“A grey eminence’s grey eminence” was how one colleague described Emile Noel. If Jean Monnet, the real founder of the European Union, worked behind the scenes to achieve its objectives, Noel was one of several younger people who worked behind and for Monnet. Of all Monnet’s French associates, Emile Noel was one of the most eminent.
He had been born in Constantinople, later to become Istanbul; and readers of Eric Ambler’s fiction might have fancied that he looked intriguingly exotic. His dark eyes drooped at the corners like those of Paul McCartney or Sylvester Stallone: his smile was rueful, almost hangdog, as if admitting that while things might be worse they could be a great deal better. At times, he resembled a melancholy Mr Punch.
Yet Noel was a resolute idealist. As what Monnet called “an outstanding young graduate” of the Ecole Normale Superieure, he had gone to work for the European Movement, and had quickly been snapped up by the newborn Council of Europe in 1949. Initially Secretary of its General Affairs Committee, after three years he had become Director of its Constitutional Committee, Investigating the possibility of forming a European Political Community.
In 1954 he had become Chef de Cabinet to Guy Mollet, then the President of the Council of Europe’s Consultative Assembly and, when Mollet became Prime Minister of France in 1956, Noel moved to Paris with him. It was while working with Mollet that Noel first grew close to Jean Monnet, as what he later called “a sort of liaison agent” between him and Mollet. His particular preoccupation was the Val Duchesse negotiations to produce the Common Market and Euratom. When the European Economic Community was set up in Brussels in 1958, Noel was appointed Executive Secretary to its Commission. His official identity card was numbered 33, the previous 32 were those of the Commissioners and their personal staff.
Emile Noel thus found himself, aged 35, virtually in the driving seat of Europe’s powerful engine. The titular driver, as President of the Commission, was Walter Hallstein, a workaholic bachelor, a former professor, and former Head of the German Foreign Office. But Noel, married, with two daughters, and a product of France’s elite education system, was the perfect complement to Hallstein’s organizing zeal. He knew everyone; he knew everything; he said as little as possible.
His tenacity, as Monnet said, matched his modesty.
In the words of Commissioner Robert Lemaignen: It would have been hard to find a person better fitted for his post. The Executive Secretary looks after the inner workings of the Commission, prepares its discussion and its agenda, draws up its minutes (he attends all meetings, even the most confidential); he puts its decision into proper legal shape, distributes documentation to its Commissioners and Directorates General, supervises such general services as the linguistic service, and so on. Many of these jobs demand absolute discretion and perfect tact. Noel fulfilled them perfectly.
In 1968, when the three Communities (Euratom, Coal and Steel and Common Market) were merged into one, Emile Noel was appointed their Secretary General, a post that he held until his retirement in 1987. But retirement did not mean leisure. He at once became President of the European University Institute in Florence, a post he held until 1996. In that period he produced several studies of the Community and its institutions: Le Comite des Representants Permanents, in 1966, Les Rouages de ‘ Europe, in 1979, and Les Institutions des Communautes Europeennes in 1988.
His one regret, he said in later life, was that Europe had not established the European Political Community on which he had worked in the 1950s. “The step towards a more political union was brutally interrupted,” he told an interviewer in 1987. “But you can never really get the economic without the political. I believe the political aspect is indispensable. A few less controls at frontiers is simply not enough.”
Emile Noel died in Viareggio, Italy, 24 August 1996.