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Ideals and practicalities made today’s Europe

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Geraint Talfan Davies

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of Wales For Europe and author of Unfinished Business, Journal of an Embattled European.

Sixty-nine years ago today, on 9 May 1950, a man, little known in this country but then the French foreign minister, delivered the speech that led to this date being celebrated today as Europe Day.

He was Robert Schuman, and the speech was delivered at the French Foreign Ministry, the Quai d’Orsay in Paris. It combined the vision of a statesman with the intensely practical approach of a seasoned politician who had grown up on a contested European border.

He knew that high-flown declarations would lead only to early disappointment unless they were underpinned by creative practicality. So the starting point was, in his own words, “one limited and decisive point” – the pooling of the French and German coal and steel industries “to make it plain that any war between France and Germany becomes not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible.”

Those industries would be placed under a ‘common High Authority’ but crucially, set ‘within the framework of an organisation open to the participation of the other countries of Europe’.

There was no masking the wider intent of a speech that had had crucial input from the other founder of Europe, Jean Monnet:

“The pooling of coal and steel production should immediately provide for the setting up of common foundations for economic development as a first step in the federation of Europe, and will change the destiny of those regions which have long been devoted to the manufacture of munitions of war, of which they have been the most constant victims.”

That word ‘federation’, anathema to many British sovereignty fetishists, is always construed by these sceptics in a strict constitutional sense, although for many in Europe it has a looser meaning. Schuman’s stated aim was to lay “a true foundation for economic unification”.

“In this way, there will be realised simply and speedily that fusion of interest which is indispensable to the establishment of a common economic system. It may be the leaven from which may grow a wider and deeper community between countries long opposed to one another by sanguinary divisions.”

There is no doubt that the overriding aim was to guarantee peace for a ravaged Europe. “World peace,” he said in his opening remarks, “cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it.” Given how dangerous this world is today, it is a pity that more was not made of this in the 2016 referendum.

Those on the far left in Britain today who see nothing in Europe other than a capitalist conspiracy would do well to go back to Schuman’s declaration – indeed, I should send a copy to Mr. Corbyn. Among the aims proposed for the High Authority was “the equalisation and improvement of the living conditions of workers in these industries.”

“In contrast to international cartels, which tend to impose restrictive practices on distribution and the exploitations of national markets, and to maintain high profits, the organisation will ensure the fusion of markets and the expansion of production.”

Neither was Schuman’s vision restricted to Europe. “With increased resources,” he said, Europe will be able to pursue the achievement of one of its essential tasks, namely, the development of the African continent.”

Sceptics will justifiably ask whether Europe has lived up to these aspirations in every respect. Probably not. After all, it is a human institution that has the usual ration of imperfections.

But it has delivered the longest period of peace in the continent’s history alongside remarkable environmental improvements, as well as the most spectacular and sustained increase in standards of living, albeit that poverty has not been eliminated and the last decade has been a difficult one for the whole world.

In Britain, we have not done badly on the environmental front although we have much else to do, but we would not have got this far without the prod from European directives. You have only to remember the way we were pumping raw sewage directly into the sea is disgusting quantities until well into the 1990s until EU directives ordered a stop.

Let us not forget either that it was the EU, or the EEC as it then was, that began to construct regional policies at the very moment when they were being abandoned in Britain under Margaret Thatcher – she who was also the prime mover of the European single market.

Thus, despite the economic growth of recent decades, the UK still has some of the largest regional disparities of any European country, a fact that was highlighted yesterday by none other than Andy Haldane, an economist and likely contender for the post of governor of the Bank of England when Mark Carney steps down. These regions have not benefited from having lower taxation than other EU countries.

These are disparities to which the UK Government’s response has been at best inadequate and at worst wilfully blind, witness its continuing unwillingness or inability to specify either the scale or the mechanism of its proposed Shared Prosperity Fund – the supposed replacement for EU funds.

The content of Schuman’s declaration should surely in this day and age be a source of renewed inspiration for those of us who wish to see a better UK and a better Europe, growing side by side via all those continental collaborations that Schuman saw as essential for the future.

This is the true answer to snake oil salesmen such as Nigel Farage – the Fagin of politics, the kind of siren voice that has led whole countries astray down the ages and very often into deep, deep trouble – a man who Is not fit to clean Robert Schuman’s shoes. 

In any forthcoming referendum on our membership of the European Union, we would do well to bring Schuman’s vision to the fore once again.

Happy Europe Day.