By 1945, European unity took a new significance. The old Nation-States had been either destroyed or exhausted in the course of the Second World War. None could recover or merely survive alone.The main achievement of Europe is that everybody seems to have forgotten how it all started. The European Union, the twelve stars flag, the Commission in Brussels, the Parliament in Strasbourg, the single currency, the single purple passort, the European Court of Justice and the European Bill of Rights are now plain facts of life. I am sure however that the Founding Fathers themselves – Robert Schuman of France, Konrad Adenauer of Germany, Alcide de Gasperi of Italy, and even the second Frenchman among them, Jean Monnet, who held no government job but was perhaps even more influential – would marvel at so much achievement. They knew how real the impediments were. Monnet, in particular, was aware of the psychological difficulties involved and insisted for a very gradual, a very indirect approach : " Get the Europeans used one to the other, get them work together on practical issues, before you even mention the word Europe ", he kept saying.
Indeed, the concept of a united Europe had been circulating for decades, if not centuries, of course. By 1945, it was taking a new significance. The old Nation-States had been either destroyed or exhausted in the course of the Second World War. None could recover or merely survive alone. The British – whose role in the struggle against Hitler had been admirable – entertained for a while some hope about Commonwealth backing, or alternatively relied on their " special relationship " with the United States : they were soon to realize, though, that Europe was their closest and most logical partner. The continental countries knew from the very onset they had no choice but some measure of continental unity. Even the American aid under the Marshall Plan could not be effective without cooperation between neighbours.
The continent, however, included Germany. It was all right for the Lower Countries to coalesce into a single economic unit known as Benelux. The Nordic nations quite naturally set up various levels of cooperation. Some people – as the French economist cum philosopher Alexandre Kojève – briefly considered bringing together the Latin countries : France and Italy first, then a post-Franco Spain and a post-Salazar Portugal. But Germany, even as the truncated Federal Republic of Germany carved out of the three Western occupation zones, was still the most populous country in Europe and its largest industrial base. Europe without Germany would not work. Western Germany without Europe might fail. There were sinister prospects of the Nazi movement rising again or of Communism, already entranched in the Eastern zone, the so-called German Democratic Republic, engulfing the whole of the former Reich.
But on the other hand, the Germans were only half-heartedly trusted : war memories still loomed over postwar politics. What made things even more uncomfortable in this respect was that Nazi propaganda had hijacked the very concept of European unity and cooperation throughout the war . Admittedly, the Federal Republic was a different regime, run by true democrats who had opposed Hitler. Still, most Europeans were getting a bit nervous about the prospect of bringing back the Germans as full-fledged partners into united Europe. Or a bit schizophrenic. The left, rational, hemisphere in their brains said yes. The right, emotional, hemisphere was reluctant. Economic cooperation was OK. Further cooperation – like an integrated European defense – was rejected.
What finally brought Europe into being, not just as a common market or as an array of technical agencies but as the Union it is now, was the French-German relationship engineered by Charles de Gaulle and Adenauer in the early 1960s. France was the largest European country beside Germany on the continent. It had been for one century Germany’s pivotal enemy. Both nations had lost millions of lives fighting each the other. De Gaulle had been the head of the French Resistance against Hitler’s Germany. And now, so De Gaulle said, there was going to be not just peace and cooperation, but friendship as well : the most momentous provision in the 1963 Elysée Treaty was the creation of a French-German Youth Office. The left and right hemispheres were reunited. And European integration could start for real.
Clearly, the Europe of 2003 is not any more the Europe of 1945 nor even that of 1963. Still, the French-German relationship should not be construed as something of the past. It has remained for forty years the catalyst for every single European breakthrough, including the successive enlargements from six countries to fifteen and the new treaties of the 1990s. It has been instrumental in securing monetary stability and lauching the euro. It helped Germany to achieve unity in 1990. It paved the way to the coming integration of a host of new nations from the former Eastern Europe. And it is, in the opinion of many Europeans – including Noelle Lenoir, the French minister for European Affairs – , more needed now than ever.
Let’s face it. The early 2000s are a troubled world. We face terrorism, war, cultural clashes, economic depression, environmental decay. The more united the European nations will stand, the better it may be for Europe and for other places as well. And the fact that the French and the Germans have been accustomed for so long to discuss such things is rather an asset in this respect. There is not, and never was, a French-German " axis ". There is, however, a Paris-Berlin model for understanding that all Europeans can emulate and derive benefit from. The French-German partnership has already been extented to Poland, as the " Weimar Triangle ". Another extension is perhaps in the making : in the wake of the French-British Touquet summit, last February, Britain has joined France and Germany in a common initiative for economic recovery. A good omen, indeed.