The abbé de Saint-Pierre, who has done me the honour of making me one of his correspondents, has sent me a fine treatise on the best method of re-establishing peace in Europe. The whole thing is very practicable: all that is required to make it work is the agreement of Europe ‑ and a few other small trifles of that kind.
Frederick the Great of Prussia, writing to Voltaire in 1736
A European: someone who feels nostalgia for Europe.
Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel, 1986
Enda O’Doherty writes: Seventy years ago this week, and exactly three years after the German surrender in May 1945, a large group of statesmen, writers and intellectuals, animated by sentiments of European patriotism of varying strengths, met in the Ridderzaal (Hall of Knights) in The Hague for what became known as the Congress of Europe.
The distinguished attendance included former French prime ministers Paul Ramadier, Paul Reynaud, Léon Blum and Édouard Daladier; future French president François Mitterrand; Belgian prime minister Paul-Henri Spaak and former prime minister Paul von Zeeland; Italian prime minister Alcide de Gasperi; former British prime minister Winston Churchill and future prime ministers Antony Eden and Harold Macmillan; future German chancellor Konrad Adenauer and future president Gustav Heinemann. Also present were a number of literary and artistic figures and various committed European federalist intellectuals whose names are less well-known today, of whom the most important in terms of the work of the congress was probably the Swiss writer Denis de Rougemont (1906-1985).
Federalism was one of a number of idealistic, internationalist, peace-oriented movements of the mid-twentieth century which was able to draw enthusiastic adherents into its ranks, even in what one might have thought was the unsympathetic, isolationist political culture of Great Britain. In 1940 the British movement, Federalist Union, had 200 branches and 10,000 members, drawn principally from what Hugo Young called “the usual cadre of pious dreamers”, but not just from them: some powerful political figures also endorsed the idea. The federal movement in Britain lost ground, however, during the war, when the experience of conflict, sacrifice and eventual victory elevated the status attached to the nation. It also moved towards a split between those who wished to work towards a European federation and those with their eyes fixed on world government, the latter tendency, in Young’s words, having “the early effect of returning such credibility as federation had to parsonical irrelevance”.
Federalism in continental Europe had the support of some heavyweight political figures, such as Paul-Henri Spaak and Italy’s Altiero Spinelli. It also had philosophical underpinnings, in the French-speaking world in particular, in various movements dating from the 1930s such as “personalism”, a Christian tendency which rejected both liberal individualism and communist or fascist collectivism; there was, however, a tendency among some postwar federalist intellectuals to reject parliamentary democracy as a model or at least to despise “politicians”. Corporatist modes of thinking, even Pétainist inheritances, were not entirely absent.
The two main forces present at The Hague in May 1948 might be represented by two rival organisations, the United Europe Movement (UEM), which later became the European Movement, and the Union of European Federalists (UEF). In fact the latter eventually affiliated to the former, so as not to be locked out of whatever discussions on the future of Europe might be developing, one must assume. At this stage, however, the direction of the UEM, represented by Winston Churchill and his son-in-law Duncan Sandys, was largely focused on blocking the federalist option in the wider European movement, promoting instead the idea of enhanced cooperation between European governments.
Churchill’s standing among Europeans in 1948 was immense, even if the British people had in 1945 chosen to have the fruits of the peace distributed by a Labour government. And his pro-European rhetoric was eloquent and impressive, persuading most of his listeners of Britain’s deep commitment to unity, perhaps at times even himself. Churchill, Hugo Young argued, “remained always a European of highly romantic disposition. His idea of Europe was benign and passionate, informed by the prescience of the historian as well as of the public man. The flaw lay in his description of what Europe was, where its limits lay.” In other words, Churchill was all in favour of Europe and the European idea; he just did not believe that Britain was a part of it, seeing its destiny far more intimately tied with those of “the English-speaking peoples”. As early as 1930 he had written: “We have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe but not of it. We are linked but not comprised.” This may well be the essential and authentic British position on Europe (or a benign version thereof), the Europhile Edward Heath, who led Britain into the EC in 1973, having been something of an aberration. True, Margaret Thatcher, in her famous speech at Bruges in 1988, told her listeners that Britain’s destiny was “in Europe, as part of the Community” but perhaps this was principally a by-product of her great confidence at the time that she could thoroughly reshape that Community on a new basis of the dominance of British – mercantile and liberal – values.
