A European Legacy: Helmut Kohl and Simone Veil

Amidst threats to European integrity and credibility, Helmut Kohl and Simone Veil, two pillars of European history and lifelong believers in the European idea, passed away in June 2017. With isolationist and Eurosceptic trends gaining more traction recently in countries such as France, the UK and Italy, it is an adequate time to look upon the achievements of two such figures. While each of them is renowned in their respective country for their national policies, they shared the conviction that an important way to achieve those was through European integration and cooperation, and that national and supranational interests were not necessarily at odds.

Simone Veil

By Élise Lauriot Prévost, final year International Relations student

Simone Veil, considered one of France’s most revered politicians, died on June 30th at the age of 89. Veil’s most notable achievement was the Loi Veil (Veil Law) which legalised abortion in France in 1975; she was also the first president of the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

She grew up in a secular Jewish family in Nice and her deportation to Auschwitz the day after her baccalauréat, aged sixteen, would shape her as a person and as a political figure. Her passion for women’s rights stems from the particular degradation female inmates suffered in concentration camps during the Second World War. After the war, she became a magistrate and campaigned to end the mistreatment of female Algerian prisoners of war.

In 1974, as health minister in Jacques Chirac’s government she passed the Loi Veil which legalised abortion in France. It was greatly opposed at the time, especially in the male-dominated Assemblée Nationale, where one politician went as far as to compare abortion to the crimes committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

She continued to push boundaries and open paths for women when she was elected as the first president of the European Parliament in 1979. The symbolism of a Jewish woman as the head of the Community’s highest office where two war-time foes reconciled, was not lost. “In her July 17, 1979 speech accepting the presidency of the Parliament, she said: ‘Whatever our political beliefs, we are all aware that this historic step, the election of the European Parliament by universal suffrage, has been taken at a crucial time for the people of the Community. All its member states are faced with three great challenges: the challenge of peace, the challenge of freedom and the challenge of prosperity, and it seems clear that they can only be met through the European dimension.’ Her election made her an even more devout European as she pushed for more supra-national and federalist policies. She largely contributed to the improvement of the European Parliament’s public image. Another of her greatest contributions was the establishment of relations between the European Parliament and countries outside the Community with the goal of expanding it. Veil remained a member of the European Parliament until 1993 when she became Minister for Social Affairs in French Prime Minister Édouard Balladur’s government under François Mitterrand. She was called on again by the European Union in 1996 to be a member of the International Commission for the Balkans under Leo Tindemans’s authority. She then became a member of the French Constitutional Council in 1998 where she would later call for a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum which tried to establish a constitution for Europe in 2005.

Although she has been criticised for being “a European at heart but with no real influence”, her actual influence and the hope that she has given to countless numbers of women as a trailblazer for women’s rights and the European Project has marked history. All throughout her life she loved the European Project, saying in 2008 that in ‘the last sixty years it is the best thing that we have done.’

In 2005 she became one of only a few women to become an ‘immortelle’ of the Académie Française, where her ceremonial sword was engraved with the French motto, ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’, the European Union’s motto, ‘United in diversity’ and her concentration camp serial number 78651.

After her death, she was honoured by French President Emmanuel Macron by being granted a burial at the Panthéon in Paris where she will become the fifth woman, doing little to close the gap with the seventy-six men who are laid to rest there.

Many political figures paid their respects to Simone Veil. ‘The European Parliament’s Socialists and Democrats group said Veil ‘embodies the European project’, noting that her death closely followed that of another champion of a united Europe, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Emmanuel Macron honoured her in those words: ‘You have given our lives the light you had in you and which nothing nor anybody was able to extinguish.’ 

Helmut Kohl

By Matthew Guertler, final year History student

Often referred to in German as Kanzler der Einheit (Chancellor of Unity), Helmut Kohl played an instrumental role in the reunification of Germany and the establishment of the European Union. Kohl’s 16-year tenure as Chancellor, from 1982 to 1998, was the longest in modern German history since Bismarck ruled over Prussia in the late nineteenth-century. With today’s headlines pointing towards an increasingly polarised Europe, it is worth taking the time to reflect on Kohl’s life and discuss whether his lifetime commitment to both German and European integration is something which can be achieved.

