European Union Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series

by John McCormick

Chapter 4: Organizing Postwar Europe

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War and conflict have for centuries been part of the fabric of Europe, prompting philosophers to develop numerous plans for bringing peace to the region, but finding their suggestions falling mainly on deaf ears. The tensions among Europeans deepened during the nineteenth century as nationalism burgeoned and great power competition paved the way for two world wars. Before those wars, all the great world powers had been European: their empires circled the globe, they dominated global trade, and their banks, financial institutions, armies and navies faced few serious challenges. But their power and influence now suffered a shattering blow. Europe embarked on peace in 1945 with most of its economies devastated, its political systems destabilized, its colonies agitating for independence, and its states distrustful of each other and threatened by a new kind of Cold War between two external powers: the United States and the Soviet Union. Europeans had tired of violence, and sought ways to make future conflict impossible, but while there was support for the idea of European cooperation, governments and elites were divided over what this meant, and how to proceed.

A start was made with the creation in 1949 of the Council of Europe, but this was not enough for federalists, who focused instead on the development of supranational institutions; a new approach was taken in 1952 with the founding of the European Coal and Steel Community. Tracing the story from Bretton Woods to the Marshall Plan and the start of the Cold War, this chapter attempts to capture the spirit of the postwar debate, and to understand the confluence of circumstances that came together to make the first steps in the process of integration possible.
  • Europe had long been divided by conflict as one power invaded or tried to dominate another, or as religious disputes spilled over into violence, and then as states began to emerge and national minorities struggled for independence.
  • Numerous suggestions had been made for ways in which Europeans might cooperate, but it took the traumas of two world wars to bring these ideas to a wider audience.
  • The Franco-German question dominated many of the discussions, but while Italy and the Benelux countries were keen on cooperation, Britain kept its distance, others were wary of international efforts, and eastern Europe was under Soviet control.
  • Europe in 1945 had three critical needs: to rebuild war-ravaged economies, to ensure security from one another and from external threats, and to limit the dangers of nationalism.
  • Economic reconstruction was given a boost by the United States, which provided assistance through the Marshall Plan. Security assurances were also provided by the United States through the new North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
  • The problem of nationalism was addressed by new initiatives to promote regional unity, beginning in 1949 with the creation of the Council of Europe. But its goals were too limited for the tastes of Europeanists such as Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman.
  • The signature of the 1951 Treaty of Paris led to the creation in 1952 of the European Coal and Steel Community, a first step in the process of building European economic ties. But only France,West Germany, Italy and the three Benelux countries joined.