At a time when the EU is at its least popular and, worse still, least respected, it is worth reflecting on how the idea for a united Europe developed – and where it went wrong. The Spectator’s reprint last week of Christopher Booker’s 2014 article ‘How the first world war inspired the EU’ is a timely reminder of the real genesis of the EU. Yet it was only after the Second World War amid fear of a renascent Germany, that the concept of an ‘ever-closer union’ became the shibboleth of European construction. It was here that the European project took a mistaken turn.
The First World War led to France and Britain’s economies becoming closely aligned. This partnership involved inter-allied commissions to oversee the distribution of wheat, sugar, coal and credit. And by 1918, the two allies’ economies were knitted closer together than at any time until the 1986 Single European Act.
After the war, the two principal civil servants collaborating in this remarkable endeavour, Jean Monnet and Arthur Salter, hoped to prolong the war-time experience by building on a successful enterprise that had contributed greatly to Allied victory. Theirs was a project founded on experience, results and optimism. But peace-time Franco-British differences meant that this plan was doomed, even if the idea of a federalist Europe lived on in the inter-war years.The Second World War led to another attempt at making this closer union a reality. In June 1940, the British Cabinet proposed to France the project for an ‘indissoluble union’. Building on military collaboration and the 1939 Anglo-French Coordinating Committee, chaired by Jean Monnet, it was supplemented by the Anglo-French trade agreement and the Anglo-French industrial council in February and March 1940. The American ambassador hailed the planned Franco-British Union ‘the beginning of a United States of Europe’.
Following the war, French and British leaders Leon Blum and Ernest Bevin sought to consolidate these ties into a Franco-British union that would include the Benelux countries, Scandinavia and a democratic Germany.