Opinion published in the Dutch daily Trouw, 2 October 2015
French prime-minister Aristide Briand launched on the fifth of September 1929 during the Assembly of the League of Nations in Geneva a sensational idea of a European union. All European governments agreed with him an unified Europe was necessary to overcome the immense economic difficulties. But despite this agreement, the founding of such an organization failed. Europe hopelessly fragmented politically and economically, and went down in the Second World War.
The remarkable French initiative is hardly known outside an inner circle of specialized historians and insiders. This is strange and regrettable, because interesting lessons can be drawn from it. Lessons that could help us finding solutions to solve the current European crisis.
Many in the interbellum were convinced the European economy couldn’t flourish without international settlements on trade, production and distribution. They argued this was also the best guarantee for lasting peace. Briand was supported in his vision by the authoritative German politician Gustav Stresemann, for years minister of foreign affairs. The German government backed Briand’s initiative from 1929.
Briand published in May 1930 his design for a European union: ‘Memorandum on the Organization of a System of Federal European Union’. In the meantime, the Wallstreet crash of October 1929 hit the weak European economies hard. But to many, this proved only the urgency to undertake joint action. The response of the various governments to the French Memorandum in 1930 was sometimes very critical, but they didn’t reject it.
A special European committee was established in Geneva with premiers, ministers, diplomats and high officials from all European states, who for more than a year struggled to give shape to Briand’s union. In several sessions they tried to pull Europe out of the swamp. But instead of reducing custom tariffs, these were built higher. Instead of taking measures to disarm, more tanks, bombers and submarines were produced. Unity made room for polarization.
It was Briand’s opinion that a European union should not only concern the economy, but also must be engaged in political and social matters. Moreover, he pled for a moral principle to be written in a future treaty, that guarantied the mutual solidarity between the nations.
The French prime-minister was right about this. Without morality no solidarity, no collective responsibility, no empathy with each other.
Nowadays only few politicians in Europe dare to speak of ‘solidarity’, ‘responsibility’ or ‘empathy’. This reserve suggests a very poor knowledge and understanding of the past. The European states can only live with each other in peace and prosperity when they work closely together in every relevant field. It’s bizarre, this lesson from the past is time and again discredited, even scoffed. When everybody seeks shelter again behind walls, barriers and barbed wire, the European Union is clinically dead.
It may be a tough lesson for euro skeptics and populists, but the huge problems in Europe now, especially with refugees, show for that very reason the necessity of severe, collective political direction and decisiveness. 'Europe will not live in peace when the peoples find no way of collaborate closely together’, Briand said. We need that European consciousness, that was so strong in the twenties, very hard to prevent Europe from falling to pieces again.
Dr Wim de Wagt, writer, art historian and journalist, is the author of Wij Europeanen. De vergeten geschiedenis van Europa (We Europeans, The Forgotten History of Europe), Uitgeverij Bas Lubberhuizen (Bas Lubberhuizen Publishing House), Amsterdam 2015.