors , President of the European Commission, in the process leading to the Maastricht Treaty of European Union which entered into force in November 1993.
The Maastricht Treaty ( amended by the later treaties of Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon) formalised the intergovernmental component of the present EU system while creating a supranational pillar in the shape of the three institutions, the Commission, the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice. Thus Monnet’s vision, as a basis for managing peace and proposing solutions to the latent problems in the European geopolitical space remains firmly in place at the beginning of the 21st century.
However conditions now are different from those that stood out in the period after WW II and the EU project has to be seen through the changing subjectivity of the modern world. What is abundantly clear is that the project will founder if it is not recognised as leading to the enhancement of human life in all its aspects. For better or worse, people’s perceptions of what to expect in their lives have drastically advanced both materially and in terms of what is thought to be possible. Material wealth, easy consumerism, the sheer increase in populations added to the impact of social media and communications, have led to great benefits but inevitably also to much short term thinking that has fuelled national politics in recent years. At the same time many of the former, apparently fixed values have been modified or worn away. Who in the immediate post war would have accepted the relaxation of euthanasia rules in Belgium and the Netherlands which give doctors more leeway to kill sufferers without their consent ?
So the question for all is what value can be put upon the EU project and the vision behind its institutions as well as upon the compromises and concessions required to deliver it ? Europe is not a national state and should not aim to be one. Yet it is a political project in the sense that it is a union of values, providing a framework of law, akin to domestic law, for countries to cooperate and manage their differences. It also commits a state to a system in which it is no longer is sole control which is a large step to take away from the European norm down the centuries. Given the scope offered by the peaceful conditions now prevalent in the continent and , it must be said, multiple problems that have emerged, this has stirred up deep seated resentments and nationalism in various regions and countries which politicians of various colours have not been slow to exploit. Antagonism to the whole project lingers on in some countries; indeed in the UK , for example, there are still those in right wing circles who would like to unravel the EU and return to the national state system. Remarkably they fail to explain how the problems of the past might be avoided. In other countries similar political animosity towards Brussels and its works can be found.
The EU project is essentially a voluntary system that will only survive if the vision and values of its creators can be reproduced in each generation. This means sharing solidarity and justice, human rights, democracy and freedom of speech, and doing this not in public displays of rhetoric making and a notional investment in lofty ideals but in dealing directly with the practical common problems that effect the daily lives of EU citizens. These values must be seen to be the matrix of European civilisation. Above Europe needs a concerted and determined approach to demonstrate that shared sovereignty is the only effective answer to cross border and international challenges that no member state can handle on its own. Monnet focused on specific problems and policies derived from their solution for the general benefit of all. This must be the way forward if the project is to progress rather than unravel and benefit from the vision of its founders rather than be bogged down by parochialism and obsession with the past.
Neither Europe nor its values can be safely left to economists and national politicians. The dynamic imparted by the Community reverberates still and, given the times, the pendulum will continue to swing between more or less community minded phases and no doubt numerous centrifugal forces will emerge. There will also be tension between the expediency needed to calibrate the internal market and the impact on lives; an internal market that does little or nothing to legitimise the benefits of the EU in the eyes of its citizens can only give fuel to the rancorous nationalism of various ‘populist’ groups. Whatever the current attractions, when basic needs are satisfied no one is going to subcontract their humanity to a one- dimensional model of supply and demand much less to loopholes in health and safety conditions. Such an approach could not endure. And in modern Europe one might now go further and question whether one should define one’s place in humanity according to the nationality inscribed on one’s passport and the ‘frogs around a pond’ distortions of the nationalistic press.
But only wise and enlightened leadership all the way through society can work on the foundations of the community and change the quality of relationships between peoples which lay at the heart of Monnet’s vision. This needs a cool hard gaze at the realities of the present and where they may lead in the future. Intellectual goodwill and emotions are not enough, they fade and change and are subject to the next opportunist politician who comes along and stirs up the fears and hopes in the interest of being elected. At the top a clear focus on the problems is needed, effective consultation and effective, visible solutions for the general good. This probably will eventually require an overhaul of the mechanism of democracy in the EU in order to bring the project nearer to the people. In addition strong community institutions are essential to consolidate the Monnet ’shock’ and balance the Council of Ministers which can encourage fragmented authority and over-anxious notions of sovereigny, a potential ghost from the past which European governments have been happy to placate. Indeed there may now be a case for a close study of how the concensus mechanism may stand in the way of efficient problem solving, delivery of EU services to EU citizens and the creative harnessing of the forces underlying modern Europe.