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Jean Monnet, 1888-1879 (Illustration to Jean Monnet)


Jean Monnet was the original man with a plan. He had one big idea: a United States of Europe. It wasn’t a very good idea; nor was it really his. But Monnet’s name is enshrined as “the father of Europe”.

Since his death in 1979 at the age of 90, Monnet has become one of the most fêted figures in modern European history. The cult of Monnet is promoted and funded by his brainchild, the European Union. But does he deserve such adulation?

Aged 16, Monnet was sent abroad to sell cognac for the family firm. Living in Britain, Canada and the US, he acquired fluent English and developed a taste for hamburgers. Like Alexis de Tocqueville before him, he was impressed by the dynamism of the New World. Unlike Tocqueville, however, he wanted to impose American federalism on Europe.

His political career began during the First World War, during which he was responsible for transatlantic shipping of food and raw materials, along with an Englishman, Arthur Salter. Both men later worked at the League of Nations, where Monnet was deputy secretary general. According to Christopher Booker, it was his wartime and postwar experience that persuaded Monnet of the need for supranational bodies that could overrule national sovereignty.

Impatient with the League, he returned to business, moving into banking and aerospace. Neither a fonctionnaire nor an elected politician, Monnet liked to operate behind the scenes as a freelance. A capitalist who always voted socialist, he was bored by business and preferred bureaucratic empire-building. In this, he resembled his contemporary John Maynard Keynes, but without the latter’s intellect or charisma. Monnet was less a visionary idealist than a canny opportunist who got lucky.

Between the wars, Monnet acquired a wide range of contacts and a reputation for wheeler-dealing. Having eloped with an Italian artist, Silvia de Bondini, who was married to one of his employees, he used his influence to obtain Soviet citizenship for her so that she could divorce her husband without his consent. They were married in Moscow in 1934, just as Stalin was pioneering the planned economy while starving Ukraine. It is unclear what price Monnet paid for Soviet assistance, but he certainly embraced the idea of the Five Year Plan.
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