France’s Role in The Creation of Modern Europe

Analyse the role of France in the creation of modern-day Europe.

In the wake of the Second World War, France’s focus was fixed largely on preventing further wars with Germany. The Treaty of Versailles, in the aftermath of the First World War, had only served to render the German people bitter and hungry for revenge. As a result, France pursued instead a series of trade agreements with Germany, amongst other European countries, in an effort to tie them to a peaceful co-existence. It was hoped that a new French-dominated Europe could help to reinstate France’s pride and grandeur, following a period of decolonisation, by creating a ‘third way’[1] between the superpowers of the USA and USSR. A series of treaties followed, eventually culminating in the creation of the European Economic Community and ultimately, the modern European Union.

In light of her diminishing influence overseas as a result of decolonisation, France turned to Europe for trade, and moreover, to reassert her influence on the world stage. Arguably the first major step towards the envisaged French-dominated Europe, and indeed the Europe we see today, came in the form of the European Coal and Steel Community which was established by the Treaty of Paris in 1951. The ECSC was a supranational organisation made up of France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries, (collectively referred to as ‘The Six’), and it created a common market for coal and steel. It was first proposed by French statesman Jean Monnet and foreign minister Robert Schuman, whose aim was to, “make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible”[2], as coal and steel would be essential to any potential war effort. He also declared that the ECSC could be, “the first concrete foundation of a European federation indispensable to the preservation of peace”[3]. In this respect, it seems clear that it was a French desire to prevent war which was vital in the creation of the ECSC. Furthermore, as is highlighted in the second quotation, it seems that it was France, seeking to find her place as the dominant power in a new European bloc, which played a major role in taking the first step towards the Europe of today. However, the pooling of resources and the co-ordination of certain economies was actually a prerequisite of the European Recovery Program, or Marshall Aid[4]. Therefore, it could be argued that, although beneficial to and sculpted by France, the step was in fact taken out of necessity to comply with the demands of the US government. Ultimately, the community proved to be a success, not only in the long-term by preventing further war in Western Europe, but also in the short-term as Schuman and Monnet’s ECSC led to further treaties and deepening integration and co-operation to generate ₣5-6bn per year in trade with Germany[5].

A number of other pan-European organisations were formed around the same time as the European Coal and Steel Community. For example, the Organization for European Economic Co-operation to distribute American Marshall Aid was set up by the United States in 1948, and the Council of Europe was established in 1949 after Winston Churchill, for example, had called for its creation as early as 1943[6] and a “kind of United States of Europe” in a speech at the University of Zurich in 1946[7]. In this respect, it is important to note that whilst Monnet and France were at the forefront of efforts to create a federalised Europe, they were not alone in seeking increased integration. In the provision of Marshall Aid, the USA had formed the international bodies, which would, in turn, provide the framework for the European Free Trade Agreement, an alternative trade bloc for countries not in the European Economic Community. In other words, whilst France asserted herself as the major power in mainland Western Europe in this early post-war period, the eagerness for integration, either intergovernmental or supranational, was one shared with many other countries, both in Europe and overseas. The enthusiasm for co-operation and co-ordination is scarcely surprising as alliances and blocs had been being forged for centuries. In fact, they became increasingly common, and their unity increasingly fundamental, as many countries, including France, searched desperately for ways to avoid further war and recover rapidly to advance their own causes in post-war Europe.

In 1955, having resigned from the presidency of the ECSC’s High Authority, Monnet formed a pressure group, the Action Committee for the United States of Europe, to call on ‘The Six’ to expand upon the scope of the ECSC to include energy and transport. This, in turn, led to the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC) which was established by the Treaty of Rome in 1957, alongside the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC/Euratom)[8]. It was here that the idea of intergovernmental co-operation was increasingly replaced by the delegation of powers to federal bodies. Of course, this centralisation is an integral part of today’s supranational European Union. The blueprint for modern Europe created by Monnet and Schuman does not end here, however. In fact, the European Commission of today derives from the European Coal and Steel Community’s High Authority[9], whilst today’s European Parliament has its roots in the European Parliamentary Assembly, of which Shuman was the first president in 1958[10]. Therefore, it seems that Monnet and Schuman’s legacy is that their vision for an integrated and unified Europe has been realised. Or, that these French statesmen are responsible for the sculpting of the Europe we know today.

