Return to home page

The house that Jean Monnet built

Thoughts on the future of the European Union

Delivered to a round table meeting of the Capistrano Residents' Association, Nerja, 1 March 2006

James Wimberley

My viewpoint on this is perhaps unusual. I was for 31 years a professional European civil servant – but not in Brussels, in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. This is a classic intergovernmental organisation, an instrument for cooperation between equal sovereign states. The European Union is not like that. The man who more than anyone else created it despised mere cooperation. In 1950 Jean Monnet, veteran war administrator and backstairs political operator, talked Robert Schuman and Konrad Adenauer into setting up the European Coal and Steel Community on entirely new principles, as a deliberate step to a deeper political union; and he naturally became its first president.

The project keeps molting, treaty after treaty: the ECSE turned into the EEC which turned into the European Union. The EU is still the house that Monnet built, and reflects his extraordinary talents, but also eccentric views and limitations. In a nutshell, my take is that the crisis of the EU marks the end of the Monnet era, and we have to start again on different principles. The draft Constitution fails to do this and its death is not to be mourned.

The British think of Jean Monnet if at all as an able French civil servant, un grand commis de l'Etat. Like describing Churchill as a Tory politician, this is only a half-truth. Both were stormy petrels, leaders for crisis and war not for peace. But in personality they were very different. Monnet was a provincial businessman from the brandy town of Cognac. Though not a Calvinist himself, he imbibed its dour but internationalist Calvinist culture and values of hard work and activism combined with pessimism: a culture more like that of Edinburgh and Boston than of Toulouse. He never went to university, and judging by his memoirs he never read a book that excited him. Montesquieu, de Tocqueville, Hobbes, Locke, Madison, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Aron have no index entries; Keynes only walks on to provide a testimonial. Contrary to the Europhobe myth of a federalist plot, his politics were unbelievably pragmatic and innocent of ideology.

Of course he was much more than a typical French dirigiste. His convinced internationalism, and messianic sense of urgency, were drawn from hands-on experience. He held high office in the League of Nations, a traditional cooperation structure that failed. In the First World War, he held high office in joint Allied commissions on shipping and supply; in the Second, in the British arms purchasing commission in Washington; after it, he set up the Commissariat au Plan to guide French postwar reconstruction – small but strong bodies that worked.

You know the Greek adage: “the fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Monnet was a pure hedgehog. His one Big Idea was that international cooperation between sovereign states does not work and has to be replaced by true joint action, through energetic agencies with clear political objectives, delegated powers, and streamlined decision-making. Transposing these ideas to postwar Europe, he cared little in what areas joint action began; it would, as he expected, spread to other areas by bureaucratic self-aggrandizement. A letter he wrote to Harold Macmillan at the time of the creation of the Coal and Steel Community lays out the concept:

The Schuman proposals [i.e. his own] are revolutionary or nothing. Their fundamental principle is delegation of sovereignty in a limited, but critical, area. In my view, no plan not based on this principle can make any useful contribution to solving the great problems that assail us. Cooperation between states, valuable as it is, cannot resolve anything. What we have to aim at is the fusion of the interests of European peoples, not keeping a balance between these interests.”

This is more or less what has happened. The result is impressive but incoherent. Here I must bring in some trade jargon and talk of the two levels of competences – what a body is empowered to do - and the institutions through which it acts. Let's start with competences. In a classic scheme of federation or confederation like the USA, Canada or Switzerland, the centre has (at least to begin with) the set of competences associated with a minimal state: foreign policy, defence, airspace, frontiers, internal market, trade, and money. Its aim is to protect the citizens' security and rights, not advance their welfare. The components (states or cantons) keep competence for social policy: health, education, social security, environment, agriculture, science and technology. The EU largely reverses this. Here and there the components of a rational federalism emerge, like the Court of Justice and the European Central Bank, but outweighed by the huge and incompetent welfare scheme of the Common Agricultural Policy. The Commission still doggedly tries to expand its competence indefinitely to every area of public policy. The draft Constitution, with its porous mishmash of exclusive and supporting competences, perpetuates this imperial vagueness. The ultimate logic of Monnet's plan isn't a federal Europe, but a European nanny superstate.

In institutions, Monnet's coherent but undemocratic scheme of a single powerful Commission has been derailed. The Commission is now balanced by a strong Parliament and Court of Justice, which is fine, and by a Council of Ministers running on traditional cooperation lines, which is not. The result is the pathetic, hand-wringing shambles of the common foreign policy, from Bosnia to Iraq, Palestine, Rwanda and Darfur. If Europe can't intervene to stop genocide, what is it good for?

There is a reactionary answer to these difficulties, articulated by Europhobes and too often by British officialdom: integration is a big mistake and we should go back to gentlemanly cooperation. Monnet exaggerated the weaknesses of cooperation, which has to its credit the worldwide and European systems of human rights law, the creation of a reasonably stable global framework for trade and investment, and the eradication of smallpox, none of which are trivial. But by and large I have to agree with his pessimistic insight that cooperation is a fair-weather system, not robust against really nasty shocks, and easily eroded by the cynical competitive logic of the sovereign state. If you agree that we live in dangerous times, then integration is essential for safety.

So here' s my simple plan: to invert Monnet's upside-down creation in favour of a classic federal or confederal scheme (the distinction is just one of degree). Let me put it in seven bullet points.

  1. Abandon the so-called Constitution and start again. With 25 countries, you only get one go at the real thing.

  2. In the enumeration of federal competences, leave in money, internal market, internal movement, and trade; add frontiers and immigration, defence, and transborder crime. NATO is obsolete and the joint military command can be transposed to the EU.

  3. Define agriculture, social policy, education, culture, sport and environment as national competences.

  4. Stop talking about vague ”subsidiarity” and write in real legal safeguards against drift in competences – court challenges, annulment of spending, impeachment of Commissioners.

  5. Allow open-ended intergovernmental cooperation in non-federal areas, in distinct institutions like the Council of Europe and the OECD. This would allow widespread voluntary delegation in areas like science.

  6. Get rid of the double executive. Abolish the Council of Ministers, replacing it by a Senate of 2 members per country. Keep the Commission as a single executive, with one member per enumerated competence – the current bloated body confirms the proverb that the devil finds work for idle hands. Drop Giscard's dangerous idea of a president, an office that, as in the US, tends to acquire glamour and power; keep the Commission collegial as in Switzerland.

  7. Merge the Court of Justice with the European Court of Human Rights. (This is difficult because Russia and other non-members are parties to the ECHR.)

I readily admit that this is far too schematic, and has to be adapted to meet the needs of the day. For example, the Union should probably keep competence to tackle climate change, and reduce inter-regional inequalities across the Union. I don't pretend either that it's immediately realistic. But if there's one thing to learn from Jean Monnet: if you want to achieve anything, it helps to have a clear idea where you are going.