Saturday, May 14, 2005

An idea whose time has gone

That is the conclusion of Charles Moore, who writes the Telegraph op-ed today.

His theme is that, “Even if the French vote 'yes', their Euro-dream has soured”, and he points out that the two principle advocates of the “oui” camp in France are ValĂ©ry Giscard d'Estaing, at 79, and Jacques Chirac, who is 72. The constitution is an old man's dream. The idealism for "building Europe" has gone. "Europe is uncool."

And ain't that the truth. Yesterday, I had the delight of addressing the sixth form of a school in Bridlington and, if they are any guide, we have no problems for the future. Polite, bright and full of intelligent questions, they were great fun to talk to.

The theme I chose for them was the history of the EU – not exactly a riveting subject if you go by the official account, except that I sketched the true genesis, which lay in the carnage of the appalling battle of Verdun in 1916, where over 700,000 casualties were taken in the 10-month battle.

It was there that French armaments minister, Louis Loucheur realised the link between economics and industrial warfare, as he struggled to equip the French army with modern guns and ammunition, running out of steel, then coal, and then the shipping to import the coal.

His experience crystallised the thinking that, by removing the capability to make war, and vesting it in a supranational authority out of the reach of nation states, war itself could be prevented – thinking that led in time to the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community.

What is crucial though is that the idea stemmed not from the wreckage of the Second World War, but the First. It was picked up by Jean Monnet in that post-war period yet the structures that would put the idea into action were actually formalised by a British civil servant, Arthur Salter, a colleague of Monnet, who set them out in a book published in 1926 called "The United States of Europe". In the book, he outlines all the institutions which are so familiar to us today, the commission, the council of ministers and the court of justice.

Largely, it was the emergence of the Nazis as a potent political force in German which prevents any development of the idea and it was not until after the Second War that the some of same cast of characters dusted off their dream and put it into action, in a geopolitical situation that was now totally different.

By then, the young men who had dreamed their dreams were considerably older and, when it came to signing the 1957 Treaty of Rome, every one of the signatories would have qualified for bus passes, had they then existed. Even at its birth, therefore, what was to become the European Union was an old man's dream, an idea whose time had already gone.

How fitting now that the dream is still being promoted by a pair of geriatrics. Charles Moore finds it hard to believe that Tony Blair, who is a full generation younger, will be able to put his heart into the fight. Looking at the fresh young faces in that school yesterday, I find it difficult to believe that the new generation will take it on board either.

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