Europe Day 2012

9 May, 2012

EU flag

On 9 May 1950 in Paris, the French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman read to the international press a declaration that would be the first move towards the creation of what is now known as the European Union.

In Paris that day, against the background of the threat of a Third World War engulfing the whole of Europe, the French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman read to the international press a declaration calling France, Germany and other European countries to pool together their coal and steel production as “the first concrete foundation of a European federation”.

What he proposed was the creation of a supranational European Institution, charged with the management of the coal and steel industry, the very sector which was, at that time, the basis of all military power. The countries which he called upon had almost destroyed each other in a dreadful conflict which had left after it a sense of material and moral desolation.

Everything, therefore, began that day. That is why during the Milan Summit of EU leaders in 1985 it was decided to celebrate 9 May as “Europe Day”.

The celebration of Europe Day provides welcome opportunity to reflect on the origins of Wilton Park, set up in 1946 as part of an initiative inspired by Winston Churchill to help re-establish peace and democracy in Europe, and to examine how the European community addresses contemporary debates around securing good governance and promoting economic recovery for the continent.

Wilton Park took its name from its original location – a country house near Beaconsfield which housed German internees during the Second World War. Following the conflict, discussions were held with members of the group on the future of their country, and on how to build a new, durable democratic political system and associated institutions. From those origins, sprang the formula of frank and open policy-orientated discussion that continues to form the basis for Wilton Park conferences today. Wilton Park now organises some 50 conferences a year that cover the gamut of foreign policy issues, including its programme of work on Europe.

As European economies teeter on the edge of recession, and European populations feel the bite of ‘austerity policies’, the European project appears under greater question than ever before. It is not surprising that the younger generation of Europeans, better educated than their parents but facing much tougher battles for jobs, housing – the basic elements of a decent future, should be asking ‘what has the European Union done for us?’ The answer used to be ‘securing peace after two devastating world wars’. But that is now taken as a given – old rhetoric drawn from the history books with little relevance to modern lives and aspirations.

Instead, the original remit of ‘a common market’ to secure prosperity is back at the top of the policy agenda. What form should Europe now take? And how can it best serve its citizens? How can it guarantee its place in an emerging global economic order dominated by the rise of China, the other BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa) countries and the ‘Next 11’ set of fast-growing countries (Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea, Turkey and Vietnam)?

These are the underlying questions that Wilton Park seeks to address through its meetings run with a range of partners, including the European institutions. Two strands currently dominate – safeguarding the continent’s economic position, finding a way to secure its future as an innovative, effective economic unit – and examining its role as a global actor. Under pinning all of this is the debate about the European institutions themselves, making them effective, relevant and democratic, the seemingly perpetual tussle between the nation states and the supra-national entity.

Wilton Park’s work encompasses both the strategic, big picture event and tightly focused workshop meetings. Recently, we have looked at Europe’s wider economic perspectives in a meeting held at Wiston House last November and, also, at issues around financial regulation in a smaller workshop-type conference run in partnership with the Bundesbank at their conference centre on the Rhine near Frankfurt.

Subjects under consideration for the 2012-13 programme include securing jobs, growth and competitiveness in Europe; a look at the evolution of the European External Action Service, two years after it was created, and Europe’s relations with its neighbours to the east and to the south. As we examine the impact of the Arab Democratic Wave, Wilton Park returns to its origins once again to explore the contribution that the European experience of post-conflict reconstruction can make to developing a better, safer future for the Middle East and Maghreb.

Further information

Stay up to date

Sign up to our newsletter