Jean Monnet’s contribution to the development of European integration

As I sit writing this blog at the start of the 2016 academic year and with the prospect of a visit of former Members of the European Parliament to the university in a couple of weeks, I am reminded of the contribution that Jean Monnet made to the development of the EU.

Monnet was born in Cognac in south-west France and left school at age 16 to work in the family brandy business. He travelled from an early age, learning English while working in the City of London and developed contacts for the family business by travelling throughout Europe and beyond to North America and Russia. Although he was deemed unfit to fight in the First World War, he played an active role by advising the French politician Etienne Clémentel and established the Anglo-French Supply Commission to ensure that France and Britain did not compete for important raw materials that were necessary for the war effort. The significance of his contribution led him being appointed deputy secretary-general of the newly created League of Nations at the age of 31 as well as being awarded an honorary knighthood by the British government. However, the difficulties that the League encountered in overcoming national interests meant that its decisions were often lengthy and relatively ineffective. Monnet quickly became disillusioned with this state of affairs and returned to the family business in 1923. The experience did, however, have a profound impact on him as he realised that governments could not just be relied upon to cooperate on their own.

Monnet would go on to travel widely over the next two decades, where he developed contacts with politicians in the US that included Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles. These proved to be important with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, where once again Monnet played an important role. He was appointed Chairman of the London-based Franco-British Committee for Economic Coordination that directly reported to the prime ministers of both countries. But it was in the US that his influence was particularly significant. He contributed to the development of the Lend-Lease scheme that provided a lifeline to Britain before the US entered the war in 1941 and put forward the phrase ‘the arsenal of democracy’ that was taken up by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to visualise America’s contribution to the war effort. Monnet played an important role in establishing and contributing to the French Committee of National Liberation that was created at a meeting in Algiers in 1943 and which became the French provisional government after the country was liberated in 1944.

After the end of the Second World War the French Prime Minister Charles de Gaulle appointed Monnet the country’s chief planning officer. From this position he played a key role in the country’s economic recovery where he advanced in January 1946 a five-year investment and modernisation plan that became known as the Monnet Plan. The underlying success of the plan owed much to the financial contribution of the Marshall Plan from 1947 onwards, which was also reflective of US influence in the postwar settlement. While this was most clearly evidenced by the division of Germany and the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany, Monnet was also aware that in the longer timeframe that it would not be possible to contain the Federal Republic through the International Ruhr Authority that had been created in 1949. This would lead Monnet to propose to the French Foreign Minister, Robert Schuman, in the spring of 1950 that French and German steel production should be joined together under supranational control. For Monnet the benefit of the idea was that it dealt with France’s concern about German dominance and provided a framework to modernise both countries.

Monnet’s views had a profound impact on Schuman and he would go on to be the key drafter of the declaration that Schuman gave on 9 May 1950 which advocated the creation of a ECSC that would take responsibility for Franco-German coal and steel production and which would be open to other countries to join. The ensuing negotiations to establish the ECSC were largely influenced by Monnet’s vision to create a body independent of national control, as reflected in the creation of a High Authority that followed a regulatory style.  It was no surprise when Monnet was appointed the first President of the ECSC High Authority when it commenced working on 10 August 1952. Yet by then the attention of many countries had turned towards the first military action of the Cold War with the outbreak of the Korean War on 25 June 1950. Monnet considered that this conflict meant that German rearmament was inevitable and that the only way to tackle this was by adopting the principles of the ECSC. In so doing he convinced the French Premier, René Pleven, to propose the creation of a European Defence Community (EDC). The idea of a European army proved too controversial for European politicians and after its rejection by the French National Assembly in August 1954 the future of European integration seemed to be in question.

But while Monnet’s frustrations would lead him to resign from the ECSC High Authority on 10 June 1955, his influence would continue for years to come through his creation of the Action Committee for a United States of Europe (ACUSE) in October 1955 that campaigned for closer European integration. By then he had already proposed with the Belgian Foreign Minister, Paul-Henri Spaak to establish a new Community for civilian nuclear power (the European Atomic Energy Community – EURATOM), while he also supported the proposal by the Dutch foreign minister, Johan Willem Beyen, for a common market (Beyen Plan) that provided the basis for the 1955 Messina Conference and the ensuing negotiations over 1956-57 that led to the Treaties of Rome which established the European Economic Community (EEC) and Euratom.

Monnet’s view of European integration attached emphasis to the role of institutions at the expense of national influence. This community method did not always sit well with politicians of the time, such as de Gaulle. In the decades that followed this would be played out in debates between those who believed in the importance of supranational institutions that defended common European interests and those who considered that European nation states were the key players.

Alasdair Blair (
Jean Monnet Chair and Professor of International Relations
Department of Politics and Public Policy
De Montfort University

About Ros Lishman

Ros Lishman is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics and Public Policy at De Montfort University.
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