Kohl’s first major political victory was organising the reunification of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Just two weeks after the historic event, Kohl submitted the Ten-Point Plan for German Unity, addressing topics as diverse as humanitarian aid, economic cooperation and free elections in East Germany. In reality, Kohl’s attempt to reunify Germany did not go as smoothly as he had anticipated. In the early 1990s, the East German economy faced a near-collapse with weak infrastructure and levels of inflation not experienced since the end of the First World War. Even today, almost 30 years after Kohl submitted the Ten-Point Plan, there is still a large economic divide between the East and West, with the financial and industrial centres predominantly remaining in West Germany. Nevertheless, had Kohl not taken action so soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the gap between East and West Germany today would likely have been much greater.

Kohl is arguably best known as the architect of the European Union and the individual responsible for implementing the euro currency alongside French President François Mitterrand. Kohl played a key role in enforcing the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 which created the original three-pillar structure of the EU and led to the creation of the euro. While having a common currency has undoubtedly contributed to peace in Europe, Kohl underestimated the challenge of economic integration across such a large range of countries with different political foundations.

Attempting to implement a common currency in countries with varied political origins has arguably led to many of the problems that Europe faces today. In particular, with a relatively low growth in GDP and high levels of unemployment, Mediterranean countries including Italy, Spain and Greece have clearly not enjoyed the same economic benefits from the euro as France and Germany. That said, Kohl could not have anticipated potential future economic crises associated with the euro and the decision to bind Europe by a unified monetary system was, at its inception, a strong one.

Not unlike Simone Veil, Kohl enjoyed strong relations with many countries outside Europe. In particular, the United States, which had been at war against Germany just 40 years before Kohl became Chancellor, would become one of Germany’s closest allies. Kohl developed a close relationship with Ronald Reagan and supported many of his contentious policies to weaken the Soviet Union. In Reagan’s iconic 1987 speech where he demanded that Mikhail Gorbachev ‘tear down this wall’, Kohl can be seen sitting immediately next to Reagan as a supportive ally. Kohl did not enjoy such warm relations with all foreign leaders, however. He often struggled to work with Margaret Thatcher who once allegedly claimed ‘We’ve beaten the Germans twice. Now they’re back’.

Although Kohl is predominantly recognised for his role in German reunification and the establishment of the EU, less emphasis is placed on his success in integrating ex-Soviet countries into Europe. Kohl anticipated the risks of Eastern European countries falling back into the sphere of Russian influence and led the effort for the international recognition of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina as sovereign states. Even Bill Clinton praised Kohl for his efforts to dissolve the UN embargo placed on Bosnia, which had been encouraged by both France and Britain. However, Germany’s lack of a seat in the UN Security Council limited Kohl somewhat in this regard.

It is difficult to imagine two people of the same generation with such different backgrounds as Kohl and Simone Veil. While Veil was born in 1927 and survived the horrors of Auschwitz, Kohl was born in 1930 and joined the Hitler Youth when he was just ten. Despite their contrasting backgrounds, both politicians would dedicate their lives to forming a new European order completely opposite to the one they had been born into.

Although present-day Europe faces many problems ranging from increased nationalism and extremism to high levels of unemployment and slow economic growth, it must be acknowledged that Europe has not experienced a war for the longest period in its history, with the exception of the Yugoslav Wars. Clearly, therefore, there must be a correlation between longstanding European peace and the structures of the EU, which ensure that countries resolve their disputes diplomatically rather than militarily. Even though the integrity of Europe may be challenged today by events such as Brexit, we must try to preserve the original unified Europe which Kohl created.


DISCLAIMER: The opinions and views expressed in this opinion piece belong to the authors and are independent of the Department of Political Economy and KCL Politics Society.

Categories Europe

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