“There was consternation in the room. Journalists, scribbling away madly, looked perplexed. Here and there, applause broke out. A supranational institution that could take binding decisions on behalf of France, Germany and other states? They were curious to see what Konrad Adenauer, the newly-elected Chancellor of West Germany, would make of it all. It quickly became clear that Adenauer was fully behind the proposal […] even the United States had encouraged such a step […] ‘We are not binding states,’ he [Jean Monnet] said, ‘we are uniting people’” (from '
9th May 1950: Schuman launches an ambitious plan', p.13).
Whatever your opinion on the European project, the tale of how the European Union has grown from an dream-like post-war recovery plan to a recognised actor on the international scene in just 60 years makes for remarkable reading.
From that atmospheric Salon de l’Horloge inside the French foreign ministry where Robert Schuman made his historic declaration on 9th May 1950 to the charged streets of Greece where citizens are protesting against large austerity measures and the Brussels meeting rooms where EU leaders attempt to revive confidence in the Eurozone, it has been a intriguing tale of complex negotiations, intra-European conflicts of words, and dramatic 13th-hour compromises.
Hanneke Siebelink, a Brussels-born Dutch author who for ten years served as an economic advisor to the US mission to the European Union, has therefore had quite a task to identify just 50 'days' that have “changed Europe” to compile into her latest book.
In sum, she’s done a good job with all the usual suspects included: the Treaty of Rome (#5), the Treaty of Maastricht founding the single currency (#28), MEPs elected by the voters for the first time (#15), the fall of the Berlin Wall (#24) for example, as well as a few less folklore-ish but significant events such as when MEPs showed their teeth and voted down the SWIFT agreement (#49) , Tony Blair vetoed Guy Verhofstadt’s Commission Presidency bid (#39) and the European Commission took on the mighty Microsoft and won - twice (#44).
In the book that details ‘50 Days that Changed Europe’ across 123 pages, each event is covered briefly but in an editorial style that makes it easy to read, and even if you think you know all about the EU you’re sure to learn something new. The Iron Lady, the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has undoubtedly played her part in its colourful history, and suggesting an admiration on the part of the author, appears throughout including one amusing reference when comparing the “blow” the French public delivered in rejecting the EU Constitution in the May 2005 referendum as “far more severe than any blow Mrs Thatcher dealt with her famous handbag” (#41).
While the toppling of the Santer Commission by the Parliament in 1999 is for me a surprising omission, the problem with a book such as this is that it is out of date almost as soon as it is published. Indeed, since the 50th entry from May 2010, we’ve seen the first steps towards the re-establishment of internal borders, the EU secure speaking rights within the UN Assembly, Irish barrister Ciaran Toland winning a landmark case at the ECJ to force the Parliament to release an audit report he was denied access to, MEPs voting to reduce the number of plenary sessions in Strasbourg and the French government consequently taking the decision before the court, the opening up of European institutions to bloggers, and more recently the confirmation that Croatia will become the 28th Member State from 2013.
Had the European Union not opted to ditch the EU knowledge test as part of its application process for new EU civil servants then this book would have served as a quick, handy, bitesize revision guide. Nonetheless it still serves as a very good introduction to the story of the European Union’s creation and is worthy of a read even if you think you know it all. But as the EU embarks upon another chapter of its history in a tough political and economic climate, we will probably not have to wait 60 years to identify another 50 days that changed Europe.
'50 Days that Changed Europe' by Hanneke Siebelink, is released on 30th June 2011. Translated into English from Dutch by Derek Blyth. Published by Luster. RRP £16.95.