Alan Johnson delivers the 2016 Jean Monnet lecture

Wed, Mar 9, 2016

general, local news

Jean Monnet lecture by The Rt Hon Alan Johnson MP DSC-09473


Alan recently attended Hull University to deliver the 2016 Jean Monnet lecture, a transcript of the lecture can be found below:

Involvement or Isolation: The choice facing Britain

Today we live and work in a continent that’s been at peace for seventy years. 

Outright war between European powers is inconceivable.

Of course we’re used to reading the headlines about political battles between France and Britain, or Germany and Italy, or Spain and Portugal.  But to switch on the evening news and hear that those countries are literally taking up arms against each other?

That could never happen.

When the EU’s contribution to peace on our continent is mentioned, the Brexiteers say without the slightest trace of irony that such wars now would be unthinkable.  They seem to believe that it’s something which just happened like a tidal flow or a meteor shower.

But, viewed through the eyes of a historian, this is something of a minor miracle.

From the fall of the Roman Empire until 1945, every generation of Europeans had been sent out onto the battlefields to slaughter each other.

If we’d lived a couple of generations ago, that would have been our fate as well.

For my grandparents, war in Europe was a regular backdrop to their lives.

So how did Europe finally break away from nearly 2000 years of bloodshed?

We tend to think of 1945 as the tipping point.

We think of that as the moment when the leaders of Europe finally realised they had to find a better way to do things 

Of course, 1945 was a tipping point – in some ways.  But fundamental changes like that do not happen overnight. 

Indeed, fifty years earlier in the final years of the 19th century, the idea of a federal Europe was all the rage in Britain.

 Britain has historically been one of the strongest advocates for creating a union of European nations. 

In his speech for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897, the British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, said that a united Europe was:

“our sole hope of escaping from the constant terror and calamity of war, or the constant pressure of the burdens of an armed peace”.

Sadly, as we know, within a few years, the “terror and calamity of war” returned to Europe with a vengeance and Salisbury’s hopes evaporated.

A new drive for European unity was born during the darkest days of the Second World War.

Inside one of Mussolini’s prison camps, an Italian journalist called Altiero Spinelli used smuggled cigarette papers to scribble out a new manifesto called ‘For a Free and United Europe’.

Spinelli’s idea was that the end of the war, whenever it came, would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix Europe.

But if we missed that opportunity, conflict would inevitably recur, again and again.

He wrote:

“At the end of this war, in the midst of a short period of national and international crisis, when the structure of the national states will either partly or completely collapse, we must seek to lay the foundations of real peace.

“For only during such a revolutionary period, and so long as the memories of the horrors of wars are still alive, will the European federation be able to withstand pettiness, treason and nationalist interests, and become a reality.”

It’s worth reflecting on the fact that pettiness and nationalist interests seem to be alive and well and keen to lead us towards the European exit door.

Things didn’t work out exactly as Spinelli had predicted.

“Nationalist interests” quickly reasserted themselves soon after the end of the war – notably those of Britain and Russia.

But more and more thinkers now began to regard the idea of uniting Europe as a way to break the vicious cycle of European wars.

Winston Churchill was one of them – he was nothing if not visionary.

Immediately after the war, Churchill was one of the most influential men in the world.

In 1946 he called for a United States of Europe under Franco-German leadership.

To this day anti-Europeans take great delight in quoting Churchill’s suggestion that Britain and its European neighbours should be “linked, but not combined”, “interested and associated, but not absorbed”.

But I would argue that this is a rough approximation of where Britain’s role in the EU is now.

But Churchill very quickly changed his mind on this point and went further – as Europe took its first steps towards unity, and as the realities sank in of Britain’s shrunken role in the post-war world.

Churchill’s 1946 speech at the University of Zurich is available on ‘YouTube’ – listen to it.  Its heading was The Tragedy of Europe, and Churchill argued that “if Europe once united in the sharing of its common interests there would be no limit to the happiness, the prospects, to the glory that its people could enjoy”.  The real political question was how to develop a structure within which that “sharing of common interests” could be developed.

With all that heady post-war rhetoric flying around, what Europe really needed was a practical man.

Enter Jean Monnet – a modest French technocrat, rather than an elected politician.

His specialist subject was industrial co-operation – not exactly the kind of stuff that sets the political pulse racing.

He’d helped behind the scenes to co-ordinate British and French industries during the war.

Later, like Spinelli and Churchill, he saw the potential of political unity as a way to cement a fragile European peace.  But he approached things in a totally different way from those visionaries.

Spinelli and Churchill had talked grandly about revolution, and the federal future, and the United States of Europe … but Monnet had a much simpler, much more practical idea.

