The European League for Economic Cooperation and its founding fathers

With “mon cher ami” Paul van Zeeland, Belgian foreign politician, began a letter to the Polish political advisor Józef Retinger in 1946, in which he proposed an initial meeting to establish an association for economic cooperation in Europe.[i] The following blog article will take a closer look at this association, the European League for Economic Cooperation (ELEC). Not only the League itself, but also the amitié of its founders is to play a central role.

After the end of the Second World War, a large number of organisations were founded with a common goal: the unification and integration of Europe. One of them was ELEC. Established in 1946, the League was one of the founding members of the European Movement International[ii]  in 1948 and today has a consultative status with the Council of Europe and the United Nations Economic Commission. [iii]  

In keeping with the nature of my PhD project and the letter mentioned at the beginning, this article will focus specifically on the beginning years and the founding figures of ELEC – who, as we will see in a moment, were old acquaintances from the London exile.

So first of all: who were the founding fathers of ELEC? 

Belgian Politician Paul van Zeeland, 1937, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Wikimedia Commons

Three men in particular can be identified as the masterminds and initiators of the ELEC. Firstly, Paul van Zeeland, who was chairman of CEPAG (Belgian Commission for the Study of Post-war Problems) in the Belgian government-in-exile in London. In addition, he had already been involved in negotiating the BeNeLux Customs Union with his Dutch and Luxembourg colleagues during the war.  Van Zeeland was considered a dedicated campaigner for the position of the so-called “small”[iv] nations of Europe and already spoke out several times during the war in favour of greater economic and political cooperation between them. [v]

The same can be said about Van Zeeland’s comrade-in-arms Józef Retinger. During his time in London, he was a close advisor to Polish Prime Minister Sikorski and strongly advocated the idea of an (economically) federal Europe. In his memoirs, he states that he repeatedly made clear to Sikorski the “advantages for Poland within a federal Europe”.[vi]   Retinger was also involved in the consultations surrounding a potential cooperation agreement between Czechoslovakia and Poland, which ultimately failed due to the displeasure of the Soviet Union.[vii] Like van Zeeland, he sought to develop economic and political relations within a region of Europe (in this case Eastern Europe), with the ultimate goal of a federation uniting the respective sub-regions.

The third member of the group was Pieter Kerstens, Minister of Economic Affairs in the Dutch government-in-exile. Kerstens also took a pro-federalist position during the war and, like van Zeeland, was engaged in the negotiation process of the BeNeLux Agreement.[viii]

Even the first introduction of the three actors suggests a certain closeness to each other in terms of content and subject matter. But how did their paths cross in exile?  What points of contact and, above all, discussion spaces for European unification emerged?

The memoirs of Józef Retinger are particularly informative in answering these questions. He describes in detail numerous meetings with van Zeeland and Kerstens. [ix]  Retinger characterises van Zeeland as one of the most capable politicians in the world and admires him for his far-sighted visions and his way of thinking and acting rationally and mathematically. In the end, he at the same time describes Pieter Kerstens as a “great friend” in whom he had a high degree of trust.[x]

In consultation with van Zeeland (and the Belgian Foreign Minister Paul Henri Spaak as well as the Greek diplomat Panagiotis Pipinelis) and Kerstens, Retinger initiated regular meetings in the Polish Prime Minister’s Office to discuss European unification after the war. These meetings took place at frequent intervals between October 1942 and 1944. [xi]   They were usually attended by the foreign and finance ministers of the respective governments in exile.[xii] Although unfortunately no records or minutes of these rather informal meetings can be found, the great interest of the three ELEC founders in a European community is already evident at this point.

Another meeting place was Chatham House. Kerstens, Van Zeeland and Retinger were regular guests at the London think tank and participated in its research on the post-war order with speeches and contributions to discussions.[xiii]

The desire for European unification – especially on an economic level – united the three men during their time in exile. They had a common vision: to strengthen the – in their self-description – “small” nations of Europe through one (or more regional) federation(s) as well as to advance economic cooperation on the European continent. Therefore, they came together again after the end of the war to concretise their common ideas. To this end, Paul van Zeeland proposes in a letter to Retinger of 5 October 1946 to reunite “for a very general initial exchange of views” in his office in Brussels.[xiv]

Retinger explains in his memoirs: “In 1946 I thought the time had come to make a new attempt towards the unity of Europe. I made a start by giving a lecture entitled ‘European Continent’ at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in Chatham House on 7 May. A few weeks later I travelled to Brussels where I had a long conversation with Paul van Zeeland who agreed with me that we should try to revive the concept of the unity of Europe by applying it first to the economic sphere. So we founded the Independent League for Economic Cooperation.” And going further, “the word ‘independent’ was meant to express that we were in no way connected to any government; whereas ‘economic cooperation’ is self-explanatory.” [xv]  Moreover, Retinger felt it was important to emphasise that Western and Eastern Europe should continue to work closely together for the economic well-being of Europe.[xvi]  In view of the rapid advance of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe after the war, this reference seems almost a warning.

