The European Union is now a global actor with a population of half a billion, functioning democratic institutions, and the world’s largest GDP (overshadowing both China and the United States by some distance). The substantial achievement in uniting multiple sovereign states under a supranational system of governance is all the more remarkable considering the bleakness of Europe’s political divides until this point. It is difficult to imagine that barely sixty years ago, the states now sharing a common Parliament, flag and even currency were locked in a life-or-death struggle, a ‘total war’, which posed existential questions of European civilization itself.
Indeed, two of the main protagonists of the Second World War – France and Germany – had been at war for most of the century beforehand. Napoleon’s occupation led to far-reaching political changes in Germany, which ultimately unified the country under Prussian leadership in 1871. Eager to flex its military muscles, Prussian aggression in the latter part of the nineteenth century forced a humiliating defeat on the French and placed Alsace-Lorraine under German control. This remained a point of sharp contention between these two now profound enemies, making Germany’s surrender of the region all the more difficult after defeat in the cataclysmic First World War. This conflict, a kind of mechanized Dark Ages for Europe, further entrenched the animosity between the two largest states of Western Europe. Revision of the resulting Peace of Versailles became a rallying call for German nationalists and fatally undermined the new Republic formed after the war ended. Hitler’s rise to power ultimately led to yet another major conflict between France and Germany, with some of the most criminal acts in history committed in the nadir of Europe’s long history.
Yet, despite—and perhaps because of—the havoc inflicted by the Second World War, within a decade the leaders of the two states were negotiating the amalgamation of their entire economies after the success of pooling their war-making coal and steel industries in 1951. Along with four other neighboring states, from either side of the Allied/Axis divide, France and Germany created the European Economic Community, the kernel for today’s European Union.
What most stands out in this seemingly miraculous overcoming of a century of highly destructive animosity is the role of magnanimous political leadership. Key personalities were convinced that the only way that Europe could prosper was through the overcoming of the injurious national partisanship. Leaders like Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, Walter Hallstein and Paul Henri-Spaak set about the task of reconciling Europe’s political divides, establishing lasting institutions to resolve conflict through law, not blood and iron and, in the process, became Europe’s “Founding Fathers”. Of course, America’s encouragement and its experience as a massively successful constitutional and federal democracy served as an inspiration for Europeans. The benefits of Europe’s bipartisanship? 60 years of peace and prosperity across Western Europe, the spread of the rule of law and human rights across the Iron Curtain and a place at the forefront of the 21st Century.