Illustration by Leo Cardini
Fifty years ago, on 27 March 1957, Italy, West Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg signed one of the most important treaties in modern European history. The Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community, now known as the European Union. The EU numbers over half a billion citizens, from 27 member states, speaking 23 official languages and scores of regional ones.
Although it might seem that this united Europe simply rose, during the dark, chill days of the cold war, like a phoenix from the ashes of the death and destruction of World War II, it did not just simply happen. Along with many others, Italy’s first post-war prime minister, Alcide De Gasperi, played a significant role in bringing forth this new, unified Europe.
History remembers De Gasperi, a tall, rather austere man, as responsible for much of Italy’s post-war reconstruction. Believing strongly that Italy needed to restore its influential role on the international stage, he worked tirelessly for the implementation of the Marshall Plan and for creating close economic ties with other European countries, especially France.
Under his guidance, in 1949 Italy joined the newly founded Council of Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1951. Profoundly convinced that the creation of a federation of democratic European states was the only path to enduring peace, he lent his support to the Schumann Plan, which led to the 1951 foundation of the European Coal and Steel Community. He was named president of the Community in 1954, and although the project eventually failed, De Gaspari helped develop the idea of the common European defence policy.
De Gasperi was born on 3 April 1881 in Pieve Tesino, a small town in Trentino, which at that time belonged to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. He received a degree in philology, the study of language, from the University of Vienna in 1905. In 1911 he was elected to the Austrian Parliament as a member of the Partito Popolare Trentino, the party he had helped to found. After Trentino was ceded to Italy following World War I, he became an Italian citizen and a founding member of the Partito Popolare (Catholic People’s Party), led by Don Luigi Sturzo. He was elected to the Italian Chamber of Deputies in 1921.
Under Fascism, the Partito Popolare was outlawed and dissolved. As a result, De Gasperi was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison for anti-fascist activities. Thanks to the help of powerful friends in the Church who had him freed in May 1929, he only spent 16 months in prison. Subsequently, these same friends helped him obtain employment as an archivist at the Vatican Library, where he spent the next 14 years, until the fall of Fascism in July 1943.
During World War II, he was active in the Resistance and became one of the founders and first secretary of the then illegal Christian Democrat Party. At the end of the war, he served as minister in various coalition governments under the Allied Forces, becoming prime minister in December 1945.
He continued as prime minister in 1946, when Italy became a Republic, after the referendum in which the Italians voted to abolish the monarchy. He was still prime minister in 1947, when the peace treaty was signed and when the wartime coalition with the Communists and Socialists came to an end. And he was still at the helm when, in 1948, the new constitution came into force.
During this period, his most important foreign policy achievement was probably the Gruber-DeGasperi Agreement of September 1946, under which Austria and Italy agreed to establish the southern Tirol as an autonomous region.
De Gasperi remained prime minister eight successive governments until August 1953, when he resigned after the Christian Democrats failed to gain a majority in the elections and he could not form a cabinet. The following year, due to the increasing power of the emerging left within the party, he also lost its leadership. Dogged by ill health, De Gasperi died on 18 August 1954 in Sella di Valsugana, in his beloved Trentino. He is buried in the Basilica di San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura in Rome.
Sadly, De Gasperi did not live long enough to see the establishment of the European Economic Community become a reality. However, his commitment to European integration was recognised in his lifetime: in 1952, he received the International Charlemagne Prize, the award bestowed by the City of Aachen in Germany to people who have contributed to the European idea and to European peace. And his spirit lives on within Europe as we know it today.