Today is Europe Day. On 9 May 1950, the French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman called upon France, Germany and other European countries to pool together their coal and steel production. Part of the original mystique of the movement for European unification can be found in the name of the Brussels building which for more than 50 years has housed the Council of Ministers of the organisations that were first known as the European Coal and Steel Community (ESCS), Euratom and the European Economic Community (EEC), and which later merged to become the European Communities (EC) and finally the European Union (EU). This building is called the Charlemagne Building.
We should return to Carolingian times to understand something about the aims of the founding fathers of the European Union and the original nature of this supranational institution. The Treaty of Verdun of 843 divided the old empire of Charlemagne not just into two parts – a West-Frankish kingdom for Charles the Bald, the first king of France, and an East-Frankish kingdom for his brother, Louis the German, the first king of Germany. There was also a third brother, Lothar, who inherited the imperial crown and the lands lying between France and Germany: the Middle-Frankish kingdom. This Kingdom of the Middle was named after him: Lotharii Regnum or Lotharingia (“Lorraine” in French, “Lothringen” in German, “Lotharingen” in Dutch).
Lothar’s realm comprised all the countries lying between France and Germany today (the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg and Switzerland), the Eastern part of present day France (the regions of Lorraine, Alsace, Burgundy and Provence), part or western Germany (Frisia, which lies along the North Sea coast, the whole west bank of the Rhine and also the eastern part of the Cologne area) and the northern half of Italy.
When Lothar’s son died without offspring in 875, the middle territories were divided between Charles the Bald and Louis the German. However, as these regions lay on the periphery of their heartlands, generations of kings of France and Germany, trying to consolidate their royal powers, were never able to establish a firm rule over them. The result was that throughout the Middle Ages, and for some of them up to the 18th century and even today, the lands of the ancient middle part of Charlemagne’s empire were made up of virtually self-governing republics of farmers (as in Switzerland), independent counties controlled by burghers (as in the Netherlands and along the Rhine) or city republics (as in northern Italy).
Virtually self-governing, with little interference from greedy princes, their tax controllers and meddling civil servants, these lands became very prosperous. Capitalism originated here. This whole axis from Amsterdam in the north to Siena in the south evolved into the economic spine of Europe. To a large extent it remains so today and the inhabitants are still influenced by centuries of independence and self-reliance without government interference.
During the course of history in some of these middle regions small, independent states merged gradually into federations where the constituting parts and the individual citizens retained a large degree of autonomy. The fact that there was a broader federation not only guaranteed greater protection against enemies from abroad, but even came to guarantee that at the level of the individual republics, counties or cities the rulers could not abuse their powers and the citizens maintained the same level of freedom as in the other members states of the federation.
In these regions, sophisticated political theories were devised which ensured that the prince of the government did not embody the highest authority and were accountable to the law. Both Switzerland since the 13th century and the Netherlands from the 16th century to the 18th century were republics.
The Burgundian Netherlands had a prince, but whenever he wanted to raise taxes, this prince, the Duke of Burgundy, had to ask the 17 counties of the federation (and sometimes even the different cities) for their permission. Both Switzerland and the Burgundian Netherlands were multilingual federations. Even many of the individual member states of the federation were themselves multilingual. As neither the federal government nor the local governments had to power to pursue a policy of cultural of linguistic unification, this never led to problems. (The linguistic conflict in Belgium – formerly the southern part of the Burgundian Netherlands – only started in the 19th century when the old counties had been abolished and the country had been transformed into a centralized state intent on uniformity.)
The former Carolingian Middle Lands saw not only the birth of capitalism but also of limited government. A decentralized political culture developed which generated the same general principles as the anti-absolutist English political tradition. Contrary to the English common law system, however, these political systems were rooted in the civil law tradition and accepted a written legal and constitutional order. Thus federalism was born. It is almost a synonym of constitutionally guaranteed limited government, both at the local and at the highest federal level. Federalism in this sense was seen from the bottom up, not as a system imposed form above. This is also the real meaning of subsidiarity: Power is delegated to the lowest possible level which can guarantee a decent civil order – and the lowest possible level of all is often the individual citizen.
The Kingdom of the Middle
Many of the capitalist ideas came to England via the Netherlands. Via New Netherlands, the colony established by the United Dutch Republic along the Hudson River, the federalist ideas also took root in America and were later incorporated into the American Constitution.
Later, monarchs succeeded gradually in bringing most of the regions of the ancient Middle-Frankish realm under their control. Centralized nation-states which were ruled from above were established almost everywhere. The kings of France and Prussia succeeded in subduing their part of the Rhine region. The French Revolution swept away all the existing self-governing systems, and after the fall of Napoleon only Switzerland returned to its old constitutional order. Everywhere else we witness the beginning of the era of the centralized state, forever expanding its powers and legitimizing itself by establishing welfare systems that “take care” of the citizens from the cradle to the grave. In many regions, however, like Flanders and Lombardy, the memory of the ancient, free, self-governing federation is still alive, and federalist movements have a strong popular appeal. It is no coincidence that this call for regional autonomy goes apace with a call for a more liberal economy and the right of the individuals to take care of themselves.
It is no coincidence either that virtually all the founding fathers of the EEC were people from the old Middle-Frankish kingdom. This applies even to Robert Schuman and Konrad Adenauer. Schuman was a Luxemburgian by birth who as a young man had settled in the neighboring region of Lorraine/Lothringen, a disputed area between France and Germany that passed over from Germany to France in 1919. Adenauer regarded himself first and foremost as a Rhinelander – so much so that the once toyed with the separatist idea of establishing an autonomous Rhine-republic, independent of Germany.
The EEC did not start out as a combined initiative of France and Germany, united in a common enterprise to subdue the citizens of Europe after having each tried to establish a unified Europe on its own terms. It started out as a Middle-Frankish venture. It wanted to check both French and German national ambitions as well as all tendencies toward state absolutism.
Being profoundly shaped by their backgrounds in the capitalist Middle-Frankish civil community, the founding fathers of the EEC knew instinctively how to neutralize dangerous state ambitions and guarantee freedom, peace and prosperity: with economic liberalization. It is an insight today’s European leaders would do well to remember.