What if? That question is now fashionable. There are quite a few “what if’ type history books which examine how things COULD have turned out differently. Some of these are plain silly and sensational (what if Hitler won the second world war, etc.) while others are a bit more plausible. The academic version of the concept is called rather grandly ‘counterfactual history’, but it should be said that most serious historians regard the idea as a bit suspect. Not least because it is hard enough to genuinely figure out what actually happened in the past (and why). Getting side-tracked into what-ifs could be a waste of time. More importantly suggesting alternative paths could be down to crude guesswork and just plain fancy.
However, asking the what if question is useful if it teaches us something about the sense of historical possibilities that were present and about the really central turning points (if there were any). In this way the counterfactual question is a useful heuristic device-it can helps us learn.
So what if there was NO Coal and Steel Community in 1951?
I think the answer is the French and Germans would have found something else to experiment with for deep economic and political co-operation. While the Treaty of Rome (1957) built on the Coal and Steel Treaty, something like it may well have emerged anyway without the previous Treaty. Some kind of co-ordination on agriculture was likely, if at a minimum some free trade in food. Indeed a very simple and Spartan free trade agreement was always the most likely candidate to emerge eventually, maybe even via the Council of Europe. On the other hand the timing for the Treaty of Rome was a close thing. If the negotiations had been delayed until 1958, there would have been no Treaty of Rome…..De Gaulle was firmly opposed to it, and he returned as French President in 1958 and remained dominant within French politics until his death in 1969. Yet even he wanted some type of European co-operation and a Treaty-his Fouchet plan of 1962 shows this.
You can find a text of the Fouchet plan (marks 1 & 2) here: http://soc.kuleuven.be/iieb/eufp/content/edc-and-fouchet-plan
While the Fouchet Plan is widely seen as an attempt to sabotage the EEC, it was interesting, especially if we ask the what if it had been accepted question?
It would have included a defence Treaty (De Gaulle wanted an alternative to NATO). Today the EU is groping around on the issue of defence and more or less has agred that the EU will provide peacekeeping and crisis forces, and will co-operate on defence procurement. Whether that evolves to a full common defence policy and a mutual defence gaurantee is more contested. Some argue it is implied, others that its is (or is not) desireable.
More interestingly, the Fouchet plan wanted extensive Cultural co-operation-between Universties and the new fangled TV technology that was emerging in the eary 1960s. How different thngs might have been if that cultural focus had become a major European issue? We would associate today the EU much more with cultural and higher education issues, whereas the EU is more or less weak in that area today. The Erasmus university student exchange scheme only emerged in the 1980s and it remains basically marginal. Perhaps this would have been a useful correction to the excessive emphasis on economic issues, which has dominated the public image of what the EU is about. It might even have done much more to forge a common European identity……which today seems very weak and limited.
Yet what all this speculation reveals is that what actually emerged was a very ambitious and detailed customs union in 1957-it included free movement of services, of capital and even people, and not just free trade in goods. It also incuded a regime of guaranteed price for food commodities, in the Common Agricultrual Policy (CAP). Today that looks a bit Socialist, but for all of that may have made good sense, and may still today?
This specific depth of integration was what was unique and special about the Treaty of Rome. Another detail was vital-the creation of an independent court to police the Treaties. Without that, the free movement of goods, services, people and money would have been probably been even patchier than it was (capital mobility was still heavily nationalised in the 1960s and 1970s). The ECJ fought over a series of case law to make the free movement principles of the Treaty of Rome a reality.
So probably, the counterfactual suggests (that is all it can do) that even if the ECSC or the EEC did not emerge in the 1950s the way they did, nonetheless we would have likely seen some type of European policy co-operation emerge. The qualification might be that maybe it would not necessarily have been as detailed or ambitious as what emerged for the sectors that became important (agriculture notably), and for other issues it might have been rather deeper than it currently is (defence, culture).
Of course that was then what about now. If the EU and the Euro collapsed tomorrow, what would replace it? Nothing? Something similar? Something a bit less?