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Georges Berthoin: “With the inspiration of Monnet and the authority of Schuman, history was made"

Almost 60 years ago in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Paris, Robert Schuman read the declaration edited over a few weeks with Jean Monnet which would enable creation of the very first European community - the ECSC. Georges Berthoin was a key player in this period as principal private secretary to Jean Monnet who was then president of the ECSC high authority. Mr. Berthoin talks about this 'historic miracle', analyses the reasons why Europe is today in crisis and discusses the challenges facing Europe in the future.


Georges Berthoin was born in France on May 17th 1925 and is a graduate of the University of Grenoble, Sciences Politiques in Paris and Harvard University. He entered the Resistance movement in October 1940 at the age of 15 (for this, he received the Legion of Honour, Military Medal, Croix de Guerre with Palm and the Rosette of the Resistance).

EIn 1948, he became a member of Minister for Finance Maurice Petsche’s cabinet, then Director of the IGAME () cabinet in 1950 for the 9 départements of Champagne, Lorraine and Alsace and Préfet of Moselle.

During this period, he was in charge of (among other things) the re-election of Robert Schuman who was a personal friend to the end.

At the beginning of creating the first European community (ECSC) in 1952, he managed the cabinet of the first President of the ECSC High Authority, Jean Monnet. He remained a close friend and advisor to Monnet until the latter’s death in 1979.

In 1971, Georges Berthoin was named European Community Ambassador to the United Kingdom until the UK entered the Community and, while in London, established the first diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China during the Cultural Revolution.

He was also co-founder in 1973 of the Trilateral Commission, a private organisation launched by David Rockefeller and Zbigniew Brzezinski which he became European president of in 1975. Re-elected five times, he remained in office for 17 years until 1992.

In the same period, he was elected in 1988 by the 51 African States as a member of the Nine Wise Men Group on Africa. Berthoin and Robert McNamara were the only two non-African members.

Throughout his career, Georges Berthoin also took part in conflict resolution, as a personal and volunteer advisor based on his community experience, in East-West and North-South disputes, Yugoslavia, Romania, Israel-Palestine, Ireland and in UN and EU reform plans.

Regarding the community, he was International President of the European Movement from 1978 to 1981 and has been Honorary President of the Jean Monnet Association since 2001.

Touteleurope.fr: 60 years later, what remains of the Europe of the Schuman Declaration?

Georges Berthoin : The essential remains - the institutions, which are today very sophisticated and were created in embryonic stages over a few weeks between December 1952 and January 1953. These are the instruments that, little by little, resolve the problems of Europe. The major challenge today is to use them well!

Another thing that has remained is reconciliation between France and Germany. Although there are high and low points in this relationship, the important thing is that neither French people nor German people consider themselves enemies and this has been the case since the Schuman Declaration of 1950.

Lastly, the then-experimental governing technique has remained and is based on the dynamic between national sovereignty and common interest. This technique developed in a pragmatic way and will be of great help in facing the problems of the 21st century.

Touteleurope.fr: You are one of the great witnesses to European construction. What is the ‘European’ spirit that motivated the founding fathers?

G.B. : Jean Monnet was surrounded by a small team of less than ten people for preparation of the declaration of May 9th 1950.

Jean Monnet had the idea and he called on the person who had the power to transform it into political reality - the Minister for Foreign Affairs at that time, Robert Schuman.

Between inspiration and power, there was a kind of historic miracle. It was all the more significant because Robert Schuman, who was from Lorraine and Luxembourg, was particularly aware of the conflicts between Germany and France and the consequences of these conflicts on this region, especially in the coal and steel sector.

When the Declaration was implemented in 1952, we discovered that what seemed historically impossible was in fact possible.

At the time, we were considered slightly irresponsible idealists but, in fact, we were realists before the realists of the moment.

Deep down, we were all from the outset aware of the fact that, with strength and humility, we were about to free Europe from the curses of its history. We remained convinced of this throughout our lives.

Touteleurope.fr: What events most affected you in this period?

G.B. : When the Declaration was made on May 9th 1950, it took public opinion, and the media in particular, completely by surprise. We knew that a serious crisis was developing between France and Germany as Germany wanted to reclaim its sovereignty.

This is why France offered to submit itself without discrimination to the same rules as Germany in what was then a vitally important sector. A silent revolution started.

If you look at the newspapers of the time, the declaration got five columns on the front page! Everyone realised that, for once, this was a proposal that needed to be taken seriously. France had taken the diplomatic initiative which is still the most important initiative of its history - and it was a peaceful and long-lasting one..

