The world university that never was

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The usual telling of our university’s history is quite straightforward and is explicitly connected to the history of European integration. In this telling, the European University Institute (EUI) was created in the 1960s and 1970s by a group of European policymakers desiring to build and strengthen European institutions. However, what we have come to accept as one of many within the complicated network of European institutions was initially not solely conceived as a project of European integration. In the early 1960s, amid rapid decolonisation in Africa and the changing status of Europe in the world, there was a short window of time in which something more akin to a “world university” than a “European university” was being envisaged.

Giorgio La Pira and the EUI

One of the main drivers of this “world university” was the mayor of Florence, Giorgio La Pira. Labelled a “cattocommunista” (Italian wordplay; meaning: “catholic-communist”), Giorgio La Pira was mayor of Florence from 1951 to 1957 and again from 1961 to 1965. A devout Catholic and a promoter of social policies benefitting working-class people in Florence, La Pira was also active on an international level. Especially from the 1960s onwards, he maintained close ties to socialist and Third-Worldist policymakers from newly independent countries in Africa and Asia, such as Senegal’s then President Léopold Sédar Senghor (fig. 1).

Figure 1: letter from Léopold Sédar Senghor to La Pira announcing his visit to Florence, 1962 (Archivio Giorgio La Pira)

As mayor of Florence, and later in life, La Pira was active in various peace initiatives (e.g. for Vietnam) and worked to establish relationships that crossed lines of division such as those that existed between East and West, former colonies and metropoles, and the Global South and Global North. His engagement in initiatives such as the “Colloquio Mediterraneo” or the 1955 World Mayors’ Conference are documented in the Archivio Giorgio La Pira in Florence.* While steeped in rather diffusionist ideas of European cultural and economic development in the Global South, La Pira’s internationalist convictions were also translated into what he envisioned for a European university in Florence.

His vision was to establish a university in Florence that would reflect the sense of solidarity felt by many in Europe towards the emerging “Third World”. His proposal would have welcomed students from former European colonies and would have aimed to diffuse skills and knowledge to developing countries, especially in Africa and Asia (Becherucci and Tognarini 2014). During a speech he gave at the Palazzo Vecchio in 1961 – a copy of which is preserved in the Historical Archives of the European Union – La Pira forcefully argued that the projected European university in Florence should be founded upon a “global consideration of the history of the present world”. In his view, such an institution would and should acknowledge the radical period of change through which the world and “all peoples and nations” were going through at the time; decolonisation. This early, alternative, vision of the EUI – although often forgotten – should be an integral part of how we tell our institute’s history.

A Eurocentric narration of the EUI’s history

The idea of a “European university” was first floated in 1955 during the preparations for a summit of the newly founded European Coal and Steel Community, and later mentioned in the Euratom Treaty. The history of establishing such a university would go on to be characterised by diverging ideas and missed opportunities, a process that has been chronicled by the former Director of the EU Archives, Jean-Marie Palayret. Initially envisioned as a training centre for nuclear scientists and proposed by the German government, the idea was quickly endorsed and pushed forward by the Italian government. Over the following decade and through many meetings, the focus of the project shifted towards the human and social sciences (see fig. 2). European leaders finally decided to establish the European University Institute in 1969 in The Hague (Palayret 1996 and HAEU EUI-792).

Figure 2: Meeting of the EUI’s preparatory committee, 1960 (Credit: Studio Press Photo / HAEU, EUI-1082)

The location of the university was an early cause of contention. European cities such as Bonn and Bruges were considered, while Brussels was excluded for fear it would become the sole capital of Europe (“there is at least immediate tactical convergence between us (Italians) and the French: we do not want the position of Brussels as single capital to crystallize in the long term”) (Palayret 1996, 105). It was not inevitable that the university would be in Florence, and it was only due to the enthusiasm and initiative of the Italian authorities – and a commitment to provide most of the financial resources – that Florence became the seat of the European university (Palayret 1996 and HAEU EUI-793). Giorgio La Pira’s vision had become real, albeit in a different form than what he had had in mind.

Decolonisation and Third-Worldist ideas for a European university

La Pira encouraged the establishment of a European university in the “Renaissance” city. He envisioned that the university would “spread the cultural and spiritual values of humanism”, not only within Europe but also beyond. Along with other left-leaning Christian Democrats, such as Giuseppe Vedovato and Amintore Fanfani, La Pira was “well-known for his sympathetic attitude towards the Third World countries and would prefer to have an ‘international’ university open to post-graduate students from African and Asian nations too” (Varsori in HAEU EUI-793). It was a stance “which fitted in rather well with the new Italian policy of advances towards third-world countries” at the outset of the 1960s (Palayret 1996, 135).

Model of the 1961 campus project (EUI-8) Historical Archive of the EU

Figure 3: Drawing of the 1961 campus project (Ballestrero et al., in: Architetti d’oggi, 1961, HAEU EUI-8)

While it had already been agreed that the EUI would become a university exclusively for post-graduate humanities research, La Pira imagined the university as a “world rather than a European vocation”, also open to students from Europe and from newly independent African states (Palayret 1996, 139-141 and AGLP Sez. 1, b. 47, fasc. 2-3). The far-reaching vision of La Pira and his allies of a European university in Florence was mirrored by an architectural design proposal from 1961 in which several students presented a project for an entirely new campus outside of the city that would host “students and professors from the most varied of origins” (Libera and Quaroni 1961, HAEU EUI-8) (see fig. 3). However, despite the Italian government initially being tempted by the “Third-Worldist” La Pira project, it was met with stiff resistance by both European governments and other Italian policymakers and finally discarded in 1963 (Becherucci and Tognarini 2014 and Palayret 1996).

The EUI in the world

Over the last couple of years, the EUI has started to embark upon various initiatives that question its self-understanding as a European research institution, and which broaden the scope of research being done here. This is evident both through academic endeavours, such as the ‘Decentering Eurocentrism’ research cluster, and through researcher-led initiatives like the ‘Decolonising Initiative’, Black History Month and the historical contextualisation of EUI villas. Simultaneously, access to the EUI is slowly opening-up to academics from non-EU countries, for instance through the EUI Widening Programme, which seeks to include researchers from Eastern Europe, the Young African Leaders Programme, the Policy Leader Fellowship and several exchange agreements with universities outside of Europe. Although the EUI Convention states that the Institute “shall take into account relations with cultures outside Europe”, these initiatives remain exceptions to the otherwise inherently European institutional setup of the university.

The story of Giorgio La Pira and the early history of the EUI shows that it is important to account for the contingency and openness of historical processes, especially when it comes to the history of European integration and the establishment of European and international institutions. The early visions of the EUI, like the one laid out by La Pira, demonstrate that the institute we have today could have looked quite different. They also provide an opportunity to reflect upon possibilities for what the EUI can look like in the future. In times of rising nationalism, anti-migration policies, and an increasingly ethnocentric understanding of what “being European” means, this history points to an alternative view of European institutions: one founded on equality and solidarity, open to people from the Global South.


*A selection of further readings and archival sources consulted for writing this piece is available on the website of the Decolonising Initiative.

Dario Willi, Siobhán Amelia Smith, Friedrich Ammermann, Amber Burbidge, Eoghan C Hussey, and Aurora Hamm are PhD researchers at the EUI Department of History. They are members of the Decolonising Initiative