Strasbourg, naissance d’une Europe politique

Strasbourg – The birth of Political Europe Flags fly fraternally, side by side, for the first meetings in Strasbourg. The city which has endured great suffering, has become a symbol of peace. Mr Churchill tells the crowds in Strasbourg and people across Europe: Beware… I’m about to speak French! August 1949: Europe meets in Strasbourg for the birth of the first institution of political Europe: the Council of Europe. And on Place Kléber, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gets a hero’s welcome. Europe has become a reality! There were huge crowds and a real hope that this was the start of reconciliation. People hoped there would never be war again. At no other point in the European project have I seen such enthusiasm for European integration. Churchill was welcomed as a hero for several reasons. First we mustn’t forget the four-year fight he led against the Germans. From June 1940, he embodied the only European state which stood up to Hitler. So it’s this symbol, the old lion, which was celebrated wherever he went after WWII, especially in formally occupied Alsace. Less than five years before, Alsace was liberated ending the Nazi occupation. As Europe is rebuilt, people are calling for closer ties between peoples, a united Europe, even the abolition of borders…. At the time, Daniel Hoeffel had just began his studies at the Faculty of Law in Strasbourg. The idea of creating a Europe of peace and fraternity between former enemies was something we lived with on a daily basis and we sorely desired. Some remained reluctant. Others, and especially those who lived through the war, wanted to see the birth of institutions, as guarantors of this new found peace. In 1946 in Zurich, Winston Churchill tabled the idea of United States of Europe. The first step would be the establishment of a ‘Council’ of Europe. The idea resurfaced at a meeting of pro-European groups in The Hague in May 1948. We cannot aim at anything less than the Union of Europe as a whole. And we look forward with confidence to the day when that Union will be achieved. In The Hague, delegates call for the creation of a permanent European assembly, a single currency and the abolition of customs. Diplomatic negotiations begin. The following year in London, the founding treaty of the Council of Europe is signed. It is the British foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, who proposes Strasbourg as the seat of the Council. It was a symbol of friendship and reconciliation between nations in the very place where the suffering of war had been most tangible. Bevin’s official reason for choosing Strasbourg was that the history of the city made it a symbol of European history. But in private, we know he hoped to bury the Council of Europe in a provincial town where it would get little attention. He thought the international press would never go there to cover proceedings. In reality, Bevin was against the creation of the Council of Europe. He only accepted it because the French and the Belgians insisted, along with part of UK public opinion. And Churchill, of course, who was trying to outbid him. The British didn’t want this institution to become too important. They didn’t want it to push too hard towards a strong political Europe. That’s why it was out of the question for the UK that the headquarters be located in a major capital of continental Europe. The French foreign minister Robert Schuman had different ideas for Europe. In negotiations he called for the creation of a truly ‘European Assembly’. But the French and the British would eventually strike a compromise. You must remember that the Council of Europe is a two-headed organisation. There are two institutions. The Committee of Ministers is where the foreign ministers of member states meet. And then there is the Parliamentary Assembly. When you look at these two institutions, they reflect two visions of Europe. The Committee of Ministers is the intergovernmental vision in which member states are represented. The assembly was the novelty, it didn’t exist. It was a starting point for the federalists, who wanted to create an organisation that became a federation. That couldn’t be done without a Parliament. The treaty stipulated that the assembly was only consultative. It was the ministers who would set the agenda. And that’s what they did at a founding meeting 8 August 1949, in the great chamber of Strasbourg City Hall. Around the table, were the ten founding countries: Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Sweden. Greece and Turkey join them the next day. The ministers arrived, they made the decisions for the establishment of this organisation. Nothing existed, so they had to begin by organising the institution. The Committee of Ministers began discussing what the Council of Europe would do. The first convention to be signed shortly after the establishment of the Council of Europe was the European Convention on Human Rights. The convention paved the way for the creation of the European Court of Human Rights. It guaranteed access to fundamental, civil and political rights to every citizen of the signatory states. In the meantime in August 1949, something else catches the media’s attention. Strasbourg enthusiastically welcomes the great European, Edouard Herriot who is to open the first ever European Assembly. All shades of democratic opinion are represented in the Assembly. For the first time ever, states have voluntarily ceded their right to be represented only by delegates with governmental mandates. The meeting of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg is important because it is the beginning of political Europe. It’s the beginning of a Europe which is visible to citizens. It’s the first European assembly and the first ever international assembly. At the time Alsace, on a European level, was quite avant-garde. It showed that it is in border regions, source of conflict and wars, that the idea of Europe had to begin at first before spreading to other parts of Europe. This is where wars began, and this is where peace resumed. Birte Wassenberg – History professor, Strasbourg School of Political Science Sylvain Schirmann – Contemporary History professor, Strasbourg School of Political Science Marie-Thérèse Bitsch – Emeritus professor of Contemporary History, Strasbourg University Daniel Hoeffel – Former minister A film initiated by The French Presidency of the Committee of ministers of the Council of Europe And the Strasbourg City Council Directed by Yann Ollivier Archive credits

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