European unity: reality and myth

Krzysztof Bobinski
21 March 2007

Few of today's Europeans looking at a photograph of the event will be able to recognise the twelve politicians who signed the Treaty of Rome on 25 March 1957 which established the European Economic Community (EEC). Konrad Adenauer, the first West German chancellor and post-war icon, will spark some recollection; Joseph Luns (Dutch foreign minister and future Nato secretary-general) and Paul-Henri Spaak (Belgian foreign minister) will be familiar to many of their compatriots; Walter Hallstein, the first head of the European commission will be well known to students of European studies. But even these statesmen, and certainly most of their companions, will seem to a modern generation of Europeans anonymous, remote figures from a distant age.

Krzysztof Bobinski works at the Unia & Polska Foundation, a pro-European NGO in Warsaw. He was the Financial Times' correspondent in Warsaw.

Also by Krzysztof Bobinski in openDemocracy:

"A stork’s eye view from Poland"
(May 2001)

"Democracy in the European Union, more or less"
(July 2005)

"The European Union’s Turkish dilemma"
(December 2005)

"Belarus's message to Europe"
(March 2006)

"Poland's populist caravan"
(14 July 2006)

" Hungary’s 1956, central Europe’s 2006: beyond illusion"
(27 October 2006)

The European Union's grand narrative, reflected in many histories of modern Europe, tells it differently. These twelve men are credited with formative achievements: signing a treaty that opened the way to the formation of an organisation in Europe which (at the Berlin summit of 24-25 March 2007) celebrates its fiftieth anniversary; which, for all the doubts it raises in its (now) twenty-seven member-states, has many countries clamouring to get in; and which - above all - is credited with preserving peace in post-war Europe. In this official version, these twelve men are far-sighted architects of an epic political project.

The EU mythology of the pères fondateurs has the great men of Europe staring out across the war-wasted cities and farms of our continent, saying "war - never again!", and committing themselves to European unity. And - voila! - the deed was done.

A look at the documents and memoirs of the period paints a more complex picture, one which shows that the project was (as today) never an easy one. Why, for example, did these architects of a united Europe take twelve years after the cessation of hostilities in Europe in May 1945 to arrive at Rome? The question suggests another: was it indeed the second world war which gave birth to the European project, or was it rather the cold war?

Stefan Glazer, a Polish diplomat representing the Polish government-in-exile, sent a revealing report from Brussels to his superiors in London in May 1945 (two months later, the communist regime was to take over his embassy when the western allies withdrew recognition from the London government). It said that the plans for federation which had been discussed in the early 1940s between exiled governments (Dutch, Czechs, Belgians - including Spaak) now seemed forgotten. Glazer noted that as the war ended, everyone was thinking in terms of bilateral agreements.

Glazer was in a position to know. After all, he had been involved in the wartime talks which saw the exiled government of Wladyslaw Sikorski pressing for a Polish-Czechoslovak federation, as well as federative links with others. The Polish exiled leaders were fully aware that the freedom of countries such as Poland after the war could only be secured through a pooling of sovereignty in larger federal groupings.

The arrival of the Red Army in central Europe in 1944-45 in full chase after the retreating Germans put paid to such ideas. The Soviet Union made it clear to Prague that it didn't want any talk of federations in Europe, especially with the Poles.

But by 1946-47 it was the evolving perception of a Soviet threat to western Europe which gave the cause of European unity the push it needed to get underway. From the late 1940s, it appears that - for all the talk of establishing peace in Europe which undoubtedly did motivate the proponents of European integration - the main driving force behind the European project was the need to rearm the Germans and put them on the frontline of the cold war without alarming the French. And a key role here was played by the Americans, who were wholeheartedly behind the plan (with the CIA pouring buckets of money into the European Movement to boot).

Also in openDemocracy on the European Union’s past, present and future:

Frank Vibert, "Absorption capacity’: the wrong European debate" (21 June 2006)

Aurore Wanlin, "Adieu, Europe?"
(29 June 2006)

Anthony Barnett, "The birth of Europe? "
(9 October 2006)

John Palmer, "Germany and Europe: the pull of unity"
(16 February 2007)

Aurore Wanlin, "The European Union at fifty: a second life"
(15 March 2007)

The reintegration of Germany after the war underpinned the thinking behind the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) established in 1951 by Robert Schuman, at the urging of Jean Monnet; and the need to have Germany rearmed but safe for its allies was behind the attempt to establish a European Defence Force (EDF), which faltered in 1954 when the French national assembly failed to ratify the plan. The failure of the EDF was no less a shock then than the failure to ratify the European constitution by France and the Netherlands in 2005. But by then Nato - headed by the Americans - was in place to face the challenge; and there was enough independent momentum in the European project to switch to the construction of a free market in Europe through the Messina conference (1955) and on to the Treaty of Rome.

It is interesting to note that the Messina declaration devotes a lot of space to a common energy policy and the development of nuclear energy, an important current preoccupation for the EU. It is also interesting in the way that the struggle between the integrators and those resistant to further integration continued, then as now, all the time. Indeed, the foreign ministers at Messina only committed themselves to study the issues they set down as aims. Spaak then turned what was presented as a mere study commitment into the draft Rome treaty. This in turn set the basis for a "common market" among the six (France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), which preserved the idea of a body which would look after the common interest of the member-states working together in an EEC on the way to an "ever-closer union".

The people on the stage

What has changed, fifty years on? Well, the Soviet threat has gone and the Americans have lost interest in the European project (indeed, they seem at times to be irritated by it). The Germans are still at the centre of the scheme but fear of that country has much abated. On defence, the project seems to gone full circle as the union once again talks of a defence identity, but this time around wondering who the enemy might be. Indeed the cold war substantially helped the European project by providing a common foe.

What has not changed is that national politicians are still fighting about how far to go down the integration route, with national interests very much at the heart of the debate. But there is a twist: with the onset of referenda as a way of taking decisions in Europe, matters are to an extent out of the national leaders' hands. In a sense it was enough for Paul-Henri Spaak to talk all night to his French opposite number at their hotel in Sicily in 1955 to get the French to accept the need for a common market, when all they initially wanted to agree to was an extension of the ECSC into a number of selected fields. True, they then needed national parliaments to ratify their agreements. Now, whole electorates have to be brought on board. Would the men who brought about the Treaty of Rome have been able to rise to that challenge?

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