Forty years ago this month, Jean Monnet, arguably the EU’s most important ‘founding father,’ died aged 90 at home in Houjarray, 43 miles west of Paris.
This highly significant statesman is less well known than Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, who towered over post-war Europe and took the first tentative steps toward European unity, but no less important.
Born on November 9th 1888 in Cognac in southwestern France to a well-to-do family of brandy merchants, Jean Omer Marie Gabriel Monnet described his birthplace as ‘a brandy town,’ where ‘one did one thing, slowly and with concentration’—a method that neatly describes his own.
Abandoning university entrance exams part way through, Monnet moved to London aged 16, spending two years in the City as a family firm salesman and learning English. Aged 18, his father sent him to Winnipeg, Canada, to establish new markets for the business, taking him to Scandinavia, Russia, Egypt and the United States.
Monnet returned to France in 1914 as war broke out but a kidney disorder resulted in an army discharge. This began a lifelong career of making himself useful to the powers that be. In another theme to which he repeatedly returned, Monnet was convinced that only by pooling British and French war efforts, initially wastefully duplicated with competitive bidding against each other driving up prices for scarce supplies, could the Allies emerge victorious. Characteristically, Monnet secured a meeting with French Prime Minister René Viviani, a family friend, to make this case.
Impressing Viviani, Monnet was appointed, aged 25, to negotiate a Franco-British accord coordinating arms production. This approach came to fruition later in the war with such joint efforts as the Wheat Executive and the Allied Maritime Transport Council. Monnet’s fluent English and connections helped broker a loan for French war purchases from the Canadian Hudson’s Bay Company.
By 1917, Monnet’s flair for problem-solving led him to develop a proposal, with French minister for commerce and industry Étienne Clémentel, for a post-war economic settlement based on a Franco-British partnership leading Europe. This was rejected by the Allies at the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Monnet was nonetheless chosen by French and British premiers Georges Clémenceau and Arthur Balfour to become Deputy Director-General of the newly-created League of Nations in 1920.
The ill-fated League, hamstrung by a requirement for unanimity to intervene, combined with the notorious Versailles Treaty’s ‘war guilt’ clause, which mandated payments and transfers of property and capital from Germany to the Allies, dashed hopes that the League might keep the peace. In this, Monnet concurred with English economist John Maynard Keynes in his 1919 classic The Economic Consequences of the Peace that the post-war settlement’s harsh terms would bankrupt Germany, storing up trouble for the future. For Monnet, Versailles violated a core principle, namely that ‘equality is absolutely essential in relations between nations, as it is between people.’
Disillusioned with the League and facing demands to rescue the family enterprise, Monnet resigned his post in 1923 before becoming an international banker, joining American merchant bank Blair & Co. As a financier, Monnet helped stabilise the Polish zloty and Romanian leu currencies in 1927 and 1928, respectively. He also founded and co-managed the merged San Francisco-based Bancamerica-Blair bank, earning, and in the 1929 Wall Street Crash, losing a sizeable fortune. ‘I may have been good at making money, perhaps, but certainly not at keeping it,’ he ruefully reflected in his Memoirs.
1929 also was the year Monnet met his future wife, Sylvia Giannini, an Italian painter 22 years his junior. Sylvia was already married to an employee of Monnet’s at a time when divorce wasn’t an option in many countries. Monnet used his connections to arrange for Sylvia to acquire Soviet citizenship, marrying her in Moscow in 1934. The newly-wed couple obtained custody of Sylvia’s first child in 1937 in New York City while pursued for this by her ex-husband.
Amid personal difficulties, Monnet’s professional life took another turn as he was invited to chair an East-West committee for the development of the Chinese economy by nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek. Living in Shanghai from 1934 to 1936, the Frenchman assisted in the reorganisation of the Chinese railway network, floating loans in Europe and the U.S. to finance this.
Monnet’s international network continued to grow from his Chinese base, becoming a business partner to George Murane, providing access to leading industrialists, including the Swedish Wallenbergs, the American Rockefellers and the German Bosch family. In 1935, he met future U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. It was from Dulles, then a Wall Street lawyer and banker that Monnet learned at a dinner party in Long Island, New York, of Hitler’s declaration of the anti-Semitic Nuremburg laws. ‘A man capable of that,’ predicted Monnet, ‘will start a war.’
As war cast its dark shadow across Europe once again, Monnet’s expertise and gift for turning problems into solutions was once more in demand in London and Paris. In December 1939, the French government sent him to London to oversee the merging of the two nations’ wartime production, heading the Anglo-French Coordinating Committee.
