Saturday, Dec. 07, 1996

The Idea of Unity

Cover Story

As Europe recovered from the ravages of the century's second great war, its leaders searched for a way to make certain that there would not be a third. Most agreed on what to do: Europe must be reorganized in some sort of federation or union that could blunt the national jealousies and assuage the economic hungers that had been the precursors of both wars.

This was not a new idea. The dream of a united Europe was nearly as old as history, and there were times when it came close to reality. At the peak of its power, Rome ruled Europe from the Pyrenees to the Black Forest. But — significantly, in light of later history — the Romans proved unable to conquer the tribes of Germany. Many of them became part of the eastern horde that ultimately sacked the Eternal City and ended its empire.

Charlemagne did not make that mistake. When he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800, he courted the support of Germanic princes whose descendants succeeded him. But the title outlasted the feudal empire itself, vanishing beneath the might of military dictators who tried to unite Europe with the sword. Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Hitler created immense suffering — but no unity.

The man who ultimately succeeded in starting Europe down the path to true unity was neither feudal Emperor nor military megalomaniac. He was a mustachioed wine distiller from Cognac with the look and manner of a bureaucrat. Few modern Europeans would recognize his face amid the grand pantheon of De Gaulle, Macmillan and Adenauer. Yet Jean Monnet is regarded as the father of the European Community because of his inspired idea that the Continent could be made rich and peaceful not with a single grand act of creation but by a slow and steady accumulation of rules, policies, treaties and commissions. "Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan," he wrote in a 1952 memo to French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman. "It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity."

That idea was central to the founding document of modern European unity, the 1950 Schuman Plan, drafted by Monnet and Schuman in close consultation with Konrad Adenauer. It served as the basis for a strategy to build the house of Europe with a bricklayer's dogged, step-by-step patience. "Monnet's first novelty was to avoid grand principles," says his biographer, François Duchêne. "He asked for no authority over anyone." But Monnet was an instinctive consensus builder, a master of administration by committee and a convivial polyglot who accumulated contacts among key policy leaders in Paris, London, Bonn and Washington. With those skills he began the construction of Europe.

The first brick in the building was as unromantic as it was essential: the European Coal and Steel Community. The ECSC was the first of the "communities" that ultimately became the European Economic Community; in its day, in fact, it was the European Economic Community. In the Europe of the 1950s, coal and the steel smelted with it were as central to economic prosperity as telecommunications and transportation are today. Many of the points of friction that had led to past wars lay along the great seams of coal and centers of steelmaking, such as the Saar region, where Hitler had first tested European will and found it weak. With the end of the war, coal emerged once again as a point of dangerous contention. "Old King Coal is the economic tyrant of Europe," TIME commented in 1952. "On both sides of the Iron Curtain, he chills the poor, rocks governments, distorts economies and hampers rearmament."

The declared goal of the ECSC was to establish "the basis for broader and deeper community among peoples long divided by bloody conflicts; and to lay the foundations for institutions which will give direction to a destiny henceforward shared." That language had more to do with the prevention of war than with the regulation of coal and steel production — which is just as well, because the ECSC never fully succeeded in subsuming national rivalries to broader community goals. Nevertheless, it established the pattern of "practical achievements" that produced the document that is modern Europe's constitution: the Treaty of Rome.

In keeping with Monnet's piecemeal style, the treaty, signed on March 25, 1957, dealt mainly with mundane agricultural policy for six member nations: France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Though the "Common Agricultural Policy" soon became notorious for its huge costs and subsidy-created "wine lakes," the Rome treaty set forth the principles for a united Europe. The treaty comprises 248 articles, but its essence is known as the Four Freedoms: freedom of movement for goods, people, services and capital. Though less grand than a U.S.-style bill of rights, this simple principle of porous borders suited the Monnet style of gradualism. It created a kind of bureaucratic road map that pointed wary Europeans toward unity but did not shove them — a process that continues to this day. Much of the success of Monnet and his busy, bureaucratic colleagues was owing to their very obscurity. Monnet himself never assumed a ministerial portfolio. His loftiest title was president of the high authority of the ECSC, which he held for only three years before resigning in deference to opposition from coal and steel cartels. That modest style made it possible for him to proceed with his bricklaying while the great leaders of the day dealt with the excruciatingly visible tensions and confrontations of the cold war. The likes of Charles de Gaulle, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harold Macmillan fixed their minds upon the Suez crisis, rebellion in Hungary and tank-to-tank face-offs in Berlin.

The solution to that security problem was as grand and comprehensive as the EEC was modest and piecemeal. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was a large organization with an equally large mission, best expressed by Britain's Lord Ismay: to keep the Germans down, the Russians out and the Americans in. In all that it succeeded. West Germany, locked within the U.S.-led NATO structure, lacked the possibility (or the desire, after the disaster of Nazism) for independent military action. Largely because of NATO, the Soviet Union could neither attack Europe, nor — more important — intimidate it. And America, after first demobilizing and withdrawing at the end of World War II, poured back into Europe with a 300,000-member armed force that made it the protector of Europe for nearly half a century. Almost from the beginning that protection included the deployment of nuclear weapons and the eventual creation of a U.S.-controlled "nuclear umbrella" intended to protect NATO members from attack by the far larger forces of the Soviet bloc. NATO's nuclear umbrella made nobody happy, least of all the French, who began building their own nuclear force and eventually left the military structure of NATO. But under its protection, Europe prospered.

The German Wirtschaftswunder, the "economic miracle," was the most remarkable national recovery in the history of Europe's many wars. In the 1950s Germany went from a devastated land of ruined cities and shattered morale to Europe's most powerful economy. Led by the German boom, the EEC became by 1962 the world's largest single trading power, as it soaked up the lion's share of raw materials to feed its burgeoning factories and turned them into products to sell on a world market.

Of the major countries of the Continent, only Britain continued to stagnate in shabby isolation. By the end of the decade, British leaders had begun to realize that their country's economic future lay with Europe, not the crumbling Commonwealth or the European Free Trade Association it founded to compete with the EEC. But by then De Gaulle opposed British entry, and it was not until 1972 that Britain was permitted into the club.

Not only the British recognized the success and permanence of a united Europe. By 1961 the Soviet Union acknowledged it as well, in the only way it knew how: the building of the Berlin Wall to prevent the impoverished citizens of a failed system from pouring en masse across the divide to a thriving one. Although the Wall froze the division of East and West, it also allowed the West Europeans to continue their incremental construction of an open and prospering economy. When the Berlin Wall fell almost three decades later, Jean Monnet had been dead 10 years and was mostly forgotten by the jubilant crowds that battered it to pieces with hammers and chisels. But he was there in spirit, patiently chipping away at Europe's last great barrier to eventual unity.