It is worth looking at some of the key figures who began grouping European countries after World War 2, resulting in the formation of the European Economic Community, in 1957, a long period of prosperity, and the construction of today’s European Union.
In 1945, the continent was being divided, as the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, and his military and secret police, tightened their grip on Eastern Europe. By 1948, the takeover would be complete.
In 1946, Britain’s prime minister, Winston Churchill, spoke, in the US, of how an “iron curtain had descended from Stettin, in the Baltic, to Trieste, in the Adriatic.” That year, he also delivered a speech that is considered by some as the first step towards European integration. He argued that “the recreation of the European family, or as much of it as we can”, could, “as if by a miracle, transform the whole scene. We must build a kind of United States of Europe”.
This rhetoric was matched by practical actions on both sides of the Atlantic. In America, the Truman administration put together the Marshall Plan, an ambitious aid programme born of rational self-interest and of a recognition that a prosperous Western Europe was required, if further land grabs by Stalin were to be resisted.
Countries right across Europe, Ireland included, gained. Key beneficiaries included France, Italy and, above all, West Germany. The plan was named after General George Marshall, but its driving forces were bureaucrats, financiers, and economists, led by Dean Acheson, of the US State Department, and a New York lawyer, John McCloy. The Americans were promoting a new, centralised European organisation. In 1948, the OEEC, or Organisation for European Economic Cooperation, was established.
In Western Europe, key local figures were also active. The people of the Low countries, led by that great trading race, the Dutch, were in the vanguard. In 1944, they set up the Benelux customs union, involving Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.
Key figures in this parallel move included France’s foreign minister, Robert Schuman, and Jean Monnet, a talented bureaucrat and financier. Monnet helped to inspire the Schuman Declaration of May, 1950, in which a plan for European integration was set out.
Schuman proposed that coal and steel production be pooled to “provide the common foundation for economic development as a first step in the federation of Europe.” Schuman was a social Catholic. The son of a German farmer, he grew up in Lorraine, which remained under German control until 1918. He cut his teeth investigating corruption in the Alsace Lorraine rail and steel industries. After the war, he engaged in what he described as a “great experiment, the fulfillment of the same recurrent dream, which, for ten years, has revisited the peoples of Europe”, that of “creating an organisation to put an end to war.”
Monnet was more practical, but equally visionary. He had served as deputy general secretary of the League of Nations between 1919 and 1922. He became disillusioned by its muddled decision-making and headed off to work as an international financier, initially with a US bank, Blair & Company. He helped stabilise Poland’s currency and advised the Chinese government. His social network extended to the powerful Rockefeller and Wallenberg families.
In December, 1939, he was brought back to reshape British and French industry, ahead of the coming war. After the fall of France, he advised the US president, Franklyn Roosevelt, and helped to assemble the great American “arsenal of democracy” that would soon outproduce the Germans. The economist, John Maynard Keynes, claimed that Monnet, by his actions, helped shorten the war by a year.
Monnet turned his attention to building up the European Coal and Steel Community. This would form the basis for the embryonic European Economic Community. The ECSC came into being in April, 1951, soon after the French government had proposed the establishment of a European Defence Communtiy. Some regard the establishment of the Coal and Steel Community, by six states, as the real foundation date of the European Community.
Monnet had few doubts about the direction in which he was headed. In 1955, he founded an Action Committee for a United States of Europe. Two years later, this bore fruit with the enactment of the Treaty of Rome and the foundation of the European Economic Community.
These moves would not have been possible without the foundations of recovery, particularly in the new German Federal Republic, where another key partnership had been formed, between the Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer and his economy minister, Ludwig Erhard. Adenauer was 73 when he took over and was still in post at the age of 87.
A Catholic from the Rhineland, he believed strongly in alliances with both France and the US, as Germany set out to rehabilitate itself. His right-hand man, Erhard, presided over the abolition of price and production controls. This set the stage for economic recovery.
Days after the controls were removed, goods appeared in shops and work absenteeism plummeted. The stage had been set for the West German economic miracle. The Federal Republic soon was able to underwrite part of the cost of the new Economic Community.
France, the other key component of the embryonic EEC, endured a miserable 1950s, facing disruption at home and the loss of its colony in Vietnam, as well as rebellion in Algeria. Charles de Gaulle returned to power in 1958, bringing political stability and boosting the French economy.
Across the continent, urbanisation and an industrial revival underwrote the new European Economic Community, though it would take until the early 1990s before the European Single Market would come into being. De Gaulle is a complex figure in EU history. He envisaged a confederation of states rather than the integrated entity that Monnet pushed for. He twice blocked Britain’s application for entry, and by extension Ireland’s. Arguably, he did us a favour.
But de Gaulle set the stage for the remarkable Franco-German alliance that was so pivotal to the early success of the EU. Perhaps it was the shattering experience of war. Europe had statesmen then. We could do with a few now.