The only certainty about the future was that nothing would remain the same. We now know–and Kjell Torbiörn would probably not have been surprised–that the latest attempt to fix the EU’s development around a constitution appears to have failed.
Though the EU is the central theme of this book, NATO is also tackled in detail and other organisations, such as the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe, where Mr Torbiörn is now a senior official*, and the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe, also have walk-on parts. The Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC), precursor of the OECD, plays a key early role as the body which managed the Marshall Plan aid over 1948-52, and thereby started Europe’s post-Second World War economic revival. However, while Mr Torbiörn is an economist, this is a political history, with economic change only mentioned to provide the necessary context.
Most importantly, Destination Europe looks at Europe’s journey against the changing landscape of world history, including the Cold War and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, accompanied and followed by rapid expansion of world trade and capital, together with the development of the Internet, all of which have given rise to the concept of globalisation.
It is a good read. The structure of the chapters is excellent, each of easily manageable length and subject matter backed up with interesting notes. The first half of the book takes the reader rapidly, but not superficially, to 1989. The second half goes more slowly through the years, but somehow seems less informative. This may reflect an EU which has lost its way since the Treaty of Maastricht and the major achievement of enlargement to include most of the former communist countries.
A possible weakness in Mr Torbiörn’s book, though one of which Europe’s greatest novelist, Tolstoy, would have approved, is that personalities play a generally minor role. For example, the fact that in 1956 Konrad Adenauer, the formidable German chancellor, is only mentioned twice in passing in the main text, and the fact that Adenauer overruled his powerful economics minister, Ludwig Erhard, to agree to Germany joining the proposed European Economic Community rather than settling for the British-backed free trade area, is relegated to a footnote.
Only one character is given a major role in the story: Mikhail Gorbachev, the Russian leader who brought the Cold War to an end. Mr Torbiörn quotes from the vision of a new Europe he gave in his speech to the Council of Europe in July 1989–the Berlin Wall fell just four months later. I would agree with the choice of Gorbachev, though his own country is no longer even in the loosest sense of shared values trying to become a part of Europe.
However, one personality who gets little mention in the story is Jean Monnet, and only then largely to suggest that his contribution failed. Yet, it was the Schuman Plan drafted by Jean Monnet which led to the foundation of the institutions of the EU. Monnet, who had been deputy secretary-general of the ill-fated League of Nations, set out to breach the ramparts of national sovereignties in a “limited but decisive” manner. Admittedly, Monnet never made much direct impact on the wider public, even in his own country France.
In closing the book, Mr Torbiörn quotes the Spanish philosopher of history, José Ortega y Gasset: “Man’s real treasure is the treasure of his mistakes”. The story since 1945 includes its share of mistakes, but also some things that Europe has got right. Destination Europe should help the reader learn from both.
*Mr Torbiörn is Head of the Office of the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly.
Destination Europe: the political and economic growth of a continent, by Kjell M. Torbiörn, Manchester University Press, 2003
©OECD Observer No 255, May 2006