Suddenly, everyone's an expert, not least Claire Balderdash on last night's BBC Radio 4 World Tonight who could not believe that the French might be about to reject the constitution. After all, she spluttered, the French have always been in favour of "Europe".
Actually, they haven't and this is not the first time that the French have put a spoke in the wheel of European integration.
The last time it happened was in the early 50s, shortly after the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community when its president, none other than Jean Monnet, was quick to describe his "High Authority" as the first "government of Europe". And so confident was he that the "project" was on its way that he told the Assembly:
We can never sufficiently emphasise that the six Community countries are the fore-runners of a broader, united Europe, whose bounds are set only by those who have not yet joined. Our Community is not a coal and steel producers' association: it is the beginning of Europe.For all his sense of triumphalism, however, events were catching up with M. Monnet. Having so far unfolded his plan so deftly, he now made a near-fatal mistake.
The cause of his near-nemesis was the Korean War, which had broken out on the Sunday after negotiations on the ECSC had opened. Monnet immediately feared that the pressure of this major new Cold War crisis, threatening possible Soviet aggression in Europe itself, might lead the Americans to strengthen their demands for German re-armament. This might reduce the attraction to Adenauer of the Schuman plan, as he might now be able to achieve this key objectives without having to place Germany's coal and steel under the control of the High Authority.
To regain the initiative, Monnet had decided that the original Schuman plan should be widened to include defence, and set about planning what was to emerge as a proposal for a European Defence Community (EDC). This provided for a European Army, run by a European minister of defence and a council of ministers, with a common budget and arms procurement. While all other members would be able to maintain separate forces, for colonial and other purposes, Germany would only be allowed to participate in the European Army.
For his advocate this time, Monnet by-passed Schuman, who was strongly opposed to German rearmament. Instead, he sought out a man who had been his assistant during his somewhat murky days as a merchant banker - Rene Pleven. He had also been with him in London in 1940 during that exciting time when he had put to Churchill the plan for Anglo-French union. Fortunately for Monnet, his old subordinate was now in a position of some authority: he had become France’s prime minister.
Thus, although the proposal was entirely Monnet's, he kept in the background and his idea became the "Pleven Plan". Pleven outlined it to the French Assembly on 24 October 1950, where it won approval by 343 votes to 220. Nevertheless, during the debates, Pleven made clear that negotiations would not start until the Coal and Steel Treaty had been concluded, thus safeguarding Monnet's original scheme.
Unlike the Schuman Plan, this plan was not well received abroad. The Germans, in particular, were highly suspicious, preferring their forces to be part of Nato. They had good reason for their suspicion. Monnet intended his EDC to be "a government capable of taking the supreme decisions in the name of all Europeans". Yet, for that very reason, the Italian premier, de Gasperi, supported the new plan, proclaiming that, "The European Army is not an end in itself; it is the instrument of a patriotic foreign policy. But European patriotism can develop only in a federal Europe".
Again, the Americans intervened, this time in the form of General Eisenhower, now the first supreme commander of Nato land forces. Meeting with Monnet on 21 June 1951, he agreed that Franco-German reconciliation could only be achieved through a European Army. The Korean War, following the intervention of Communist China, had entered a critical phase.
As anticipated, American pressure for German rearmament had intensified, giving Adenauer a powerful negotiating hand. He chose to exploit it, offering in return for his support of the EDC a "general treaty". This would recognise West German sovereignty, accept German contingents into the EDC on equal footing, allow West Germany into Nato, end the remnants of allied occupation of his country, and conclude a peace treaty. Ambitious though this proposal was, it was quickly agreed by the Allies and by the end of November 1951 a draft treaty was ready.
In the final stages of the treaty negotiations, the British government had changed. On 25 October 1951, after a general election, Labour had lost to the Conservatives. Churchill was again prime minister, with Anthony Eden as foreign secretary. But the new government was immediately plunged into a balance of payments crisis and economic disaster loomed.
