Born in 1888, Jean Monnet spent his life working to bring Europeans together and is nowadays seen as a central figure in the history of European integration. He started off in his family’s cognac trading company but soon became involved in organisations for cooperation between Allied powers during World War I. He was then appointed as deputy secretary-general of the League of Nations, before pursuing a career as an international banker. With war in Europe once again by 1940, Monnet proposed the creation of a Franco-British Union that would completely merge the two countries as a way to defeat the Nazis. Although this project didn’t succeed Monnet continued to fight for democracy, becoming head of the Victory Programme in Washington, D.C.
Following 1945 Monnet was responsible for the French General’s Office for the Modernisation and Equipment Plan, holding the belief that the country’s prosperity and security could function only with the economic rapprochement of the European states. With the Cold War now quickly taking hold in society, he knew that the only way to create genuine solidarity between the European partners was to ensure the creation of a functional Europe through deep integration in key sectors. In this way, the foundations of the 'Monnet method' were laid: taking small steps closer together and transferring sovereignty to supranational bodies. This method required stubborn persuasion, the joint pursuit of shared interests, and a great sense of organisation.
In 1950 Monnet suggested to Robert Schuman, the French Minister for Foreign Affairs, that the coal and steel industries of the Western European countries should be placed under a common regime and that a High Authority be established to administer these sectors of strategic importance directly and independently. By acting in everyone’s interests, the High Authority effectively countered national self-interest. The pooling of coal and steel would make a new Franco-German war unthinkable and materially impossible, avoiding a repeat of the horrors Europe had just experienced. This dream became reality with the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951: for Monnet, a first step towards a ‘United States of Europe’.
As the first President of the ECSC High Authority in Luxembourg Jean Monnet was firmly committed to the European Defence Community, which he hoped would create a European army within a new political framework. However, the failure of this project due to France’s feared loss of national sovereignty led him to resign and set up the Action Committee for the United States of Europe in 1955 to continue the fight. Bringing together political and trade union leaders, this Committee acted as a lobby to promote concrete achievements for a united Europe for over 20 years. Monnet inspired the creation of the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), and also advocated for the United Kingdom’s accession to the European Communities and for the creation of a common European currency. He supported the creation of the European Council of Heads of State or Government in 1974, bringing European leaders closer together for the good of all Europe’s citizens. Jean Monnet died in 1979, a few months before the very first European elections he had been calling for.