It was at a critical juncture in the Battle of France that Monnet formulated a radical plan accepted by both Churchill and de Gaulle for a union of France and the United Kingdom, which declared that ‘France and Britain shall no longer be two nations’ and stipulating that ‘Every citizen of France will enjoy immediately citizenship of Great Britain, every British subject will become a citizen of France.’ Approved by the British war cabinet, the deal was to be sealed at a meeting between Churchill and French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud at Concarneau in Brittany, France, as an alternative to French surrender. Opposed by pro-Armistice cabinet members, including Marshall Pétain, who later headed the Vichy regime and who condemned the idea as ‘fusion with a corpse,’ Reynaud resigned that evening. Pétain replaced him.
The fall of France didn’t exhaust Monnet’s versatile talent as he moved to exile in London. He was sent to Washington as a member of the British Supply Council to negotiate the purchase of badly-needed war supplies from a theoretically neutral U.S. Based in the American capital, Monnet became a valued adviser to President Roosevelt, persuading the president to embark upon a huge arms production effort to supply the Allies, coining Roosevelt’s famous phrase characterizing the U.S. as ‘the arsenal of democracy.’ The result was America’s Lend-Lease policy, signed into law on March 11th1941, whereby the U.S. supplied the Allies with military materiel, including warships and warplanes, oil and food worth more than $50 billion—$500 billion in today’s money—under direct White House control.
Monnet was by this point ‘a legend in Washington,’ according to his friend American banker and diplomat George Ball, and had severely criticised American war production plans as insufficient. Monnet rallied Roosevelt to his view. ‘Monnet was the only one who dared to think it was not enough,’ Keynes later wrote, arguing it ‘probably shortened the duration of the war by a year.’
Subsequently Monnet became a member of the French National Liberation Committee, the government-in-exile that had moved from London to Allied-controlled Algiers. It was at a meeting of the NLC that Monnet expounded his post-war European vision: ‘The countries of Europe are too small to guarantee their peoples the necessary prosperity and social development. The European states must constitute themselves into a federation.’
Post-liberation, General de Gaulle appointed Monnet to modernise France’s shattered and antiquated economy, telling him to ‘go do it yourself’ after being presented with what became known as the Monnet Plan. Underpinning this was American aid. Accordingly, Monnet negotiated the 1946 Blum-Byrnes agreement, guaranteeing relief from $2.8 billion—$36.3 billion in today’s dollars— worth of mostly First World War debt and securing a $650 million—$8.4 billion now—low-interest loan, controversially opening French cinema to Hollywood movies as part of the negotiations.
Additionally, Monnet was instrumental in negotiations for the Marshall Aid approved by President Truman in 1947, a year of economic catastrophe for France. The Marshall Plan provided the French $2.3 billion—$26 billion today—with further grants and credits amounting to nearly $5 billion—more than $50 billion today—from 1946 to 1953. Only Britain received more U.S. aid.
The complementary Monnet Plan judiciously leveraged state power and private enterprise, inaugurating what later became known as—Les Trente Glorieuses —the ‘Thirty Glorious Years’—of high private sector growth and strong public provision.
Monnet is known today for conceiving the concept of a European Community. This was very much a piece of his life’s work in which he found ways to bind former foes into partners for peace and prosperity. He was particularly impactful in the reconciliation of France and Germany that is the foundation of modern European unity.
Monnet was an essential part of the May 1950 Schuman Declaration, named for French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman, which proposed placing French and German coal and steel production under a common High Authority with Monnet as its first president. This replaced the Allied control of the Rhineland and Ruhr coal and steel industries and the French protectorate established in the coal-rich Saar basin. In April 1951, the new Federal Republic of Germany and France joined Italy and the Benelux nations, subsuming the High Authority into the European Coal and Steel Community.
Monnet tried unsuccessfully to create a European Defence Community, similar to the ECSC. Undeterred, in 1955 he founded the Action Committee for the United States of Europe, bringing Europe’s political parties and trade unions together. Building on the ECSC, this laid the foundation for the 1955 Messina Conference at which Britain stood on the sidelines, leading to the 1957 Treaty of Rome creating the European Community on January 1st 1958. Monnet was key in British entry to the Community after Macmillan’s change of heart in 1961, working with the UK’s Edward Heath and France’s Georges Pompidou through two de Gaulle vetoes before 1973’s accession.
No respecter of rank or status, Monnet earned the esteem of Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Churchill, de Gaulle, Adenauer among other statesmen. U.S. President Kennedy called him ‘the world’s statesman.’ Awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Johnson in 1963, and made a Companion of Honour by the Queen in 1972, Monnet also received the Charlemagne Prize from the German city of Aachen and was made the first Honourary Citizen of Europe by the European Council. French President Mitterrand ordered his remains interred in the Panthéon in Paris in 1988.
Upon Monnet’s 16th March 1979 passing, EC Commission President and ex-UK Chancellor and Home Secretary Roy Jenkins said: ‘No-one contributed more than Jean Monnet to the construction of the Community.’ The inspiration, vision and statecraft of this ‘First Statesman of Interdependence’—in biographer François Duchêne’s phrase—and friend and ally of Britain is sorely needed today.