Michel Dumoulin, who has written a comprehensive account of the history of the ELEC, also argues that, like other European movements, it was founded against the background of the emerging “rift” between the great powers in 1946. The founding fathers of the ELEC, as documented in a letter from van Zeeland to Retinger, assumed that the great powers were unable to “bring order and a coherent economic structure to the continent.” [xvii]   Moreover, according to Dumoulin, the ELEC was ultimately also founded as an organisation to represent continental economic interests vis-à-vis the great powers, bringing together leading figures from the economic and financial elites of Western and Eastern Europe. [xviii]

After the formal founding of the ELEC, the initiators took up a “veritable diplomatic underground work”[xix]  and endeavoured to establish national sectors in as many European states as possible. Van Zeeland took over the chairmanship of the League, Retinger became its Secretary General, and also Panagiotis Pipinelis, known already from exile, was one of the founding members of ELEC.[xx]

The primary mission of the newly founded League was to produce studies on the economic problems of Europe and a future European Union. Its 1947 constitution also states the following goals: “a) To encourage and help to link culturally and economically, the States which compose Europe. b) To develop between the States which compose Europe, the spirit of cooperation and of collaboration from the cultural and economic point of view.”[xxi] To this end, regular congresses and conferences should be held and publications issued in close cooperation between the national sectors.[xxii]

In 1948, at the Hague European Congress, which is considered one of the first pan-European federalist associations in European history, the ELEC appeared as an association and founding member of the EMI mentioned at the beginning, and its three initiators were also active participants in the debates surrounding European unification.

The ELEC has retained its research and debate character to this day, and thus the three exiled friends Van Zeeland, Retinger and Kerstens made a concrete contribution to the upsurge of European movements and European integration.


[i] Archives of the Catholic University of Leuven, Archives of the European League for Economic Cooperation, B 1. 1. Naissance de la Ligue (1946-1949), File 1 Correspondance 1946-1947. Letter from van Zeeland to Retinger, 5 October 1946.

[ii] See: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung: Europäische Bewegung. Link:  https://www.bpb.de/kurz-knapp/lexika/politiklexikon/17434/europaeische-bewegung/

[iii] See: Website of ELEC: https://eleclece.eu/

[iv] The term small nations is controversial in the case of Belgium and the Netherlands as colonial powers.

[v] Dumoulin, Michel: Les débuts de la Ligue européenne de Coopération économique (1946-1949) In: Belgian foreign policy, 29 / 1 (1987), pp.99-118, p103.

[vi] Pomian, John (ed.): Joseph Retinger: Memoirs of an Eminence Grise. Ithaca, 1972, p.100.

[vii] Brandes, Detlef: Großbritannien und seine osteuropäischen Alliierten 1939–1943. Die Regierungen Polens, der Tschechoslowakei und Jugoslawiens im Londoner Exil vom Kriegsausbruch bis zur Konferenz von Teheran. München/Wien 1988; Barrell, Lawrence: Poland and East European Union 1939-1945. In: The Polish Review, 3/1 (1958), pp.87-127; Polonsky, Abraham.: Polish Failure in Wartime London: Attempts to Forge a European Alliance, 1940-1944. In: The International History Review, 7/4 (1985), pp.576-591; Sio-López Blanco, Christina: Memories and Horizons: The Legacy of the Central and Eastern European Intellectuals in Exile and the Reunification for Europe. In: Piegos de Yuste, 11 (2010), pp. 31-40.

[viii]Although in the end it was not van Zeeland and Kerstens who signed the agreement (but Paul-Henri Spaak, Camille Gutt, Joseph Bech, Pierre Dupong, Eelco van Kleffens and Johannes van den Broek), they were nevertheless involved in the negotiations and generating ideas in their functions as CEPAG Chairman and Finance Minister; see: Lipgens, Walter: Documents on the History of European Integration, Volume 2: Plans for European Union in Britain and in Exile 1939-1945. Berlin 1985; Józef Retinger writes in this context in his memoirs: “ I think I may say that the first suggestion of Benelux grew out of our conversations of federated blocs.” Pomian, John (ed.): Joseph Retinger: Memoirs of an Eminence Grise, p. 105.

[ix] Pomian, John (ed.): Joseph Retinger: Memoirs of an Eminence Grise, p.102

[x] Ibid, p.105.

[xi] Ibid, p.106.

[xii] Besides Poland, Belgium and the Netherlands, representatives of Czechoslovakia, Greece, Luxembourg, Norway, and Yugoslavia took part in the meetings.

[xiii] Chatham House is a prominent London think tank and to this day conducts research on international relations. During the Second World War, various international committees were founded there to research the reconstruction of Europe.

[xiv] Archives of the Catholic University of Leuven, Archives of the European League for Economic Cooperation, B 1. 1. Naissance de la Ligue (1946-1949), File 1 Correspondance 1946-1947. Letter from van Zeeland to Retinger, 5 October 1946. Original quote : « […] pour avoir un premier échange de vues tout à fait général.”

[xv] Pomian, John (ed.): Joseph Retinger: Memoirs of an Eminence Grise, p.202.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Dumoulin, Michel: Les débuts de la Ligue européenne de Coopération économique (1946-1949), p103.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Archives of the Catholic University of Leuven, Archives of the European League for Economic Cooperation, B 1. 1. Naissance de la Ligue (1946-1949), File 1 Correspondance 1946-1947.

[xxi] Archives of the Catholic University of Leuven, Archives of the European League for Economic Cooperation, B 1. 1. Naissance de la Ligue (1946-1949), File 9 Constitution 1947.

[xxii] Ibid.



Cite this blog post
Lea Levenhagen (2023, February 2). The European League for Economic Cooperation and its founding fathers. The London Moment. Retrieved April 19, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/onnh

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