He wanted France and Germany to exchange their industries.

That is, he wanted France to have a stake in German mines, and Germany to have a stake in French factories.


Because Monet understood the impossibility of making weapons without mines and factories.

And that a country couldn’t arm for war if it’s enemy shared the production lines.

So – Jean Monnet created the European Coal and Steel Community.

It was a simple shared authority, to make joint decisions about heavy industry in both countries. 

And in that one step, he began the process of making it impossible for the old enemies, Germany and France, ever to go to war again.

Monet the technocrat, needed a political partner.

Robert Schumann was a French Foreign Minister (appropriately enough with a German name).

He lent that name to the agreement between France and West Germany that set up the Coal and Steel Community – the ‘Schumann Plan’.

The key ingredient in this plan was the decision that the new Community should be open not just to France and Germany, but to any European country that wanted to join.

As a result, the Community had six nations – France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands in 1951 when Schuman declared:

“This proposal represents the first concrete step towards a European federation, imperative for the preservation of peace”.

Schumann’s name was on the plan – but it was actually written by Monnet.

And Monnet was right.  The European Coal and Steel Community became the European Economic Community, then the European Community, and now the European Union.

It’s not, actually, the federal union that Spinelli and Churchill hoped for and never will be.

It remains strongly intergovernmental, with decisions taken by national leaders.

It was the first real-world test of the theory that permanent peace can be engineered – step by step, carefully and deliberately, by developing co-operation and sharing decision-making.

And seventy years later, we are the inheritors of that permanent peace.

Today, the European Union contributes a lot more to our world than simply a common market for coal and steel.

We depend on our EU membership for jobs, growth, and security, for workers rights, consumer protection and tackling climate change.

You’ll hear variations on these points made again and again in the months between now and June 23.

So perhaps it’s no real surprise that Monnet’s original idea – a European union for a permanent peace – has faded into the background.

We have lived at peace for so long that we’ve developed a whole new set of problems to worry about.

But we forget our history at our peril.

Modern-day Eurosceptics like to pretend that the European Union has nothing to do with Europe’s lasting peace.

They say we should forget about that particular chapter of history because war between the nations of Europe is now inconceivable – exactly as Schumann and Monet predicted it would be 70 years ago.

Somehow the irony escapes them.

But it musn’t escape those who believe in the concept of a European Union.

For centuries, people said we needed a united Europe to make war between European countries inconceivable.

Now we have a united Europe – and such a war is inconceivable.

You know what Monnet would say to that?

He would say: ‘Mission accomplie” – or:  ‘Mission accomplished’.

Do we still need the EU as a guarantor of peace?

I believe we do.

Should we be complacent about the prospect of re-igniting conflicts?

Try asking the people of Ukraine.

Or Turkey, with its Syrian border.

Or Bosnia.

Or even Finland.

You don’t have to look far beyond our borders to realise how precious Europe’s achievement is – or how fragile it could soon become.

So actually it’s not quite ‘mission accomplished’.  The European peace project was not done and dusted for all time in the immediate post-war period.  We must never take it for granted.

For all its flaws, for all our grumbles, the Union has been absolutely instrumental – not only in creating our own area of peace and security, but in helping to build that peace elsewhere too.

That’s why the European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, because, in the words of the Nobel Committee citation, it had 

“for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”

In 1975 when Britain overwhelmingly voted in favour of Europe, Franco was in power in Spain; the Colonels had only recently conceded power in Greece and Portugal was yet to go through its “Carnation Revolution”; whole swathes of Eastern Europe were under the totalitarian heel of the Soviet Union.  Now all those countries have converted from oligarchy to democracy without a shot being fired thanks to the structures and the framework that Monet and Schumann constructed.

And that’s why John Hume, himself a Nobel Laureate, described the EU as

“the world’s most successful peace process”.

Jean Monnet would be proud of the Europe we have built just as we should be proud of the role that Britain has played in our 41 years of membership.  We in this country have not suffered the tyriny of occupation in 1,000 years.  But Hull knows all too well the tragedy and despair that war in Europe brings to its citizens regardless of whether they are invaded.

Were Britain to leave the EU it would unquestionably change Europe but it may also lead to the break up of Britain itself given the situation in Scotland.

On June 23rd the British people will decide whether to stay true to the vision that has brought unparalled peace and prosperity to our nation and our continent or whether to walk off into a cold and entirely unpredictable future; whether to choose co-operation or isolation.

For the sake of our children and grandchildren I hope we remain in Europe playing our part in realising Jean Monet’s great vision





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