European Union at 70: Stronger Together amid worst recession since the Great Depression, COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit, cyber threats, terrorism, climate change, refugee crisis, rising nationalism and authoritarianism

By Roxana Allen

Although envisioned by many philosophers in the 18th and 19th century, only after the carnage of World War I did diplomats begin to create the structures of a united Europe. These first proposals on European unity, like those after them, were challenged by the idea of national sovereignty. In the interwar period, influential intellectuals and politicians – from Austro-Hungarian Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi in 1923 to French foreign minister Aristide Briand in 1929 – promoted the idea of Pan-Europa. Even while the countries of Europe were fighting in World War II, federalist Altiero Spinelli authored a manifesto in 1940 and 1941, and then, with members of resistance movements for European unity, initiated the Geneva “Draft Declaration of the European Resistance” that called for a “Federal Union among the European people.” More cautious than his federalist continental contemporaries, British unionist statesman Winston Churchill visualized a “United States of Europe” in 1946 and a “United Europe Movement” in 1947 that would preserve British sovereignty. Both federalists and unionists envisioned an international organization with a parliamentary assembly as a foundation for European unity, but the unionists wanted it to be only a consultative body for governments, while federalists were in favor of a constituent assembly to draft a European constitution. Even though, the federalist position was triumphant at the “Congress of Europe” – in The Hague in May 1948 -, the power of the newly established Council of Europe in Strasbourg – a symbol for Franco-German reconciliation – was limited de facto to defending human rights.

But this organization was not a sufficient vehicle to supersede national sovereignty and truly unite Europe. Only a political calculation by France to allow it to contain Germany and play a leading role in the emerging international order could do that. Jean Monnet, a French visionary – who based his beliefs in European integration on “People only accept change when they are faced with necessity, and only recognize necessity when a crisis is upon them” – learned about the British skepticism toward European integration when he first proposed an Anglo-French union to Winston Churchill. Undeterred by this failure and supported by General Charles de Gaulle, Monnet developed a French Modernization Plan that would ensure French postwar economic recovery and defend French national interests while integrating Europe.

The Schuman Plan, named after the French foreign minister Robert Schuman, accommodated both recovery of German economy and French national security by placing Franco-German coal and steel industries – war’s major raw materials – under a supranational body, which was open to accession to other European countries. Announced on 9 May 1950, the plan was the foundation for postwar European unity and integration. Subsequently, the Paris Treaty on European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was signed in April 1951, and later, Treaties of Rome on European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) and European Economic Community (EEC) in March 1957.

Created ostensibly to strengthen French sovereignty, with limited integration and strong US support (i.e. Marshall Plan for European reconstruction), these common European institutions evolved into a powerful intergovernmental body. These beginnings demonstrate why France and Germany lead Europe today. Most importantly, the irreversibility of European integration guards a “perpetual peace” and allows the states in Europe to search for “European solution” to “European problems” while evolving toward idea of a “United States of Europe,” as envisioned by its founding fathers.

Seventy years ago today, European unity became a reality. 9 May marks its birth and the 70th anniversary of the Schuman Declaration. Not only the US has supported the European integration, but also Europe has unceasingly been its political, economic, and security partner from earliest formation.

It took Europe seventy years, twelve presidents, four generations, a Cold War, and numerous elections to appoint its first female President and the 13th President of the European CommissionUrsula von der Leyen – a German politician and the President of the European Commission since 1 December 2019 – leads in a world confronted with worst recession since the Great Depression, COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit, rising nationalism and authoritarianism, terrorism, cyber threats, climate change, and refugee crisis. Despite of a multi-crisis world, the European Union is strong. It’s the right time for European Union to use its strength and take the lead and responsibility in dealing with problems inside and outside the transatlantic space. What is the alternative? Just imagine a world today without the European Union, Council of Europe, multilateralism. Voltaire once said, History never repeats itself. Man always does.”

Happy Europe Day!


Roxana Allen is a WIIS Member and a SAIS’05 Johns Hopkins Alumna – Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies Johns Hopkins University.