Despite some initial hopes that the "pro-European" Churchill might reverse the Labour's view of the Six’s moves to integration, his view that Britain should remain aloof from direct European involvement remained intact. Britain, in Churchill's view, was still one of the international "Big Three", with her special relationship with America. Although anxious to co-operate with his European neighbours, his policy rested on "overlapping circles", whereby Britain remained between Europe and the USA.
In opposition Churchill had claimed to favour the idea of a "European Army", without ever spelling out what this might mean in practice. Back in power, however, orthodoxy re-asserted itself. Now the supranational element of the plan had become clear, he brushed aside any idea of a European army, calling it a "sludgy amalgam", adding, "What soldiers want to sing are their own marching songs". De Gaulle took a similar view.
On 28 November 1951, Eden told a press conference in Rome that no British formations would be available to the new army, but the new Conservative government nevertheless did its best to be constructive. At a meeting with Schuman in February 1952, Eden assured the French of a close association with the Defence Community. British forces on the continent would co-operate very closely with "European forces".
In a further effort to be helpful, Eden proposed in March 1952 that the two Communities of the Six should come under the aegis of the Council of Europe. Monnet, predictably, saw this as a challenge to his supranationalism.
Although nothing further came of Eden's initiative, the French themselves had considerable reservations about the idea of a European army. What most concerned them was the possibility of Germany seceding from the Defence Community, allowing the German units raised to be reconstituted as a national army. Paris therefore pressed for an Anglo-American guarantee against any member's secession. London’s response was obliging.
Under the 1948 Brussels treaty, Britain was already pledged to give assistance to France and the Benelux countries in the event of war. The Six now asked, on 14 March 1952, that she should extend that guarantee to West Germany and Italy. Responding in a broadcast on 5 April, Eden said it was the duty and intention of the British government to help the people of Europe towards the idea of a united Europe. Great Britain could not join an exclusive European federation, but she could give support and encouragement to both the Coal and Steel and the Defence Communities.
Ten days later, he followed this up with a firm proposal. In the event of an armed attack on any member of the European Defence Community, Britain would give full military and other aid in accordance with article 51 of the United Nations Charter. This offer was well received by the Six. In Germany it was hailed as "one of the most important political developments of recent times".
However, this was not an Anglo-American guarantee. The Americans were still putting their faith in the EDC and refused to co-operate. As a result, on 19 May, it was announced that Washington and London were unable to provide a joint guarantee and would instead make a "declaration of intent". Talks then became bogged down in arguments about the German contribution to the European defence budget, until the French Cabinet, still dissatisfied by the lack of commitment from the British and Americans, against German withdrawal from the EDC, decided it would not sign the agreements.
Efforts were made to satisfy the French by re-wording the declaration of intent. The USA and Britain finally agreed to regard any action which threatened the integrity of the European Defence Community as a threat to their own security. It was enough. The European Defence Treaty was signed on 27 May 1952, along with a general treaty which effectively restored German sovereignty. This was far from what Monnet had envisaged, with the budget subject still to national veto. Even so, there was still so much opposition in France that her prime minister Antoine Pinay signed the treaty without intending to seek immediate ratification.
It was over ratification that Monnet's scheming began to unravel. Opposition in the French Assembly, far from diminishing, had been hardening. The Socialist group wanted a "more democratic" EDC, with a European Assembly elected by universal suffrage. This was to prompt Monnet's most daring initiative so far, in concert with the man who over the next few years would be his closest ally, Paul-Henri Spaak.
Spaak proposed setting up a European Political Community (EPC), as a "common political roof" over the Coal and Steel and the Defence Communities, creating "an indissoluble supranational political community based on the union of peoples". Schuman and Adenauer welcomed this, as did Italy's prime minister de Gasperi, who went even further, proposing that a future EDC assembly should prepare a draft European constitution.
In September 1952, Spaak's proposal was jointly endorsed by the foreign ministers of the Six, along with the assemblies of the ECSC and the Council of Europe, and the ECSC Assembly was asked to study the question of creating a "European Political Authority". The result, from an ad hoc committee under Spaak, was a "Draft Treaty Embodying the Statute of the European Community". This was nothing less than the first formal attempt to give Europe a constitution.
