For good reason, European leaders and intellectuals worry that, absent the utmost vigilance, virulent nationalism could again be unleashed with the full force of its destructive potential. Europe, they believe, is essential to prevent such a terrible outcome. But is a stable, creative, and unifying Europe possible?
In May 1950, French foreign minister Robert Schuman set the direction. France and Germany, he announced, would pool their coal and steel industries, and other countries were welcome to join the initiative. This, however, was but a first step, Schuman emphasized. The goal was to replace the nation-state with a “European federation” because a federation, he declared, was “indispensable for peace.”
But European leaders immediately shrank from the word federation. They decided that the pooled industries and accompanying supervision would be a “community.” This scaled-down ambition was successful. Historian Tony Judt later wrote in his classic Postwar, the Coal and Steel Community promoted “a new and stable system of international relations.”
The intense aversion to federation manifested more sharply in August 1954. The French National Assembly rejected the European Defense Community (EDC), which would have pulled troops of member countries into a European army, backed by a European budget and governance system. With the EDC’s demise, the words federal and supranational became tainted. As the French public intellectual François Duchêne later wrote, “the idea of a Europe in some sense above nations” was discredited.
However, the stable and fruitful relationships among European nation-states survived, reaching their pinnacle with the Treaty of Rome signed in 1957. Countries opened their borders to trade of goods but maintained all other sovereign rights. Trade among the member states flourished under a minimal set of rules, which were reinforced by mutual trust. Such “reciprocal trust,” Princeton political scientist Robert Keohane has explained, is essential to the success of international organizations. That bare-bones European framework, the historian Alan Milward has argued, helped strengthen and “rescue” the nation-state.