30th Sep 2023


Remembering Robert Schuman (1886-1963)

  • Robert Schuman arrives to preside over the first meeting of the European Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg, on 19 March 1958 (Photo: Wikimedia)
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Robert Schuman who died on Monday (4 September) 60 years ago, was the rarest of creatures. A subtle subversive. An individual who changed the course of history without much personal power. A revolutionary without weapons — indeed, Schuman's revolution silenced the weapons of Europe's fraternal wars for good.

So subtle in fact was Schuman's revolution, that it first went unnoticed.

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When he made the statement that launched European integration — the Schuman declaration we celebrate on Europe Day, 9 May — no one had thought to bring recording equipment or even a photographer. The stately images we know of him in the Salon de l'Horloge are from a second take a few days later. They had to do it again for posterity.

But the idea he launched stuck: to drive a wedge between the causes of war and the means to wage it. To end destitution among Europeans and make war between them impossible. To bring people together not through idle talk but by subtly but substantially, irrevocably even, removing the barriers between them.

Today the forces Schuman fought are back. Social and economic anxiety feeds populism. Identity politics fuels hatred. Antagonism is rising within and between countries. The European Union for which Schuman prepared the ground, is slowly but surely being undermined. It needs a re-foundation project.

That implies first, acknowledging when challenges cross national barriers, and consistently tackling them together. Climate change and energy dependence are issues no single country can deal with. But together we can, as half a billion Europeans with the combined economic weight and creative power to set the standards worldwide. Integration in these sectors is key to and innovation, solidarity is the basis of re-found sovereignty.

Other common threats push us together too. Much like in Schuman's time, the risk of Russian brutality and of the authoritarian model is stands for, forces us to link arms. Speaking with one voice in the world and backing up that narrative with military might and diplomatic credibility, is the second strand of new-found sovereignty which, in the 21st century, can only be European sovereignty.

Third, Schuman's idea was that great stories are often written in small print.

His ideals and convictions were of the very highest, rooted firmly in his Christian sense of decency and the tragic history of the disputed border region between France and Germany to which he was immensely attached. His method, conversely, were above all realistic and incremental. The dream of a union between Europe's people is nothing without the actions that make it a reality — often very concrete actions.

Common bonds, common rule of law

Going forward, the safeguard of Europe's prosperity, for instance, will depend on an effective way to finance the EU through common bonds, based on own resources. And the very foundations of our shared policies and politics depends on consistent application of the rule of law across Europe. Technical debate often, but from which the political impact is huge.

And fourth, all that should not, never be an excuse for a technocratic, overly cautious or, in consequence, undemocratic EU.

Europe can only be unified for, by and through a genuine union its citizens. Now that his project has matured, we need to be bold in completing its democratic legitimacy through Europe-wide transnational lists on which the top candidate posts for the EU Commission presidency, thus transforming the commission into a real government, controlled by a fully-competent European Parliament.

Europe's capitals have strayed far from Schuman's subtle revolution in recent years. Pushed by events, we have seen step-by-step progress in key areas, yes. Yet we have not seen a willingness, let alone boldness to openly debate how we take European integration forward, to make it meet the challenges of our time.

One year before the European elections, it's time for politicians to spell out Europe's re-foundation project.

Author bio

Guy Verhofstadt is a former prime minister of Belgium, former European Parliament Brexit coordinator and former head of Renew Europe, where he is now an MEP. Sandro Gozi is an Italian Renew Europe MEP.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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