Monnet’s Ghost

LONDON – Some fine ideas are rather like a beautiful object with a time bomb inside. The ideal of a unified Europe, though not designed to explode, could well disintegrate nonetheless. To understand why, it helps to revisit the intellectual origins of the European Union.

One of the EU’s main architects, Jean Monnet, a French diplomat and economist, spent much of World War II in Washington, DC, as a negotiator for the European allies. After Germany’s defeat, he was convinced that only a united Europe could prevent another devastating war in the West. “There will be no peace in Europe,” he wrote in his memoir, “if states are reconstituted on the basis of national sovereignty.”

Almost everyone on the European continent, exhausted by war, and faced with the shattered institutions of their ravaged nation-states, agreed. Only the victorious British, with their old institutions more or less intact, voiced skepticism, not so much about continental unity as about their own participation in Europe’s ambitious project.

Of course, the ideal of a united Europe is much older than Monnet’s scheme. If not as old as ancient Rome, it certainly goes as far back as the tenth-century Holy Roman Empire. Since then, the European ideal has gone through many changes, but two themes remained constant.