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Three Minutes That Changed Europe (Part I)

Three minutes that changed Europe (Part I)

A speech from Jeff Fountain during the Europe Day Celebration (9th May 2019 in Bucharest)

Many of us have very short memories and unfortunately short memories breed short sightedness.

This is why I want to share a story that I never grew up with. My sons all had university education in Europe and never had heard of this story. My experience is that very few of you would have heard story until, perhaps, recently. But it is a story that is connected with this day, because on the 9th of May, 1950, around about this time in the evening, the French Foreign Minister at the time, Robert Schuman called a press conference. In the space of three minutes, which is about the time it takes to boil an egg, or make a cup of coffee, Robert Schuman laid the foundation for the European House, in which today half a billion Europeans have been living together in peace, an unprecedented phase of European history. How did that come about? 

We need to step back a few years. Everyone knows who won the war. The Russians know they won the war, the Americans know they won the war, the British know they won the war. But the question really is: who won the peace? Because peace didn’t start on the day that the ceasefire started. We tend to forget how terrible a place Europe was after the war. The soldiers had come through and they had given out chocolates and kisses and cigarettes. But then they went home and the Europeans had to rebuild Europe. 

The experience of East and West was often quite different. There is a statue in the middle of the city of Rotterdam of a figure in anguish whose heart has been blown out. This is a French sculptor who made this for the city of Rotterdam that had been bombed out one fateful day in May of 1940, by Hitler’s Blitzkrieg. But it could also represent the whole of Europe after the war. Because Europe really was going through a terrible case of Post Trauma Stress Disorder. 

While Robert Schuman found himself as Prime Minister for a short time, the Communists were doing everything to undermine the new fledgling democracies of some of the European countries. There was great upheaval. Also the Berlin Airlift was taking place. Stalin was increasing his grip on Eastern Europe, moving into nation after nation. And the future looked very grim indeed. There were times when many Europeans from the West went to immigrate to America, to Canada, to Australia or to New Zealand. Europe didn’t seem to be a place of much hope at all. 

And that brings us up to the 9th of May, 1950, to the story behind this man who is giving this speech, Robert Schuman. Jean Monnet, who was sitting on his right during the press conference, was also very important in this project. We also need to know the persons of Konrad Adenauer, Alcide De Gasperi, who were very key figures as well in this process.

Schuman was born in Luxembourg, near the borders of the Grand Duchy with France and Germany. Actually, the region that is now French was occupied by Bismarck’s forces in 1870. That’s the reason why Schuman’s father had moved to Luxembourg, not to be under the Germans. But Schuman, himself, was educated in mainly in Germany. At the end of the First World War, when those parts of France were handed back to the French, Schuman decided to become French. He had to actually change his nationality five times in his life. He was a very devout believer. He even considered very seriously becoming a monk. Yet he was encouraged by other friends who said, ‘No, the next generation of saints will be wearing suits.’ So, Robert Schuman found himself elected into the French Parliament. 

He was the first MP who was arrested by the Gestapo, after the invasion by the Germans of France, because he was a great threat to them as a man of great reputation and integrity. He was put in solitary confinement for seven months. Being a man of prayer, he knew what to do with solitary confinement. Recently I’ve actually talked with a journalist who worked with him. He who told me that he had seen the letters that Robert Schuman smuggled out of the prison back to France to the underground fighters there, to say, ‘We French will have to learn to love and forgive the Germans to rebuild Europe after the war.’ That shows the stature of a man, during his imprisonment. He was talking about the need for love and forgiveness after the war. He managed to escape and make his way back to free France, where eventually he had to go underground again when the Germans occupied the whole of the free South as well. That is where he spent time thinking on how to rebuild Europe after the war. 

He realized that there was going to need to be a whole new framework of thinking. A new order was needed. There had been the old order since the Treaty of Westphalia in Münster in 1648, after the Thirty Year’s War and the Eighty Year’s War, a time which we generally see as when the nation states became the new order. This system of competing alliances had led to several wars with France and Germany fighting like alley cats right at the heart of that. 

Schuman, saw that democracy really came from Christ’s teachings: the principle of equality, the practice of brotherly love, individual freedom, and respect for the rights of the individual. He said, ‘Democracy will either be Christian or it will not be. An anti-Christian democracy will be a parody which will sink into tyranny or into anarchy.’ Saying things like this is rather politically incorrect in our Western world today. But it was right at the heart of Schuman’s understanding of what needed to take place in Europe.

Loving your neighbour as yourself was a democratic principle, which, applied to nations, meant being prepared to serve and love neighbouring peoples. What did that mean in international politics, especially regarding the French and the Germans? If Christianity taught that we were children of the same God, regardless of race, colour, social status, or profession, then states too should be treated as equals. The universal law of love and charity made every man our neighbour, he continued, even social relations in the Christian world have been based on this ever since. Applied to the community of peoples, forgiveness and reconciliation, even with those at the present being enemies, were Christian imperatives.

The European vision or the European story were deeply rooted in the Christian story, he believed, and if we cut ourselves off from those roots, we cut ourselves off from these foundations of equality, human dignity, tolerance, and compassion. So, his vision for Europe came to be that there needed to be a community of peoples deeply rooted in basic Christian values.

(the second part will be published next week)

Jeff Fountain

Director Schuman Centre

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