The ideological tussle at The Hague, which was principally fought out between Sandys and the federalist Denis de Rougemont, was represented by the former as a difference of approach between sensible men and utopian dreamers. The British did not want any undue emphasis on concrete structures or “machinery”, more a meeting of minds, a positive feeling, an alignment of aspirations. This would involve few or no actual commitments but perhaps a lot more meetings and fine-sounding resolutions. In the longer term some of those who at the time suppressed their own doubts for the sake of “unity” came to regret their weakness. The French socialist minister André Philip, active in the European Movement, wrote more than two decades later: “To the degree to which we buried the genuine problems we allowed ourselves to be sidelined by the establishment. In our fight for Europe we did not spill any blood, which is excellent and I am grateful for it, but we spilled too much champagne.”
Somewhat marginalised by the politicking skills of Sandys and the British, Rougemont stepped sideways into the realm of culture, presenting a document on “the responsibilities of the mind in the struggle for peace” that he had edited with the benefit of suggestions from a number of eminent European intellectuals including Raymond Aron, Alberto Moravia, Salvador de Madariaga, Karl Jaspers, TS Eliot and André Malraux. Even in this area, however, Sandys tried to undermine him by setting up a rival committee under British chairmanship. Meanwhile, wrangles continued over the inclusion in the Congress’s communiqués of references to “federation” or “federal union”. In the end Rougemont, blocked from delivering a defining introductory address, did manage to smuggle some of his ideas into the closing “Message aux européens”, not least the appeal to the “forces vives” of Europe (vital forces, that is churches, employers’ and union federations and other corporate bodies and not just political parties). (Interestingly, the message does not seem to have foreseen European decolonisation: the “greatest political and economic organisation of our time” was going to be built “along with the overseas people associated with our destinies”.)
One observer and marginal participant at the Congress, the French sociologist Raymond Aron, could not restrain his (habitual) scepticism at the sight of hundreds of earnest delegates, “representing no one but themselves”. The whole thing, he felt, was little more than an exercise in propaganda, “in the noble sense of the term, the art of open persuasion”.
It may be a little harsh to conclude that a gathering including so many eminent statesmen, who had in the past been and in the future would be elected to the highest offices in their nations, represented no one. For some of the pur et dur federalists, however, these men (and indeed they were all men) were not the future but the past, mere politicians slow to go anywhere and always conscious of the shocking lack of imagination and idealism of their electorates. Yes, one could imagine getting much further much more quickly with the vital forces …
It was not to be the Congress of Europe at The Hague and what has been called its forty-eightist (1848) spirit which was to launch European construction. What the Congress did quite directly lead to was the creation of the Council of Europe (in 1949), a body which of course still exists and which has responsibility – in an admittedly somewhat nebulous way – for matters of culture and values in Europe. Today’s European Union on the other hand grew out of the European Coal and Steel Community, an eminently down-to-earth and practical body sponsored by the French politician Robert Schuman and public servant Jean Monnet, strongly supported by various, chiefly Christian Democratic, European statesmen.
It is questionable whether this bicephalism (one organisation concerned with ideas and ideals, another with “practical matters”), dating from the first decade of European institution-building, is beneficial. Can the EU exist without idealism? Can values be promoted and their implementation where necessary enforced without political muscle? There are of course forces which are attempting to inject ideas and ideals into the EU project, but one sometimes has the suspicion that their project remains, often proudly, a rather EUtopian one (see, for example, https://european-republic.eu/en/).
It is sometimes said that the problem of creating a European democracy and a consequent sense of belonging to a common project (Zusammengehörigkeitsgefühl is the splendid German word) is that there is no European demos. But this is not quite true. There is such a demos, and it can be numbered in tens of thousands of people, perhaps even hundreds of thousands. It is represented in every member state of the European Union. Unfortunately it consists almost entirely of intellectuals.
The Hague Congress was seventy years ago and precedes the first concrete steps towards European union. Nevertheless, some of the main fault lines evident then still exist, in particular the gulf that can exist between driven, but quite unrepresentative, idealists and politicians who are either (as were the British in 1948) engaged in a rather cynical hot-air exercise or are reluctant to become too enthusiastic about a project that they see their electorates as being lukewarm to.
The great French socialist leader Jean Jaurès wrote about the necessity to “aller à l’idéal et comprendre le réel”, that is to move towards one’s long-term aspirations while keeping a firm grip on political reality. It would perhaps be better if today’s inheritors of the federalist mantle, who dream of a “European republic”, would fully take on board the actual state of public opinion in Europe; equally it would be better if mainstream politicians began to realise that given what is at stake they now have more to gain from clearly and openly opposing the ideas being put forward by populists and “national-conservatives” than from trimming their sails for fear of losing a few points of electoral share.
This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair, by Hugo Young (1998)
Denis de Rougemont: Les intellectuels et l’Europe au xxe siècle, by Nicolas Stenger (2015)