What was the most important date in post-war European history? What was the real turning point where a European nation decided on a democratic solution for the whole Continent, its politics, economics and its defence? The distinguished French professor of history, Jean-Baptiste Duroselle said that the date of 20 July 1948 must be considered as the real turning point of European history. It was a new point of departure.
“For the first time a government officially presented a project aimed at the construction of Europe. While the idea of supranationality was not clearly delineated, it seems that the project implied it. Before 1914, Europe was only conceived in terms of equilibrium or balance of power.”
After World War II ended, Europeans started to turn their minds to rebuilding the ruins of broken cities and industries. But they were immediately faced with other matters of life and death. The Soviet Union, USSR, occupied eastern and central Europe. During the war, Communist party cadres from Germany, Poland, Hungary and other countries were trained in Moscow about how to seize power at war’s end. They knew were the main levers of power were in each country and how to subvert parliaments even with a small Communist party.
As Winston Churchill put it in his famous Fulton, Missouri speech on the Iron Curtain on 5 March 1946:
“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in some cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.
A few weeks later on Bastille Day that year Churchill met with Robert Schuman in Metz, France and delivered his first great European speech. Schuman was then Minister of Finance for France. France was in deep danger of being sucked into the Soviet sphere. The French Communist party was the country’s largest. It tried to take over parliament. But by then, in late 1947, Schuman had become Prime Minister. He showed iron-willed opposition to Communist threats, revolutionary strikes and sabotage.
Schuman also prevented a further war by gradually changed the nationalistic policies of the Gaullists who wanted a land-grab of territory up to the Rhine. De Gaulle was no longer in power but was still a powerful influence in parliament and in mass rallies. De Gaulle’s followers tried opportunistically to bring down the Schuman government by voting and working in lock-step with the Communists’ insurrection.
In the last days of his first government, Schuman made a decisive step that has affected all Europeans ever since. First, his government, working with UK’s foreign Minister, Ernest Bevin, created a defensive pact, known as the Brussels Treaty Organization. Ostensibly, the pact of France, UK and the Benelux countries was to guard against further German aggression. Schuman’s foreign minister Georges Bidault was very nervous about openly declaring it was to prevent Soviet invasion. Schuman much less so.
On 19-20 July 1948 Bidault delivered Schuman’s message to the foreign ministers of the Brussels Pact, meeting in The Hague. It astounded them too. Bidault described Belgium’s foreign minister, Paul-Henri Spaak as a man hard to surprise. On making his speech, Bidault said his eyes were extraordinarily round with shock.
“We are at a moment, perhaps unique in history, where it is possible to create Europe,” said Bidault. He made two propositions.
The first proposition was to create a European parliamentary assembly. It would be made up initially of parliamentarians of national bodies and also open to other nations who wished to apply. The second was for an economic and customs union for the six countries, to which any other nation could apply to join.
“Thus in the economic sphere the Common Market was created and from the political perspective, the Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. In spite of all later obstacles and violent opposition to these two ideas, both of them have flourished.”
A third major institution arose out of Schuman’s initiative at the Brussels Pact. Washington required a demonstration of Europeans’ willingness to defend itself before it could politically commit its forces to Europe again. With the Berlin blockade that year, talks began with USA and Canada following Schuman’s lead to create NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It entered force around the same time as the Council of Europe began its sessions in summer 1949.
This year 2018 represents the 70th birthday of that positive turning point, EU70.
By David H Price