Despite his belief in the European Communities’ ability to ensure peace in Europe, de Gaulle was firmly against the increasing supra-nationalism. The European Defence Community (EDC) had failed to be ratified by the French National Assembly on the grounds that an international army would threaten national sovereignty[11], and that the decision to put NATO’s Supreme Commander in charge of EDC operations would align Europe with the United States against the USSR[12], between whom de Gaulle had wanted to create a ‘third way’ to avoid involvement in the mounting tensions of the Cold War. In response to the EDC’s failure, de Gaulle proposed the Fouchet Plan in 1961 which offered an intergovernmental approach to preserve French influence and thus limit supra-nationalism. Ultimately, the plan failed as it was seen as a step back from integration by Germany and the Benelux countries. They also considered de Gaulle’s proposals for a common European foreign policy to be in direct and deliberate opposition to the directives of NATO, from which de Gaulle was withdrawing troops after a disagreement with the USA about France’s role within the organisation[13].

NATO had already impacted upon French influence over European foreign policy following it’s absorption of the Western Union’s Defence Organisation in 1950-51. Whilst the Western European Union, (as it was known following the ascension of Germany and Italy), promised mutual defence between its members, NATO sought primarily to protect against the spread of Soviet communism, which, as a threat, had replaced the prospect of a rearmed Germany. In this instance, it was the USA that had now begun to exert an element of influence over Europe – at the expense of France and others. Attempts by de Gaulle to later create a ‘third way’ were ultimately hampered by other European nations choosing American favour and support over foreign policies proposed by France.

Therefore, in a further move to limit the influence of the USA and NATO, and preserve French dominance in Europe, de Gaulle vetoed Britain’s ascension to the EEC in 1963 with his famous “non”. He cited Britain’s incompatible economy and conveyed a belief that the country would only act as a “Trojan Horse” for the USA in Europe[14]. He also rejected a second British application to the European Community (EC), as it had then become, in 1967, claiming European solidarity and again suggesting that sooner or later, Britain’s loyalties would be shown to lie not with Europe, but with NATO and the USA. In the pursuit of French grandeur, de Gaulle simply did not want another major power to rival France and lessen her influence in ‘his’ European Community. At the time, other countries in the EC were beginning to fight its French dominance, not only by rejecting the Fouchet Plan, but also by protesting the grossly imbalanced benefits France was receiving from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Ultimately, de Gaulle knew that British ascension may threaten the status quo in the EC at a time when he was stubbornly endeavouring to remain dominant, to prevent the encroachment of NATO, and to offer a ‘third way’ to sculpt for France the role of a major world power.

The French contribution to the creation of modern Europe, therefore, has not always been that of pro-active visionary action, as is shown in the “Empty Chair Crisis” of 1965-66. Reluctant to give up France’s favourable terms of the CAP, de Gaulle ordered his ministers to remain absent from the summit knowing that reform could not implemented without a unanimous decision. In response to this stubborn protectionism, majority votes replaced unanimity for most European Council decisions following the 1968 Luxembourg Compromise. Although in practice, the Council rarely made decisions without unanimity to ensure national ratification[15], it did render decision-making especially difficult. Some even refer to it as, “a second European constitution”[16], because, whilst the use of a majority vote is now more common, the Compromise is often seen as a step back from the idea that the Community would “transform itself into a fully-fledged state”[17], as many federalists envisaged.

The beginnings of the modern Franco-German dominance of the European Union are arguably found in the Elysée Treaty of 1963. In practice, this established regular summits between high-level officials of both France and Germany in which to consult on all important questions in an effort to achieve a common stance on foreign policy, cultural and youth affairs[18]. Often referred to as The Friendship Treaty, it was born out of good relations between French President, Charles de Gaulle and the German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer and it sought to ensure close co-operation of the two countries moving forward. West Germany had rebuilt successfully, had been allowed to rearm and join NATO and was now emerging as an economic power which could soon rival France. This affiliation to agree a shared standpoint on future affairs has proved successful for both countries, to an extent, in ensuring that they are the two dominant powers within today’s European Union.

