He calls himself a European dinosaur, Jacques-René Rabier. Now 89, he helped shape Europe through its many stages of evolution. Close to Jean Monnet, he was in at the outset of the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner of today’s Union. From his position in the General Commissariat modernising France’s postwar economy, he was personally recruited by the founding father of the new Europe.
Rabier: “I had seen him a couple of times, no more, then at half past six one evening Jean Monnet called me in. I was overwhelmed. He said to me, ‘Monsieur Rabier, my private secretary intends to run for office in Charente and is certain to be elected, and so I am in need of a private secretary. I’ll take you.’ Young Rabier was somewhat intimidated. The only more or less intelligent thing I could come up with was: ‘Do you believe I’ll be up to the job, sir?’ And Monnet answered, ‘If youre not, I’ll let you know,’ and he never said it.”
“I was in the Clock Room on the ninth of May at six p.m. when Schuman made his declaration. It had been prepared in liaison between Schuman’s office and Monnet’s team. I often say that without Monnet there wouldn’t have been a Schuman Plan. But without Schuman, there would perhaps have been a document which would still be archived away in the Quai d’Orsay.”
With the Coal and Steel Community’s inception in 1950, Rabier would go on to launch an information service, nurturing it as the European institutions took form. Eurobarometer in 1973 involved the people in communication.
Rabier: “I created the information service in Luxembourg, at the European Coal and Steel Community, under Jean Monnet’s authority in inverted commas. He was not a secretive man as is sometimes said, but rather a man of discretion. That’s to say that when a decision had not been made collectively, obviously silence was required, but from the moment it had been taken, the information needed to get out. Monnet was especially mindful of informing people. In Luxembourg, when he entrusted me with managing his office, one of the tasks he assigned me was not only the drawing up of written reports to give to the press, but to organise an embryonic information service, at first in Luxembourg. Very quickly we sent what I called missionaries to the other capitals of the Coal and Steel Community to inform the public.”
How do people see Europe today? Polls say in a beneficial light. But is that enough?
Rabier: “There is little overt hostility, though a lot of sympathetic indifference, I might say – if those words go together. Let’s take the younger generations. I have several children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. Therefore, I’m in a position to judge over several generations. A lot believe it’s a done thing. When they go on to further studies they’ll do Erasmus. Before that, aged 16-17, they think of going to see their friends in Germany, in Italy or in Spain. They move around. They have a few euros in their pocket, maybe not much but some, and they think it’s done. Maybe what’s needed are events like we’re living through at the moment, deep crises – financial, economic, perhaps social – for the young generations to see there’s still a lot to do.”
As a sign of this sense of non-involvement, the number of people turning out to vote in European elections keeps dropping. The next ones are in June next year. How to improve on this?
Rabier: “These elections can’t be successful in each of our countries if each one is fought on national patterns. These are not national elections – they’re European. My personal wish, and I’ll say yet again I’m not a candidate, is that the different parties have common platforms between different countries. Let the socialists have their platform, the Christian Democrats and liberals theirs. I’m not a card-carrying member of any party, so I speak with complete freedom: let the different political formations have a strategy that is mutually supportive.”
Another unknown is the future of the Lisbon Treaty. Last June, a majority of Irish voters rejected it. If it’s to come into force to reform the EU’s institions, all the member states have to ratify it.
Rabier: “Personally, I don’t like opt-outs, but I do care about the vanguard. A vanguard must be able to move ahead on this or that aspect of the Lisbon Treaty. If 12, 15, soon 17 euro members want to move forward on solving not only monetary problems but also financial and economic, let them. I don’t see how a road convoy can guage its speed to that of the slowest. The weakest has to be respected but if it can’t keep up with the convoy, you make sure it won’t just be left by the wayside, but you can’t force it happily along against its will. I’d like the Irish to stay but if they can’t sign up, well they’ll come along later. When we started, the British weren’t in. We started out with six countries. Monnet wanted the British in the group.”
Monnet came from the town of Cognac. For the 120th anniversary of his birth, Jacques-René Rabier paid a visit to the cellar Monnet started out in. He was the son of a cognac merchant, which exposed him to world travel well before he entered into Europe’s service. Rabier draws similarities…
Rabier: “One of Monnet’s sayings that I have cited, and know off by heart is this: ‘There needs to be a maturing, a maturing in history just as maturing is needed to make a good cognac. There can’t be any impatience. You have to know what you want, what you are trying to get to, and go through each successive step so that the end product is good.’ Well, this one is. I hope that Europe is a good product – I’m even sure of it. It takes patience sometimes, but needs courage and determination. I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist. I am determined. That is very different.”