The story of The 50 Days that Changed Europe starts on the day I left my job at the US Mission to write a book on Abraham Lincoln. An odd decision, you might think – and indeed a lot of people thought that I had completely lost it. I had always loved my job (Economic Specialist – there isn’t one EU trade agreement I haven’t read and analyzed) but after 10 years I wanted to try something different. I wanted to focus on the people behind the facts, get inside their heads, understand their thinking, and I chose Abraham Lincoln as my first experiment. Lincoln is the man who led his country through the civil war – now THAT was a crisis.
When I was reading Lincoln’s letters, all the diaries of people who knew him, and sat down to write his story – I became so absorbed by it that I completely missed the excitement surrounding the EU’s constitution, the no-vote in France and the Netherlands, and the Treaty’s resurrection under a different name (Lisbon). My neighbours, the people in my street, my new friends in the publishing world: Europe didn’t mean much to them at all. This is when it hit me. ‘The Brussels bubble’: it really exists.
Then the financial crisis hit. Banks got into trouble. Governments got into trouble. People started questioning the euro, how did we get into this mess, would we not be better off without it? Now Europe was not only perceived as remote and technocratic, lacking any vision that could mobilize people, but also as the cause for the crisis we are in. And the real pain is yet to come.
So here I was: Lincoln book finished – seeing the Europe I grew up in on very shaky grounds, and all this happening within the broader context: globalisation, the rise of China, the huge amount of debts we have accumulated in the west.
I asked myself: Would it be possible to write a book on Europe that is different from what already exists?
1. Would it be possible to explain Europe in stories? Something that would draw the reader into the key moments that have shaped the EU into what it is today; something that would make them see that there a people behind the facts, people they can identify with?
2. Would it be possible to write a book on Europe that people would ENJOY to read?
3. Would it be possible to write a book that would encourage independent thinking on Europe’s future – our future?
I had no idea. But I sat down and I wrote this :
A white marble mantlepiece decorated with pious-looking angels. Enormous chandeliers hang from the ceiling, illuminating the room with a golden light, as if aware that the declaration that is about to be read would resonate through the ages. It was in this august setting – the Salon de l’Horloge in the French foreign ministry – that on May 9, 1950 foreign minister Robert Schuman put on his black glasses, cleared his throat, and addressed the expectant crowd of journalists:‘In taking upon herself for more than 20 years the role of champion of a united Europe,’ he said in his shrill voice, ‘France has always had as her essential aim the service of peace. A united Europe was not achieved and we had war. Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity. The coming together of the nations of Europe requires the elimination of the age-old opposition of France and Germany. Any action taken must in the first place concern these two countries.’ ‘With this aim in view,’ he continued, ‘the French government proposes that action be taken immediately on one limited but decisive point. It proposes that Franco-German production of coal and steel as a whole be placed under a common High Authority, within the framework of an organisation open to the participation of the other countries of Europe. (…) The solidarity in production thus established will make it plain that any war between France and Germany becomes not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible. (…) By pooling basic production and by instituting a new High Authority, whose decisions will bind France, Germany and other member countries, this proposal will lead to the realisation of the first concrete foundation of a European federation indispensable to the preservation of peace.’ There was consternation in the room. Journalists, scribbling away madly, looked perplexed. Here and there, applause broke out. A supranational institution that could take binding decisions on behalf of France, Germany and other states? They were curious to see what Konrad Adenauer, the newly elected Chancellor of postwar West Germany, would make of it all. It quickly became clear that Adenauer was fully behind the proposal. For him, this presented an opportunity to lift his country out of the humiliating isolation it had suffered after the folly of World War Two. He had already given Schuman his support the night before the foreign minister launched his famous plan. Even the United States had encouraged France to take such a step. Now that the Cold War with Russia was turning more serious, it was more important than ever that West Germany was anchored in the free world. Who was the architect of this ingenious plan that put Schuman in the media spotlight on May 9? It was in fact the work of the senior French diplomat Jean Monnet – a small man with a big vision. It is worth re-reading his memoires. ‘It is not feelings of friendship that create a community,’ he wrote, ‘but, conversely, that working together creates friendship.’ Monnet put people at the centre of the project. ‘We are not binding states,’ he said, ‘we are uniting people.’ I showed it to Marc, my publisher, and this is what he said: ‘I love the style – can you do 49 more?’ ..