In conclusion, France played a major role in the forging of modern-day Europe. Firstly, French statesmen Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman are, for the most part, responsible for the logistical creation of the European Coal and Steel Community, despite its origins in the preconditions of France receiving Marshall Aid. The ECSC proved to be the foundation for a series of treaties to establish not only a common market, but also the principal pillars of the various integrated and federalised European institutions such as the European Commission and European Parliament which find their roots in the organisations formed through the vision of Monnet and Schuman to administer the ECSC. However, it is important to also consider that France was not alone in the pursuit of integration, co-operation and even federalisation with Winston Churchill of Britain and many other countries also enthusiastic for such co-ordination and unity. As the post-war years became the Cold War era, the influence of the USA and NATO began to lessen that of France within Europe, as the Community’s other nations opted for American protection over a French ‘third way’. Although it had little choice as the defeated force in the Second World War, Germany too has played a crucial role by peacefully rebuilding, and rising to become the dominant force in the EU today. Perhaps most importantly, France, through Monnet and the foundations laid by the ECSC, has ensured that Western Europe has remained peaceful – a remarkable achievement when placed in the context of the three German invasions of France in the eighty years before its inception.

[1] Président de Gaulle, Conférence de presse du 23 juillet 1964 [23rd July, 1964]

[2] The Schuman Declaration – 9th May 1950, Europa, <; [accessed 12 November 2014] (para. 6 of 16).

[3] The Schuman Declaration,, (para. 8 of 16).

[4] Alan S. Milward, The Reconstruction of Western Europe, 1945-51 (University of California Press, 1984), p.141.

[5] David Lees, Lecture: France and the European Union, University of Warwick, 28th October 2014.

[6] Winston Churchill, ‘A Four Year Plan for England’, BBC Radio Broadcast, 21st March 1943.

[7] ‘Winston Churchill speech delivered at the University of Zurich, 19 September 1946’, Council of Europe Archives, <; [accessed 13 November 2014] (para. 3 of 9).

[8] ‘The Role of the Action Committee for the United States of Europe’, Centre Virtuel de la Connaissance sur l’Europe (CVCE), <; [accessed 16 November 2014] (para. 2 of 2).

[9] Richard Laming, ‘Towards a Federal Europe’, Global Dialogue, 3, Vol. 5, (2003) <; [accessed 16 November 2014] (para. 35 of 65)

[10] ‘Fiftieth Anniversary of the European Parliament celebrated in Strasbourg’, European Parliament Press Release, 12 March 2008, <; [accessed 15 November 2014] (para. 11 of 22).

[11] Kathryn Statler, Replacing France: The Origins of American Intervention in Vietnam, (University Press of Kentucky, 2007), p.55.

[12] Grégoire Mallard, Fallout: Nuclear Diplomacy in an Age of Global Fracture, (University of Chicago Press, 2014), p.94.

[13] Sebastian Reyn, “Atlantis Lost: The American Experience with De Gaulle, 1958-1969, (Amsterdam University Press, 2010), p.25.

[14] ‘Biographie (1962-68 : La consolidation du régime)’,, <; [accessed 15 November 2014] (para. 6 of 10).

[15] Neill Nugent, The Government and Politics of the European Union, (Palgrave Macmillan, UK, 2010), p.156.

[16] Andrew Moravcsik, The Choice for Europe: Social Purpose and State Power from Messina to Maastricht, (Cornell University Press, 1998), p.159.

[17] Michelle Cini, Nieves Perez-Solorzana Borragan, European Union Politics, (Oxford University Press, 2009), p.90.

[18] Christoph Gunkel, ‘Sealed With A Kiss: Treaty Heralded New Era in Franco-German Times’, Spiegel Online International, 22nd January 2013, <; [accessed 14 November 2014] (para. 6 of 27).


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