Overrated: Jean Monnet

The legacy of the “father of Europe” is fast disintegrating

Overrated
Jean Monnet, 1888-1879 (Illustration to Jean Monnet)

Jean Monnet was the original man with a plan. He had one big idea: a United States of Europe. It wasn’t a very good idea; nor was it really his. But Monnet’s name is enshrined as “the father of Europe”.
Since his death in 1979 at the age of 90, Monnet has become one of the most fêted figures in modern European history. The cult of Monnet is promoted and funded by his brainchild, the European Union. But does he deserve such adulation?
Aged 16, Monnet was sent abroad to sell cognac for the family firm. Living in Britain, Canada and the US, he acquired fluent English and developed a taste for hamburgers. Like Alexis de Tocqueville before him, he was impressed by the dynamism of the New World. Unlike Tocqueville, however, he wanted to impose American federalism on Europe.
His political career began during the First World War, during which he was responsible for transatlantic shipping of food and raw materials, along with an Englishman, Arthur Salter. Both men later worked at the League of Nations, where Monnet was deputy secretary general. According to Christopher Booker, it was his wartime and postwar experience that persuaded Monnet of the need for supranational bodies that could overrule national sovereignty.
Impatient with the League, he returned to business, moving into banking and aerospace. Neither a fonctionnaire nor an elected politician, Monnet liked to operate behind the scenes as a freelance. A capitalist who always voted socialist, he was bored by business and preferred bureaucratic empire-building. In this, he resembled his contemporary John Maynard Keynes, but without the latter’s intellect or charisma. Monnet was less a visionary idealist than a canny opportunist who got lucky.
Between the wars, Monnet acquired a wide range of contacts and a reputation for wheeler-dealing. Having eloped with an Italian artist, Silvia de Bondini, who was married to one of his employees, he used his influence to obtain Soviet citizenship for her so that she could divorce her husband without his consent. They were married in Moscow in 1934, just as Stalin was pioneering the planned economy while starving Ukraine. It is unclear what price Monnet paid for Soviet assistance, but he certainly embraced the idea of the Five Year Plan.
Curiously, he was not much involved in the nascent Pan-European movement, which was led by an Anglophile Austrian, Count Coudenhove-Kalergi. It was Arthur Salter, not Monnet, who published A United States of Europe in 1931. In 1939, Monnet moved to London — he always stayed at a safe distance from wars — and promoted the idea of a Franco-British Union. As France was falling, he persuaded Churchill to propose the idea to the French premier Reynaud, but the latter’s cabinet rejected it and chose to surrender instead. He then urged De Gaulle to set up his government in exile in Vichy-controlled Algiers rather than London — an even sillier idea that alienated the General.
Snubbed by the Free French, Monnet crossed the Atlantic to help the Roosevelt administration to transform America into “the arsenal of democracy”. He was not as central to the US Victory Program as has been claimed — Keynes is supposed to have credited him with shortening the war by a year, though I can find no evidence that the economist ever said this. However, Monnet learned all the wrong lessons from FDR’s America. It was the top-down planning of the New Deal, not the bottom-up freedom of markets, which he later applied to Europe.
Untainted by Vichy collaboration, he made his peace with De Gaulle and returned to France as the first head of a new commission for the “planification” of the economy.  Between 1946 and 1952 he presided over what became known as the Monnet Plan. This consisted of restoring the French economy by expropriating raw materials from Germany’s industrial heartlands in the Saar and the Ruhr. It was a repetition of what had happened after 1918, with the difference that Germany was now devastated. More than a million Germans starved to death during the postwar period, as the Monnet Plan diverted what little they had left to France.
After De Gaulle resigned in 1946, Monnet persuaded Robert Schuman, a rehabilitated Pétainiste from Luxembourg who was foreign minister, to set up a European coal and steel community, including Italy and the Benelux countries as well as Germany, in 1952. Schuman chose Monnet to head its High Authority. Still run like a wartime command economy, within five years this cartel had morphed into a customs union, the European Economic Community.
Monnet played little part in the subsequent evolution of the EEC, apart from founding a lobby group, the Action Committee for a United States of Europe. Lacking democratic consent, Monnet’s European Union has little in common with its American inspiration. What has emerged instead is a bureaucratic monstrosity. Europhiles may laud him as a visionary, but in reality he was a Gallic Great Gatsby whose grandiose scheme to emulate the United States is now collapsing under the weight of its own dirigisme.