What was the most important date in post-war European history? Some historians would say all European history as it changed Europe for ever.
Who made the real turning point where his government created a democratic solution for the whole Continent, its politics, economics and its defence?
Robert Schuman in 1948!
The distinguished French professor of history, Jean-Baptiste Duroselle said that the date of 20 July 1948 must be considered as the real turning point of European history. It was a new point of departure.
“For the first time a government officially presented a project aimed at the construction of Europe. While the idea of supranationality was not clearly delineated, it seems that the project implied it. Before 1914, Europe was only conceived in terms of equilibrium or balance of power.”
At the start of the 20th century, the system of alliances Europe into two blocs, he wrote. The European equilibrium, was, as US President Wilson stated, the deep cause of the Great War. The interwar initiative of Briand tried to shape an entity called Europe within the global system of the League of Nations. Aristide Briand did not propose something new. To attribute the paternity of a governmental initiative for present-day European construction to Briand would be to commit a dangerous anachronism, warned Duroselle.
After World War II ended, Europeans started to turn their minds to rebuilding the ruins of broken cities and industries, massive debts, hyperinflation and devalued currencies. But they were immediately faced with other matters of life and death. The Soviet Union, USSR, occupied eastern and central Europe. During the war, Communist party cadres from Germany, Poland, Hungary and other countries were trained in Moscow about how to seize power at war’s end. They knew where the main levers of power were in each country and how to subvert parliaments even with a small Communist party.
“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in some cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow. … The Communist parties, which were very small in all these Eastern States of Europe, have been raised to pre-eminence and power far beyond their numbers and are seeking everywhere to obtain totalitarian control. Police governments are prevailing in nearly every case, and so far, except in Czechoslovakia, there is no true democracy.”
“The safety of the world, ladies and gentlemen, requires a new unity in Europe, from which no nation should be permanently outcast. It is from the quarrels of the strong parent races in Europe that the world wars we have witnessed, or which occurred in former times, have sprung.”
A few days later on Bastille Day that year Churchill met with Robert Schuman in Metz, France and delivered his first great European speech. Schuman was then Minister of Finance for France. France was in deep danger of being sucked into the Soviet sphere. The French Communist party was the country’s largest. It tried to take over parliament. US diplomats warned President Truman that France too could fall. But by late 1947, Schuman had become Prime Minister. He showed iron-willed opposition to Communist threats, revolutionary strikes and sabotage.
Schuman also prevented a future war by gradually changing the nationalistic policies of the Gaullists and others who wanted a land-grab of territory up to the Rhine. De Gaulle was no longer in power but was still a powerful nationalistic influence in parliament and in mass rallies. De Gaulle’s followers tried opportunistically to bring down the Schuman government by voting and working in lock-step with the Communists’ insurrection.
In the last days of his first government, Schuman made a decisive step that has affected all Europeans ever since. First, his government, working with UK’s foreign Minister, Ernest Bevin, created a defensive pact, known as the Brussels Treaty Organization. Ostensibly, the pact of France, UK and the Benelux countries was to guard against further German aggression. Schuman’s foreign minister Georges Bidault was very nervous about openly declaring it was to prevent Soviet invasion. Schuman much less so.
On 19-20 July 1948 Bidault delivered Schuman’s message to the foreign ministers of the Brussels Pact, meeting in The Hague. It astounded them too. Bidault described Belgium’s foreign minister, Paul-Henri Spaak as a man hard to surprise. On making his speech, Bidault said his eyes were extraordinarily round with shock.
“We are at a moment, perhaps unique in history, where it is possible to create Europe,” said Bidault.
He made two propositions.
The first proposition was to create a European parliamentary assembly. It would be made up initially of parliamentarians of national bodies and also open to other nations who wished to apply. The second was for an economic and customs union for the six countries, to which other nations could apply to join.
“Thus in the economic sphere the Common Market was created and from the political perspective, the Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. In spite of all later obstacles and violent opposition to these two ideas, both of them have flourished,” Bidault wrote.
A third major institution arose out of Schuman’s initiative at the Brussels Pact. Washington required a demonstration of Europeans’ willingness to defend itself before it could politically commit its forces to Europe again. With the Berlin blockade that year, and following Schuman’s lead, talks began with USA and Canada to create NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It entered force around the same time as the Council of Europe began its sessions in summer 1949.
This year 2018 represents the 70th birthday of that positive turning point, #EU70.
David Heilbron Price