What would Schuman do?
9 May 2020
by André Wilkens
To date 70 years ago, Robert Schuman presented his plan for the reconstruction of Europe which became known as the Schuman Plan. It laid out the rational and concrete steps for the creation of the European Coal and Steel community which became the basis for the European Union and for the longest-lasting period of peace and prosperity in European history.
We are living in extraordinary times. The Corona crisis is not only a challenge to public health, our economy and social cohesion. It is a challenge to our way of life and Europe as a sharing community. The crisis could be a strong European moment. A moment when people understand how important it is to have European friends who support each other, a moment when you share vital information, expertise and supplies, a moment when you realise how a global crisis can be managed much better through cooperation and solidarity. But so far this has not been a European moment.
What will Europe look like after Corona? How will we deal with an economic recession, health systems at a break point, unemployment, social tensions, new borders, digital surveillance and more? And how can we reverse the trend towards a new nationalism? Europe needs an ambitious reconstruction plan, a new kind of Marshall Plan, or indeed, a new Schuman Plan.
What better way to start than looking at the original Schuman Plan?
The first thing which strikes me is how short it is. Not more than two pages, less than 1000 words, were required to draw up a plan which would transform Europe fundamentally and for the better.
It starts with a sentence highlighting that our creative efforts must be proportionate to the dangers which threaten us. Schuman, a French politician and bureaucrat, was thinking totally out of the box of the political mainstream at the time and he used the momentum of the postwar time strategically. Reading the opening sentence of the 70-year-old Schuman Plan, I wonder whether we are creative enough today. And are we using the momentum of the Corona Crisis strategically? We are closing borders, implementing a big lockdown and trying to paper all over with more and more money, more and more debt. Are our responses so far not quite traditional, conservative, nostalgic and nationalistic? Is today’s creative effort proportionate to the challenges of our times? It seems we must do better.
The Schuman plan is a one-point-plan. It states that “action must be taken immediately on one limited but decisive point.” This strikes me as another important lesson. Focus. Keep it simple. Do not make a plan which is so complicated that hardly anyone understands it. Make a plan that is clear and, because it is, can be put into practice.
The essence of the plan fits into one paragraph, less than 100 words: Coal and steel, the most essential resources of economic power and for waging war at that time, were to be pooled under a common authority. In addition, the task was to modernize production of coal and steel, improved quality, create common standards, develop exports and improve workers living conditions. The pooling of resources was to be driven by a (strategic) production and investment plan and supported by a restructuring fund. As a result, Germany and France, and then the other European members, had no sovereign capacity to attack each other anymore, but instead had a genuine interest in making their joint venture a success. While European integration has further developed since, this was and still is the basis of the European model. Europe is essentially a sharing economy and has been long before the tech economy of today appropriated this term.
Is there a lesson to be drawn? What is the most essential resource of economic power today? What has the biggest potential of division and destruction today? Or the other way around: What has the greatest potential of community, sharing and solidarity? What offers the biggest potential of pooling resources? For Schuman this was not primarily money but something concrete, something which was already there but unevenly distributed and a potential source of power friction. What is the coal and steel of today? Hospital beds? Ventilators? Face masks? Toilet paper? Kurzarbeitergeld? Eurobonds? A Corona vaccine? A Corona health app? What can neutralize tension and create a European bond instead? My initial thought is digital. This is the strategic resource of today. Europe is weak and divided. It has no major digital industry and relies mainly on infrastructure and suppliers from outside Europe. Europe could be a stronger actor and a standard-setter if it pooled its digital capacity. This can connect Europeans in a safe digital space. We better pool our creativity and become our own masters rather than being just vulnerable customers of US and Chinese operators.
Schuman was no Eurocentric. Far from it. He imagined the results of his new European coal and steel venture to be open to the whole world, helping to raise living standards and promoting peace, in particular concerning he African continent. This notion of global interdependence and the role of Europe as a force for global good strikes me as quite incredible and foresighted. Remember, this was written 70 years ago.
Schuman reminds us that his plan is only as good as its concrete achievements. He was convinced that concrete, visible and tangible achievements will not at once but over time create a sense of solidarity. For Schuman the notion of solidarity had to be more than aspirational. Solidarity had to be practical to make any sense. He believed in the solidarity of production, of creation, of joint action. And as we see today talking about solidarity without action is an empty promise and can have quite the opposite effect.
Finally, what cues would I take from the 70-year-old Schuman plan for a new version addressing the challenges to today? Be short and precise. Make it a one-point plan. Be the most creative you have ever been. Get out of the box of the political mainstream. Solve a real problem. Focus on the essence of power, interests and sovereignty. Look well beyond the traditional answers. Make a plan that delivers achievements. Don’t talk about solidarity without action. Instead, create solidarity through action. Start immediately!