Ideas on Europe

Käte Strobel pionnière de la construction européenne - Simona Guerra

Käte Strobel pionnière de la construction européenne - Simona Guerra

Our weekly “Ideas on Europe” editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we have the pleasure to welcome again Simona Guerra, from the University of Surrey, in the UK. 

Simona, I remember very well how last May you spoke to us about the “early women of European integration”. But it seems, you’re far from finished on this topic!

Actually, the more I read and research about the life and work of these women in the early years of European integration, the more I wonder how our politics and history textbooks could miss them. It is true: they were not many. But these are amazing lives and contributions to Europe that I am discovering!

That sounds like a really enjoyable field of study!

It is! The women of the early years of the European integration process were the trailblazers of the EU we know today. As the Parliament was not yet directly elected, these women had to be first elected in their national parliament, and then assigned to the European chamber by their national government, creating a possible bottleneck towards their representation on the European level.

In fact, unsurprisingly, and as research would suggest, the initial pace of progress, in terms of representation of women, was rather slow, and never reached 10% before the direct elections starting in 1979.

And today, you want to put one of these women into the spotlight.

Yes, have you ever heard the sentence: “Politics is too important a business to be left to men”? Käte Strobel said that, in the 1960s already! So let me introduce to Frau Strobel, Member of the German Parliament for the SPD, the Social-Democratic Party, right from the creation of the Federal Republic in 1949. She was in office in the European Parliament of the Six between 1958 and January 1967. She was, logically, a member of the Socialist group, and later became its Chair, between 1964 and 1967.

Of course, political groups in the 1950s and 1960s were not the groups that we know today, but in June 1953, the Common Assembly (as it was called at the time) passed a resolution, unanimously, that established the rules to form a political group, helped to institutionalise them, and saw the emergence of the first three of them, the Christian Democratic Group, the Liberal Group, and the Socialist Group.

Interestingly, Strobel has remained the only female leader for the Socialists up to 1994, when Pauline Green from the UK was appointed as Chairwoman. Currently, the now called Socialists and Democrats are under the leadership of their third female leader, only, with Iratxe García from Spain. It shows how institutions can be resilient and hostile to women, via unwritten rules, and practices that simply not favour them.

Back to Käte Strobel: tell us who she was.

Strobel has quite an interesting profile. She stands out across these early women, as she has a lower level of education compared to the average of her colleagues at the time, having attended primary and technical school at Nuremberg, her birthplace. It was her personal experience of the war and its aftermath that affected her view of Europe and politics. In her work she sought to secure peace in a united Europe. She left the European Parliament to later become a Federal Minister in Germany, first of Health, later of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (from 1969 to 1972, under Willy Brandt as Chancellor), and she is well known for her work at the domestic level. Myself, however, I am quite impressed by her work at the European level.

Sicco Mansholt, the Dutch Commissioner for Agriculture, considered the father of the Plan that renovated agricultural policy, took office in 1958, and the debates in the Committee for Agriculture between Strobel and Mansholt offer an excellent example of the battle of the young Parliament for transparency and accountability, already in these early years.

Strobel was sceptical of the acceleration of integration and asked for more information, requesting an agriculture that was closer to both producers and consumers. In quite a few occasions, she asked Mansholt for clarifications, in particular on the data he was presenting and asked to ensure that the Commission would have consulted the Parliament about the negotiation process with the member states. Strobel proposed cutting down taxes between 1959 and 1960 and asked for more harmonization across member states before moving forward with an accelerated integration that required radical changes and would give priority to negative integration, which mainly consists of removing barriers to trade rather than deepening integration.

Definitely a very lucid actress of the early integration process. Thanks for sharing her story with us. And keep on doing your research in the archives!

I will ! It is clear that women were active actors of the early stages of the European integration process, and I keep asking myself: how have we missed them?

Interview conducted by Laurence Aubron