It was submitted by Spaak to the foreign ministers of the Six on 9 March 1953 and to the ECSC Assembly the following day, which approved it by 50 votes, with five abstentions. Introducing his draft "constitution" to the ECSC Council, Spaak began with the opening words of George Washington's address in presenting the American Constitution to Congress in 1787, going on to express his conviction that, "with the same audacity", Europe could hope for the same success.
This latest Monnet-Spaak initiative could go no further, however, while the EDC itself was still attracting opposition. Part of the plan was to apply supranational controls on any production of nuclear weapons, which caused the French Atomic Energy Commission, Gaullist in sympathy, to wake up to the implications, should France wish become a nuclear power. By October, deputies in the National Assembly were expressing concern that the treaty gave too many advantages to Germany, which would come to dominate the Community. Objections were also raised that the Treaty was presented as a fait accompli, to be accepted or rejected without alteration.
Thus, while the rest of the Six went on to ratify the Defence Treaty, French politics were to prevail. So great did opposition become among both Socialists and Gaullists that the Pinay government was brought down. A new government was formed under Rene Mayer, with Gaullist support, and the "Europe of Jean Monnet" became almost a term of political abuse. Then, after four months, Mayer was replaced by Joseph Laniel. In the despairing words of Monnet, he "did nothing". Despite intense pressure from the United States, with President Eisenhower's Secretary of State John Foster Dulles threatening to cut US aid, France's ratification process had come to a halt.
Outside Parliament, opposition was at least as strong. Army leaders were against it, intellectual groups detested it and de Gaulle, in November 1953, declared himself implacably hostile to it, referring to "this monstrous treaty" which would rob the French Army of its sovereignty and separate the defence of France from the defence of the French Union. It would go against all her traditions and institutions, and deliver her soldiers to an organism over which France had no control. He blamed this "and other supra-national monstrosities" on "the Inspirer", M. Jean Monnet. In a bitter parody of Monnet, he declared, "Since victorious France has an army and defeated Germany has none, let us suppress the French Army". He went on:
After that we shall make a stateless army of Frenchmen and Germans, and since there must be a government above this army, we shall make a stateless government, a technocracy. As this may not please everyone, we'll paint a new shop sign and call it "community"; it won't matter, anyway, because the "European Army" will be placed at the entire disposal of the American Commander-in-Chief.What finally brought matters to a head was a quite separate event, the fall to the Communist Viet Minh on 7 May 1954 of the enclave in Dien Bien Phu, in French Indochina. This disaster brought down the government. By 17 June, Laniel had been replaced by Mendès-France, a radical nationalist. He was ambivalent towards the EDC and sought to dilute its supranational element, proposing this to the Six in Brussels on 3 August. Adenauer rejected this out of hand. Spaak, who chaired the conference, made an almost hysterical plea to Mendès-France to support the treaty, clasping him by the arm while telling him that:
France will be completely isolated… You will be alone. Is that what you want?.. We must, must make Europe. The military side isn't everything. What matters is the integration of Europe. EDC is only the first step in that direction, but if there is no EDC, then everything falls to the ground.Brushing aside Spaak's accusations that he was not being "a good European", Mendès-France also ignored entreaties from the Americans and even Churchill, from whom he sought, unsuccessfully, guarantees of British involvement in the EDC. He thus brought the treaty before a hostile Assembly on 30 August 1954 without endorsement. After a stormy debate, in which the supranational issue predominated, it was rejected by 319 votes to 264. Mendès-France's government abstained. The triumphant majority burst into the Marseillaise. The EDC was dead. The idea of a Political Community soon faded into obscurity. Monnet and his supranationism had suffered a resounding defeat.
Thus did the French see off the first main attempt to foist a constitution for Europe on its unwilling peoples and now history seems about to repeat itself. However, it is also worth remembering that, three years later, the Six were signing the 1957 Treaty of Rome. That is the other thing history tells us – the "colleagues" never take no for an answer.