In the early 1950s Franco-German relations developed in a rapid and rather interesting fashion. One extremely important and often overlooked event was when the French agreed in 1954 to a referendum in the Saarland, which had been separated from the Federal Republic and turned into something of an independent country. France certainly hoped that the Saar would forever remain outside the German state. But Pierre Mendés-France, who was Premier of France at the time, let this referendum happen. The results were entirely unambiguous. They were more than 2 to 1 in favor of becoming a part of Germany. The great question was, How would France react?
France reacted by respecting the will of the people of the Saar. I think this was the critical point in the development of confidence between France and Germany, and the most visible example of the emergence of a new partnership in Europe. But France and Germany had different agendas. Germany, above all, wanted to become a part of the community of nations, and France above all wanted to control Germany's re-emergence. One of the ways for France to do this was through the Coal and Steel Community, which started work in 1952, and came to be the core of what we still know as the European Union. There were also other different agendas when it came to the European Union. Germany wanted wider markets for industrial products; France wanted support for a painful process of the reduction of agricultural activity. So at several levels there were divergent agendas with convergent results.
France was concerned about American economic power, while Germany was not. France was worried stiff about having lost any share in world domination. And Germany for a period was quite genuinely pro-free trade. Ludwig Erhard, who did for economics what Adenauer did for politics, thought that with America on his side one could fight for free trade.
Initially Erhard was skeptical because he feared that Europe might introduce obstacles in the way of free trade. The speech he made in the German parliament in 1957 during the ratification debate on the Treaty of Rome is quite extraordinary. Nine-tenths of it is a very powerful free-trade argument against the EEC, and then he suddenly ends by saying, "I suppose these days young people need ideals, and here is the new ideal, and who am I to stand in the way of new ideals for young people? And so I too support the Treaty of Rome."
Ralf Dahrendorf is the former director of the London School of Economics and warden of St. Antony's College, Oxford