Magazine article The Spectator

The 100-Year Plot

Magazine article The Spectator

The 100-Year Plot

Article excerpt

Among the millions of words which will be expended over the next four years on the first world war, very few will be devoted to explaining one of its greatest legacies of all, the effects of which continue to dominate our politics to this day. One of the best-kept secrets of the European Union is that the core idea which gave rise to it owed its genesis not to the second world war, as is generally supposed, but to the Great War a quarter of a century earlier. It was around that time that the man who can be described as 'the Father of Europe' was first inspired to the detailed vision which only after 1945 was he finally in a position to launch on its way.

More than a decade ago, when I was working with my colleague Dr Richard North on a history of 'the European project', nothing surprised us more than how completely historians had failed to uncover the real story of that project's origins. Furthermore, this was not merely of historical interest. The missing piece of the jigsaw gives us such a crucial insight into the core idea which was to create and shape the European Union that the failure of David Cameron and our present-day politicians to take it on board makes much of what they are today all saying about Britain's relations with 'Europe' just empty fluff.

The story began just after the outbreak of war in 1914, when two young men were appointed to organise the shipping between North America and Europe of food and vital war materials. One was a now forgot ten British civil servant called Arthur Salter ; the other was the Frenchman Jean Monn et, a former salesman for his family's brandy firm.

By 1917 they were so frustrated by the difficulty of hiring ships from all the international interests involved that they had a radical id ea. What was needed, they agreed, was a body armed with 'supranational' powers to requisition the ships, overriding the wishes of their owners or any national government.

In 1919 these two men became senior officials in the new League of Nations: Monnet was deputy secretary general, Salter in charge of German reparations. They were inspired by the way they and their colleagues were expected to forget national loyalties in working for a higher international cause. But as the 1920s progressed, they again became frustrated by what they, like so many, saw as the League's central flaw. Every nation had a veto - an expression, as Monnet saw it, of that 'national egoism' which had caused the war and might yet bring about another.

By the decade's end, when the League, without the USA, had become largely a European concern, Salter had developed their ideas in a new direction. He proposed in a book published in 1931, The United States of Europe, that the League's four core institutions - its ruling secretariat, a council of ministers, a parliamentary assembly and a court of justice - should be turned into a 'government of Europe', run though its secretariat by technocrats like himself, above all national loyalties.

This body must be given 'supranational' powers, eliminating national vetoes. And the first step towards this new government should be to set up a 'customs union', providing it with so much revenue from tariffs that it would reduce national governments 'to the status of municipal assemblies'.

Scarcely had Salter outlined his grand design, intended to avert another European war, than Hitler's rise to power made it irrelevant. But in 1939 Salter and Monnet were reunited in London. Monnet had now become a very effective behind-the-scenes political operator - it was he who, just before the fall of France in 1940, talked Churchill into that quixotic proposal for a political union between France and Britain - and he used the succession of influential positions he held through the war to push their idea to men such as Paul-Henri Spaak, Belgium's prime minister in exile. In Algiers, in 1943, he put it to Harold Macmillan that the first step towards a 'federal Europe' should be a 'supranational' authority to run the industries key to waging war, steel and coal. …

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