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Last Updated: Friday, 23 March 2007, 19:33 GMT
How divided Europe came together
By Allan Little
BBC World Affairs Correspondent

Marie-Helene Von Mach speaking to Allan Little
Marie-Helene Von Mach was there
Marie-Helene Von Mach remembers the day her father came back from the dead. It was 1954 and he had been gone nine years.

A German Wehrmacht officer taken prisoner by the Soviets in occupied Czechoslovakia at the end of the war, he had disappeared into Stalin's Gulag and his family did not know whether he was alive or dead.

Then, suddenly, he came home.

Over lunch in Brussels last month I told her that, as the BBC's Moscow correspondent, I'd lived in an apartment block built by captured German soldiers, whom Stalin used as slave labourers.

"Yes," she said. "My father used to talk about that. He'd say 'In the 1940s, I destroyed Stalingrad. In the 1950s, I had to rebuild it'."

Country house

Marie-Helene was 20 years old in 1957. She talks about the foundation of the European Union with an extraordinary passion. And she is proud of the role she played in its creation.

In the summer of 1956, she was recruited as a typist to work on a project she knew nothing about. She was told to report to a country house, in a little wooded park, on the outskirts of Brussels - the Chateau de Val Duchesse.

Val Duchesse is not much to look at architecturally. But its place in the history of our continent is secure, for this is where modern Europe was born; the house in which the leaders of the six founding members agreed to turn the page on the old European nation state and fuse their destinies.

This is where they wrote the Treaty of Rome.

Signing on 25 March 1957 of the Treaty of Rome
Signed 25 March 1957 at the Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome
Original name: Treaty establishing the European Economic Community
Key objectives: a common market and customs union; ever closer union among the peoples of Europe; pooling of resources to strengthen peace
Signatories: Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands
Came into force on 1 January 1958

Its driving force was Paul-Henri Spaak, the Belgian foreign minister who would go on to become secretary general of Nato.

Like most Europeans of his generation, Spaak had lived his entire life in the shadow of war: twice in 30 years, conflict between France and Germany had led to a global conflagration that had now left Europe in ruins.

The six nations (France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) that gathered at Val Duchesse that summer had something in common: they had seen democracy and individual liberty swept away by dictatorship; national sovereignty swept away by invasion, military defeat and foreign occupation.

The leaders of all six had lost faith in national sovereignty; they wanted to build a new kind of political Europe.

They had begun in the early 1950s with the European Coal and Steel Community. These two strategic industries - on which Germany had built its war machine - were taken out of the control of the individual nations and handed to a supra-national authority.

The British had been invited to join but had declined. The UK prime minister is said to have commented that he did not want to join a club of "six nations, four of whom we had to rescue from the other two".

The war had had a different impact on popular sentiment in Britain. Britain had not been defeated or humiliated; it had not seen foreign troops swagger through its streets or detested enemy flags flying above its citadels.

Blank document

When the six small national delegations gathered at Val Duchesse, they quickly transformed themselves into a new kind of public servant: these were the first generation of what would come to be known as the Eurocrats.

Marie-Helene Von Mach
Marie-Helene was sworn to silence about her work
From the beginning they struck a tone that dogs the European project to this day: they worked largely in secret (Marie-Helene and the others had to sign contracts which banned them from talking about their work, even to their families).

There was little reference to public opinion; the political elites laboured on in splendid isolation.

It took nine months. But by March 1957, they had written the treaty. Now the race was on to get it signed and ratified. And it was a race.

Everybody knew that it was only a matter of time before Gen Charles de Gaulle would be swept back to power in France. The war in Algeria was going badly and the Fourth Republic was in crisis. And De Gaulle - that great champion of French sovereignty - had publicly committed himself to killing the European Community stone dead.

So they gathered in Rome on 25 March 1957 - six heads of government, the architects of a brave new world that few understood or cared about but which would, in time, change the political and strategic landscape not just of Europe but of the world.

But there was a snag. The Italian state printer had not met the deadline.

The treaty - still being argued over and translated into four languages until the last minute - was not printed. The six went ahead with the ceremony anyway. The print shop sent six copies of the title page, and the last, or signature page, but in between these two the entire text of the treaty was missing.

The six heads of government put their signatures to a blank document.

But the train that pulled out of Rome that day is still rolling. There were originally six passengers; now there are 27. Its destination - political union - has never been reached, nor is it ever likely to be.

The point of the locomotive is not to reach its destination but to keep on moving - an ambition summed up in the now infamous phrase written into the preamble that they signed (or rather didn't sign) that day: ever closer union.

Allan Little's report The Road to Rome was aired on Sunday 25 March at 1330BST on Radio 4.

Hear Allan Little's full report The Road to Rome

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