The reality of ‘the Grey Men’

Taken from a Spectator essay by Christopher Booker

Among the millions of words which will be expended over the next four years on the first world war, very few will be devoted to explaining one of its greatest legacies of all, the effects of which continue to dominate our politics to this day. One of the best-kept secrets of the European Union is that the core idea which gave rise to it owed its genesis not to the second world war, as is generally supposed, but to the Great War a quarter of a century earlier. It was around that time that the man who can be described as ‘the Father of Europe’ was first inspired to the detailed vision which only after 1945 was he finally in a position to launch on its way.

More than a decade ago, when I was working with my colleague Dr Richard North on a history of ‘the European project’, nothing surprised us more than how completely historians had failed to uncover the real story of that project’s origins. Furthermore, this was not merely of historical interest. The missing piece of the jigsaw gives us such a crucial insight into the core idea which was to create and shape the European Union that the failure of David Cameron and our present-day politicians to take it on board makes much of what they are today all saying about Britain’s relations with ‘Europe’ just empty fluff.

The story began just after the outbreak of war in 1914, when two young men were appointed to organise the shipping between North America and Europe of food and vital war materials. One was a now forgotten British civil servant called Arthur Salter; the other was the Frenchman Jean Monnet, a former salesman for his family’s brandy firm. By 1917 they were so frustrated by the difficulty of hiring ships from all the international interests involved that they had a radical idea. What was needed, they agreed, was a body armed with ‘supranational’ powers to requisition the ships, overriding the wishes of their owners or any national government.
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