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Rivista di etica e scienze sociali / Journal of Ethics & Social Sciences


For Europeans, there are several golden anniversaries to celebrate (or commiserate) around this time. It was 50 years ago last year that Robert Schuman made his proposal for a pooling of heavy industries, particularly those of Germany and France, which was the beginning of the successful process. This lead 50 years ago this year to the conclusion of negotiations and the signing of the treaty for the setting up of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in April 1951. In August next year, it will be 50 years since the ECSC set up shop under the presidency of its prime back room mover and shaker, Jean Monnet. Such anniversaries falling at a time of crucial new developments in the structure of the European Union deserve some reflection.

Although there were undoubted setbacks, failures and periods of stagnation in the development of the EU, these problems only serve to show up more clearly the overwhelming success of the Union despite these hiccups. Hugues Puel, in the first of his two articles for OIKONOMIA on "Catholicism and Politics in France", echoes the assessment of many that Schuman’s 1950 declaration gave rise "without doubt [to] the only genuinely new geopolitical project of the 20th century". When the Organisation of African States (OAS) recently told the world that it was disbanding and replacing itself with an "African Union", one was reminded of the phrase "imitation is the best form of flattery". Such success can make it seem almost inevitable that an organisation like the EU should have come into existence after the Second World War, but the many failed attempts to achieve some kind of unity in Europe before the ECSC bear witness to the fact that it was in no sense inevitable and that only a combination of great vision and drive with a workable and highly competent practical proposal, not to mention skilled negotiation, could have overcome the initial obstacles to making some genuine unity a reality in Europe. Amitai Etzioni argues that crucial factors in the early success of the ECSC were (i) what it left out – all neutral countries, including those who had been members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation (OEEC), the forerunner of OECD; all countries with a low commitment to unifcation; all countries that did not have a sizeable Catholic population; all countries that were less developed, even if they were in NATO (Greece, Turkey) or Catholic (Portugal, Spain). Once the organisation was established, it was able to incorporate these more difficult actors without threatening the project as a whole; (ii) its unambitious aim, which reduced any perceived threat to national sovereignty to a minimum; (iii) its gradualist approach, with the possibility for "stretch-outs" or acceleration in the timescale for implementing policy and the "locking-in" system where subsequent stages of development were automatic once the first stage was agreed; (iv) no reallocation before integration. Reallocation through taxes is only acceptable after the richer countries conceive of the poorer ones as part of the same community. In 1961, both the Federation of the West Indies and the United Arabic republic broke up in large part because reallocation was being advanced too fast when the countries involved did not yet conceive of themselves as a united system 1.

Although Etizioni does not mention this directly, it also should not be forgotten that the key leaders in the countries in question were all members of Christian Democratic parties. As Papini for one shows, for several reasons Christian Democrats had a particularly strong attraction to the building of a united Europe 2. Furthermore, given that the major influence among Christian Democrats at that time was Catholic, the manifest support of the Pope, demonstrated on numerous occasions through his addresses to different groups, certainly did not hinder the process.

The one great issue that could not be resolved from the point of view of the Christian Democrats was the exclusion of Central and Eastern Europe. Their original vision of a united Europe certainly included these states, but realism as to the situation under Soviet domination lead to a withering away of that part of the dream. In our day, with the major new phase of union building that is going on (some would say dragging on), there is the possibility that the Europe that the original founders of the ECSC and the Treaties of Rome hoped for could come into existence. It is striking that the drive to include central and eastern European countries has survived 50 years of very different historical trajectories and economic development. Although there is some scepticism amongst West Europeans as regards enlargement (particularly in France and Austria), recent surveys show that, on balance, Westerners on the whole are in favour by a small majority. The rejection of the Nice treaty in the Irish referendum earlier this year may seem to contradict this, but in conversations I have had with Irish people since then, they have maintained that most of the people did not know what the referendum was about. They thought that voting "yes" meant voting for abortion and other measures to be brought into Ireland, and therefore voted against! At the political level, no one has suggested that enlargement should not go ahead – quite the opposite. Official EU organs, like the EIPA, see enlargement as an "historic necessity". This convergence of political opinion is striking. We are talking about 15 rather rich countries, who already have difficulty coming to sufficient agreement on policy, taking on probably 12 new members where there is not obviously a lot to gain (at least immediately) and there might be quite a lot to lose. Günter Verheugen, the EU commissioner for enlargement, cites three main reasons for the consensus: stability, a moral obligation to help the victims of Nazism and Communism and the economic opportunities offered. Of the three, he claims that stability is the most important. The head of the Polish office for integration into the EU sees the ultimate basis for integration, one which makes it inevitable, as "civilisational" 3. Increased stability may be the main hope for the existing members of the union, but there is always the danger that the instability they are trying to overcome will just be moved out to the union’s new borders with the East especially in Turkey and Ukraine. Turkey has long hoped to join the union, but is officially barred at stage one because of the role of the military in its democracy and its violations of human rights. Beyond the official level, however, many are uneasy about including Turkey, for a mix of historical, cultural and religious reasons. On the other hand, to include Turkey could well help to make the EU a more effective player in dealing with the tensions of the Middle East. Before that could happen, however, relations between Greece and Turkey would have to improve markedly, and this prospect may well become even more remote as the accession of Cyprus to the union draws closer. Some EU officials say it would be unthinkable to admit only the Greek half of the island, while Greece is likely to block the accession of any new members without the accession of the Greek Cypriots alone. Although this problem seems to be pretty intractable at present, it would not be the first time that the EU or its foregoing institutions have had to overcome such problems (such as the contest over the Saar region between Germany and France after the war) and so it is not impossible that some kind of compromise will be found.

A process that was very fragile and fraught with difficulties at the beginning now has become "inevitable" in reaching its conclusion. It seems that the ideas of the original founders still propel the EU along, and have indeed become more forceful with time.


Editor’s note: the above editorial was written before the terrible attack of September 11th. What may transpire as a result makes the history of the EU and the fact that it has maintained peace in Europe for 50 years all the more impressive. Hence, we have made no subsequent change in the editorial.




1. Etizioni, Amitai, “European Unification: A Strategy of Change” in his A Responsive Society, Jossey Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1991.
2. See relevant sections of Roberto Papini, The Christian Democrat International, Lanham, Rowman and Littlefield 1997.
3. Both quotes taken from The Economist, May 19th 2001, special survey pp.5, 10.