Cyclists created the European Union, sort of

British cycle tourists in Norway, c. 1887.
British cycle tourists in Norway, c. 1887.

Who was the first to lobby for – and get – a European agreement for the cross-border free movement of people? Winston Churchill in 1946? The European Coal and Steel Community of 1951? The European Economic Community of 1957? Nope, a bunch of middle-class cyclists in 1897.

Just as cyclists have been written out of motoring’s history (when, in fact, it was cyclists who created and popularised automobiling) so the efforts of fin de siècle cyclists to create a more equitable Europe have also been largely ignored.

While Britain and Germany were steadily preparing to go to war at the end of the 19th Century cycling organisations across Europe were forging friendships, agreeing international treaties and creating a system of international governance.

Well-organised national cycling clubs across Europe – aided and abetted by the League of American Wheelmen – formed bonds to ease the travelling woes of touring cyclists. These clubs included Britain’s Cyclists’ Touring Club, founded in 1878, as well as the Union Vélocipédique de France (1881), the Dansk Cyklisk Forbund (1881), Royale Ligue Vélocipédique de Belge (1882), and the two German clubs, the Dutch Algemene Nederlandse Wielrijders Bond (1883), and the Deutsche Radfahrer Bund (1884). There were also influential national clubs in Italy, Switzerland, Austria, and Russia.

These clubs issued border permits and permits de circulation for bicycle touring but hated such bureaucratic restrictions on travel. Cycling clubs from Britain, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy and Russia met in Amsterdam in July 1897 at the invitation of the ANWB, the Dutch cycling organisation. (Today the ANWB is the main motoring and road rescue organisation in the Netherlands but was established in 1883 as a cycling club, the Algemene Nederlandse Wielrijders-bond, or the General Dutch Cyclist Union.) Later the same year the national cycling clubs met in Brussels, and agreed to start an international tourism organisation. This would go on to lobby for the removal of Europe’s borders.

AITThe Ligue Internationale des Associations Touristes, or LIAT, was formally created at the Casino Bourgeois in Luxembourg City in August 1898. This was very much a cycling organisation to begin with but was later swamped by motoring interests. LIAT changed its name to the Alliance Internationale de Tourisme (AIT) in 1919, and is now an international federation of motoring organisations created to “represent the interests of national automobile associations and touring clubs.”

The AIT’s website makes no mention of its cycling beginnings.

One of the key campaign goals of the early Ligue Internationale des Associations Touristes was the removal of border tariffs on bicycles. Cycle tourists had to pay customs duties to “import” their machines into each European country they travelled through. This was both expensive and bothersome.

The ANWB pushed for LIAT to embrace two key principles, the “most favoured nation”, an economic trade agreement, and the “principle of reciprocity”, the concept that any favours granted by one state should be also granted to others, the bedrock of international treaties.

In pushing for such pan-European principles the ANWB and the other national cycling organisations were years ahead of nation states. Naturally, there were points of difference between the cycling organisations. The Austrian club used its veto to prevent the Czech cycling organisation from joining LIAT (the Austro-Hungarian Empire was fractured, the “sick man of Europe”), and the Union Vélocipédique de France didn’t want to end the tariff system because, as France was Europe’s most popular destination for cycle tourists, the UVF made a pretty penny from memberships sold to foreign cycle tourists.

Despite these differences, at a LIAT meeting in London in 1899, twelve national clubs (apart from the French one) signed a “principle of reciprocity” agreement.

This agreement isn’t an exact precursor to the European Union but cosmopolitan cyclists were certainly discussing the free international exchange of goods, people, and ideas long before the concepts solidified during the Cold War. At the height of the First World War, the president of the Italian Touring Club remembered the “fruitful international collaboration” between pre-war cycle and motor tourists, and wrote that “touring is a powerful expression of national unity and of solid social concord.”

And it was cyclists who were among the earliest to push for change in Europe because, according to German writer Eduard Bertz in his Philosophy of Bicycles of 1900, cyclists were members of a “great, world-encompassing party of reform.” Cyclists, in short, were agitators. They pushed to change the world – women’s emancipation was partly pedal-powered, for instance – but such agitation is now largely forgotten.

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