“That journey made a great impression on me,” says Mr Kohnstamm who just a few years later became one of the pioneers of European integration and a close collaborator of EU ‘founding father’ Jean Monnet. “I was especially overwhelmed by the unimaginable destruction of Germany. When you saw children crawling out from the ruins it appeared hard to defend that these children were guilty of Auschwitz,” he states. During the German occupation of the Netherlands, Mr Kohnstamm himself had spent periods in the concentration camp of Amersfoort and the prisoner camp of Sint-Michielsgestel.
But seeing Germany’s despair, it became evident to him that “the reconstruction of the Dutch economy would lead to nothing if at the other side of the border, the desert would start.” On the other hand, Dutch memories of Nazi aggression were still very fresh. “What sense does it make to have the Ruhr area in full swing if used to produce bombs which can be thrown at Rotterdam?” When Mr Kohnstamm worked as a foreign ministry official in 1948-1949, political circles in The Hague were already searching for solutions for the difficult German question, mooting plans to integrate Germany in some sort of pan-European economic structure.
‘This step had to succeed’
But it was France’s foreign minister Robert Schuman who in May 1950 presented – in Mr Kohnstamm’s words – a “revolutionary” plan to put Franco-German production of coal and steel under a common High Authority, in a scheme open to other countries that might be interested. Immediately inspired by the Schuman plan, Mr Kohnstamm became a member of the Dutch delegation in negotiations between six nations on what was to become a European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC).
The ECSC talks were chaired by another Frenchman who had been the real brain behind the Schuman plan – Jean Monnet, at that time the head of the French General Planning Commission.
“At the opening of the negotiations, Monnet very clearly stressed the revolutionary nature of this process,” Mr Kohnstamm recalls on the first round of the talks, which he describes as “to a large extent informal” with a small number of people. “On the nature of the revolution, we did not philosophise a lot. There was no time for that. We made this step and it had to succeed. If it failed, there would not be much more left to think about.”
Meanwhile, West Germany was an equal partner in the talks – something which was not that self-evident, even if the upcoming Soviet threat made re-engagement of the Germans a matter of urgency.
One close Monnet aide, Etienne Hirsch, had lost his parents in Auschwitz. “But he negotiated with the German delegation on the basis of equality. That was proof of a greatness of vision.” Meanwhile for the Netherlands – strongly oriented towards the UK and the US – it was hard to swallow that the British had chosen to stay out of the talks. “The Germans were hated by a large part of the population, the Italians we had never really taken seriously, we did not trust the French and we didn’t really trust the Belgians either,” Mr Kohnstamm describes the early post-war atmosphere in the Netherlands.
Monnet’s view on the world
But the revolutionary negotiations succeeded, and Mr Kohnstamm was rewarded in 1952 with a job as the first Secretary of the High Authority – the executive body – of the European Coal and Steel Community. Mr Kohnstamm worked directly under Jean Monnet who served as the ECSC’s first president, leading to a close working and personal relationship between the two. The Dutchman also followed Monnet when he switched from the ECSC to the so-called Action Committee for the United States of Europe, a pressure group lobbying for further European integration from 1956 onwards.
During those years, he gradually developed an understanding of Monnet’s deeper motivations, which the Frenchman did not often share with others. Monnet had no end-goal in sight for the European project, but rather saw it as a “process without an end,” Mr Kohnstamm says. “For Monnet, terms like federation or confederation – those were words. But the process was clear – a process through which people started to realise that they had a common responsibility. One of the rare times when our conversations did go in-depth, Monnet said: look, freedom of goods, services, people, capital is very important and necessary, but what this is really about is to get people to understand that it’s not about my interest against your interest, but that in this world, only common solutions are possible.”
Message for the future
This was, according to Mr Kohnstamm, Monnet’s “view on the world” – a view which the Dutchman wants to pass on to younger generations. His message on the occasion of the EU’s 50th birthday is directed to world leaders rather than to Europe alone. Mr Kohnstamm says he is “not very worried” about the EU’s current constitutional crisis and believes the integration process is “continuing.”
“The essential element of it is the common decision-making and the European Court in Luxembourg. The greatest triumph has been that in these 50 years, not a single government has said – well, the heck with it. But on the level of world politics, we are busy returning to the balance of power as the regulating principle,” he says expressing deep concern about the power politics of the US in particular, citing various examples such as Washington’s recent coalition-building efforts with Japan and Australia against China. “We know from our own history what that leads to…If you want to put it in a very dark way: the European Community was created not before, but only after 40 million people were killed.”