Unbeknownst to many European citizens, May 9th is Europe Day. This annual commemoration of European integration aims to raise awareness about the European Union’s achievements and to celebrate peace and unity in Europe. Events are held in EU member states like Sweden, as well as abroad in countries such as the United States. In Brussels the Festival of Europe gets underway, with the EU’s institutions opening their doors to the public. But for all the colourful splendour and symbolism of the day, the history it commemorates was forged from hard-fought agreements about post-war Europe’s institutions. May 9th 1950 was the date when French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman declared the intention of the French government to jointly administer Europe’s coal and steel resources with the other countries of Western Europe.
In the wake of the end of the Second World War, new international institutions like the UN, IMF, GATT and NATO emerged from the rubble. In Europe the need for new forms of cooperation was no different, but a multitude of options for institutionalising some form of European integration existed. The early days of European unity were wrought with conflict between the same forces and theories which still pervade to this day: Intergovernmentalism and supranationalism.
Then youthful institutions like the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC) and the Council of Europe achieved little practical headway in integrating European nations along supranational lines. Instead they became hostage to state vetoes and demands for unanimity, provisions often spearheaded by a staunchly intergovernmentalist United Kingdom.
Recognising that the embedding of peace in Europe required some relinquishing of national sovereignty, Robert Schuman announced on May 9th 1950 a plan to create a supranational authority to administer Western Europe’s coal and steel sectors. These industries had long been associated with antagonism and war in Europe and their common governance was the formula through which the real mastermind behind the Schuman Plan, French Planning Minister Jean Monnet, sought to tie sectors of the post-war European economy together.
Proclaiming the “elimination of the age-old opposition of France and Germany” and that the plan was “a first step in the federation of Europe”, Schuman attacked the intergovernmentalists. After protracted negotiations, Britain stayed out, leaving the Six (France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) to form the new community, which would be called the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC).
For West German Chancellor Conrad Adenauer, European integration along the lines proposed would allow his country to align itself firmly with the West and pursue economic recovery from the war. Supranational integration swept away once and for all latent French fears of renewed warfare and Jean Monnet was made the ECSC’s first president. The Franco-German heart of the European integration process which has survived to this day was thereby established.
In addition to bringing Franco-German rapprochement the Schuman Plan was also the initiative which overcame the intergovernmental limitations of the likes of the Council of Europe or the OEEC and institutionalised deeper integration on the principle that supranationalism to some extent was desired. It provided for the creation of European Communities with an institutional structure which superseded traditional forms of inter-state cooperation and comprised of a supranational High Authority or Commission, an intergovernmental Council of Ministers, a Common Assembly (Parliament) and Court of Justice.
Supranationalism did remain highly contentious in Europe after the Schuman Plan, however, and the ECSC would prove to be less effectual in exercising its supranational powers than Monnet had hoped. Nevertheless, the institutional legacy of the ECSC would go on to form the Community method which would be used when further integration was pursued from the later 1950s and on. The principle of supranationalism would prove a defining feature of “ever closer union” and of the unfolding acquis communitaire of the European Communities, the institutional arrangements and bodies of legislation which future candidate countries had to accept.
The main achievement of the Schuman declaration and the ECSC was that they brought substance to European unity and determined its institutional character, making possible the subsequent path to the present day European Union. In today’s united, post-industrial Europe, coal, steel and the ECSC may seem remote and archaic. But the legacies of this gritty history, now clothed in the grand gown of azure and golden stars on May 9th, are worth remembering.