The Europeans No 26: Jean Monnet

He was first a businessman, then a diplomat and finally the moving spirit behind the creation of a political Europe

Jean Monnet was born in 1888 in Cognac in southwestern France, where his father was a dealer in the spirit to which the town has given its name.

He left school at 16 to enter the family business and at 18 transferred to its London office. He also travelled frequently on business to the US, becoming one of the rare Frenchmen of that time to speak perfect English.

He took on an international liaison and co-ordination role on behalf of his country during the first and second World Wars, and was a high-ranking official of the League of Nations in its early years. Called back to his father’s business in 1923, he later entered the world of finance in the US and made a fortune selling alcohol during prohibition.

Monnet chose resistance rather than collaboration after Germany invaded France in 1940 but he opposed the Free French leader Charles de Gaulle, whom he saw as "an enemy of the French people and its liberties . . . an enemy of European construction . . . [who] must be destroyed". De Gaulle returned the animosity, referring to Monnet as an apatride, a stateless person. As for "Europe", it didn't exist: "Europe? It's France and Germany; the rest are just vegetables!"

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Nevertheless, a political "Europe" did come to exist, at first through the Schuman Plan. It was named after French foreign minister Robert Schuman but was actually a Monnet plan. This envisaged the placing of the entire French-German coal and steel industry under the control of a "high authority" within the framework of an organisation whose membership would also be open to other states. The proposal of course implied a qualification of German sovereignty – what was to be done with the coal of the Ruhr valley would henceforth be decided not just in Bonn. Such an arrangement reassured not just France but Germany's other neighbours, while chancellor Konrad Adenauer referred to it as "our breakthrough", the first important step in the country's journey back to international respectability. Everyone, it seemed, was a winner.

The European Coal and Steel Community, brought into being by the Treaty of Paris in 1951, prefigured the European Economic Community or Common Market created by the Treaty of Rome (1957), which with various changes of name and bouts of institutional renewal has grown from having six members to the current 27 (and next week, with the arrival of Croatia, 28).

This series has run over 26 parts through the course of Ireland's presidency of the Council of the European Union. By ending it with the man most often seen as the first moving spirit of the EU I do not mean to imply that the union is in any sense to be seen as the culmination of European history, the point to which everything had always been heading.

Europe is a somewhat bigger idea than the EU, and, since these pieces have been chiefly concerned with cultural figures, one might add that culture is an area with which it has often shown itself to be uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, a "club" that everyone wants to join and only one member (half)-wants to leave must be doing something right. Eurosceptics and anti-European populists, so keen to play the role of useful fools for the interests of conscienceless "enterprise", like to scream about overregulation. But it is regulation, an essential attribute of any civilised polity, that ensures that our children are not maimed by dangerous toys or poisoned by adulterated milk and that our ferries do not sink to the bottom of the sea. Where we would be without it, and without the EU, would certainly be a poorer place.
Series concludes