No longer were fruitless discussions the order of the day; we were gradually transforming European and world politics with concrete actions. Thus it was a considerable shock.

In all areas, including politically hostile ones, the initiative was taken seriously. Since this date, a series of events have occurred that have advanced European construction even though governments were a little suspicious of this idea.

Touteleurope.fr: Why then is political Europe in stalemate?

G.B. : The central problem, which is settled by the Schuman Declaration and stoked up by current events, is the relationship between national sovereignties and common interest.

Through the institutions that were created, we tried to find a dynamic between these two powerful elements.

Contrary to what might have been said in the debates, there was never any question of abolishing nations or European states. It was about helping each sovereign nation to understand that it has common interests with other sovereign nations.

This is why the European Commission is so important. Its right of initiative role enables it to detect common interest, represent it and help each sovereign nation to incorporate it because common interest is also a part of national interest.

This has worked to varying degrees depending on the times. The referendum on the constitutional treaty was thus lost because there was a huge amount of misunderstandings and mistrust. However, the way forward was not blocked. We are currently experiencing a difficult period but the fundamentals defined in 1950 continue to be valuable.

Intergovernmental Europe is in difficulty today. The only way of getting out of this increasingly dangerous stalemate is to return to the community method by modernising it. I feel sure that as we get closer to the abyss, someone somewhere will take the necessary initiative as Schuman did in 1950.

Touteleurope.fr: In the ECSC era, was such a geographically large Europe (with 27 members) ever considered?

G.B. : Of course. We discussed the possibility of reunification of the European continent, particularly in the discussions with our German colleagues.

There was a great debate within German political life because German socialists were somewhat hesitant when faced with Konrad Adenauer’s policy that favoured full integration into Western Europe. They feared that this would be an obstacle to German reunification.

However, we were able to demonstrate that the strengthening of the European Community would one day enable Germany and Europe to reunite under peaceful terms.

Europe, for the first time in its history, was united in a non-violent way, without any military coercion or any repression of national sovereignty and while respecting the dignity of all people.

So from the beginning, it was about a large Europe, but one that would be built gradually.

The greater the population of the Community, the more the community method is needed. One of the current difficulties is that we are returning to the intergovernmental method. Yet, the more we enlarge, the less the intergovernmental method works - and our current problems stem from this. As I said, we must return to the community method.

What we have developed in Europe will one day be usable in world governance and that is the great challenge of the 21st century.

Touteleurope.fr : Cela signifie-t-il que le modèle européen peut être transposé à plus grande échelle, à l’échelle mondiale ?

G.B. : Yes! I am totally convinced that is the case. An inspiring example was George Bush Senior’s speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1990 when he was still President of the United States. In his speech, he stated that he hoped for the creation of a new order based on the European model, “I see a world building on the emerging new model of European unity, not just Europe but the whole world whole and free” .

Currently in several regions of the world, people are studying how the European Union works and are looking at how its methods can be adapted to their regions.

The African Union was greatly inspired by what we did, as was Mercosur in South America and research is currently being carried out in Asia, particularly by the Koreans, Chinese, Malaysians etc. So, we can see that the European model has already been recognised as a valuable one.

Touteleurope.fr: It is often said that peace, which was the original motivation behind the European Union, is no longer an issue. What are the future challenges of Europe?

G.B. : If the European system that we created is in serious crisis and starts to unravel, the peace issue will raise its head again.

A recent example should be borne in mind i.e. when the Yugoslav federation began to unravel, the type of war we saw was similar to what happened at the beginning of the 20th century, and provoked the same cruelty.

This peace which exists thanks to the European institutions is as fragile as good health. The old scourges of Europe, such as viruses, may come back again.

We must therefore take seriously the return of populism, as was seen during the recent elections in Hungary and elsewhere. Populism is a form of desperation.

This creates two obligations for governments: Firstly, they must do all that they can to best manage (without national egos) the current crisis which is national, European and global and, secondly, they must rediscover the value of the European instruments that we created in the 1950s.

This assumes that leaders become aware of the dangers that threaten us, and take on the necessary will and moral authority. They also need to create a more reliable and trustworthy relationship with the public who are now worried about what is happening and what is not being done.

Two Chinese characters make up the word ‘crisis’: Danger and opportunity for change. All of us, wherever we are from, are responsible for ensuring that one character overcomes the other.

To find out more

Special report on May 9th: Europe Day (FR) - Touteleurope.fr

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