Were the EU’s founding fathers hopeless dreamers?

Soon after the end of World War II, Robert Schuman, then the French minister of foreign affairs, and Konrad Adenauer, then the German chancellor—along with French diplomat Jean Monnet, a cognac producer and advocate of European unification—thought they had found a magical formula to end the cycle of war that the continent had inflicted upon itself for centuries. Simply put, they proposed that countries could transfer partial sovereignty to a supranational body that would exercise control over the production of the means of war: coal and steel.

Over the next several years, this evolved into a much broader idea: to aim for an integrated Europe, wherein labor, goods, capital, and services could move freely. This would be secured by dismantling national borders (which, advocates believed, were instruments to stoke xenophobia and a politics of fear). The ultimate goal was “an ever-closer union” among European states. 

In the following decades, and especially after the end of the Cold War, Europe moved closer and closer to achieving this goal. But it was met with backlash, too, from publics who saw the emerging supranational government in Brussels as an elitist project, disconnected from the views and concerns of average Europeans. 

The financial meltdown in 2008, and the economic crisis it unleashed, made matters worse. The economic realities of the European Union chipped away at the founding fathers’ dream of consolidating a stronger European identity that would supersede national affiliations. 

Pascal Lamy—a chief of staff to the father of the European internal market, Jacques Delors—once likened the founding fathers to medieval alchemists and remarked that “they thought they could transform the stone of economic integration into the gold of political integration.” In hindsight, what the founding fathers envisioned may indeed have been beyond the bounds of the possible. Let us hope for the time being that the “politics of fear” that brought about the Brexit result does not spin out of control, and make Europe (foremost Britain) regret its decision to reject the wisdom of Schuman, Adenauer, and Monnet—and all the others who’ve chosen to walk in their path.