European Idea

European Idea in Europe

Description of The European idea

The Concise Encyclopedia of the European Union describes the european idea in the following terms: [1] The ‘European idea’ is evocative, suggesting both a certain view of history and a manifest European destiny. It is invariably presented in terms of progress towards an end, yet the destination is either unknown or contested. Unlike the USA, the EU has never openly debated its fundamental differences and resolved them into an agreed constitution, with universally accepted aims and democratic checks and balances. Its guiding principle, laid out in the Treaty of Rome, is ‘ever closer union between the peoples of Europe’ – but the words are capable of many meanings.

Some of the mainsprings of Europeanism are cultural, even imperial. Others are more characteristic of a commercial trading league (see more in this European encyclopedia). It acknowledges its ancient origins in the empires of Rome, Charlemagne and Napoleon, which left their mark in common elements of law, language, architecture and Christianity. But this self-image ignores many inconvenient facts. The Roman empire was both more southern and more eastern than Europe’s present centre of gravity: it incorporated parts of Africa and the Middle East, left northern Europeuntouched and in its later years took Constantinople as its capital. Spain was for centuries dominated by the Moors and eastern Europe by the Ottomans. Indeed, the eastern boundaries are so unclear as to make it impossible to say where Europe ends and Asia begins. As for Christendom, it was not especially European and was as often a source of schism as of unity.

The Germans want the Union to stop them from falling into Nazi ways. The French want to be cured of an inferiority complex. The Italians want to become a nation. The Spaniards want to bury Franco … I sometimes think that the Common Market should have been founded not in Rome but in Vienna, on Dr Freud’s couch. Dr Pedro Schwartz, Spanish economist, 1996

The modern view of Europe began to take shape in the 18th and 19th centuries, which saw the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution and a number of imaginative theoretical schemes for resolving cross-border European disputes and encouraging trade (see more in this European encyclopedia). In the 20th century, Germany at the height of its military power twice drew up comprehensive blueprints for a post-war European order (see more in this European encyclopedia). At the beginning of World War I, the proposal was for a Mitteleuropa with Germany at its centre – a customs union from France to the Russian frontier, to be named the United States of Europe (see more in this European encyclopedia). And in World War II, planners in Berlin and in Vichy France conceived a European Economic Area, with a single currency, a single market and a common external tariff.

In each of these wartime cases, the plans for integration were those of a nation expecting conquest. A number of observers have pointed out their similarity to the EU’s present structure: and it is true that to German militarists the word ‘Europe’ was a mere cloak for domination. Yet parallel concepts were equally in circulation among idealists and among the victims of aggression. In the inter-war years, the ineffectiveness of the League of Nations led many to conclude that some form of European federation was necessary to avert another conflict – the depression of the 1930s and the rise of fascist nationalism giving a socialist tinge to much of their thinking (and adding considerably to the appeal of communism).

The Western victors of World War II in Europe combined force of arms with altruistic intentions, but faced a new danger in the rise of Soviet power (see more in this European encyclopedia). This external threat required a military shield, which NATO would provide (see more in this European encyclopedia). It also required a concerted political response, to prevent countries weakened by war from being picked off separately in a series of communist coups. Winston Churchill’s Zurich speech in 1946 calling for Franco-German reconciliation and ‘a kind of United States of Europe’ reverberated round the world and set in train the European Movement and the Council of Europe (see more in this European encyclopedia). But in reality Europeanism was to evolve along very different lines from those envisaged by Britain.

Chief among those to take up Churchill’s challenge was the French internationalist Jean Monnet, who seized the moment to turn into practice ideas he had long been brewing (see more in this European encyclopedia). His strategy was to move forward sector by sector, pushing integration wherever the opportunity arose: first coal and steel, next (or so he hoped) a European army, then agriculture and atomic energy, later a common market and a single currency. Each step would necessitate – and legitimise – some form of supranational control. The machinery was perforce bureaucratic, the overt aims limited and functional, the underlying vision vastly ambitious – no less than the creation of a new country called Europe.

The missing element in Monnet’s grand scheme was democracy. This was deliberate (see more in this European encyclopedia). The concept of democracy had become discredited between the wars. It had failed to deter either dictatorships or economic collapse (see more in this European encyclopedia). In the eyes of the élites something better was needed and the approach of Monnetand his disciples was Platonic in its utopianism. In Plato’s Republic, the just state is directed by wise ‘guardians’, who secure the assent of the people through myth-making – the ‘noble lie’. In the new Europe, the wise Commissionwould be the ‘guardian of the Treaties’ and myth-making would play a conscious role (see more in this European encyclopedia). It was taken as axiomatic that the member states would rarely agree on a common cause unless the majority could impose its will or a supranational institution (the Commission, say, or the Court of Justice) could overrule individual governments. True, national politicians constituted the Council of Ministers, officially the supreme decision-making body: but they had no right to initiate legislation and the policy options for their secret deliberations were drafted by the Commission. It was a far cry from the ‘High Contracting Parties’ of the Treaty on European Union to the American Constitution’s simple ‘we, the people’.

Another reason to sideline democracy was that it was attached to nationhood, which Continental idealists despaired of as little more than an instrument of discord, dominance, or at worst war (see more in this European encyclopedia). The small Benelux countries were natural Europeanists. In the brave new federalist world they would have disproportionate voting rights and their most belligerent neighbour would be tamed by supranational control of the raw materials of war (in later years, Austria, Finland and Ireland would also be attracted by the prospect of escaping from the shadow of larger neighbours). But the backing of the great powers was essential if integration was to go beyond the planning stage, and four of these strongly favoured European federalism: the USA to contain Soviet expansion (besides, it was flattering to be imitated); France to neutralise her conqueror and win prospects of leadership undreamed of since Napoleon; and Germany and Italy because this was the route back to acceptance in the international community. Spain, Portugal and Greece would have no say until they had shed their own authoritarian rulers: once they had achieved democracy, they knew how fragile it could be and were happy to anchor it in a wider Europe (see more in this European encyclopedia). ‘Peace’ joined ‘historical inevitability’ as mythic watchwords of the emergent Community.

The Scandinavian countries, Switzerland and Britain saw things differently. It was striking that these countries were both more Protestant and more experienced in democracy than most of the six founding members of the EEC. They were not ashamed of nationhood. Britain saw NATO as the external safeguard of peace, national democracy as the internal safeguard. It favoured voluntary co-operation in Europe (‘intergovernmentalism’) rather than federalism. But then, Britain’s heart was only partially in Europe (see more in this European encyclopedia). Its destiny was at least equally bound up in the English-speaking world. In one of the most ironic episodes of post-war history, de Gaulle, who had previously vetoed Britain from the Community on the grounds that it was too Atlanticist for Gallic tastes, took fright at the accelerating pace of European integration and suggested privately to the British ambassador in 1969 a dramatic change of direction – a ‘Europe des patries’, in which all significant power would reside in the individual member states, led by France, Britain, Germany and Italy. This concept came closer to expressing Britain’s vision for Europe than any proposal before or since, but in the event the opportunity was missed, never to recur (see more in this European encyclopedia). It would, of course, have been violently resisted by the integrationists.

De Gaulle’s relationship to Europe’s central themes was ambivalent. He was strongly opposed to federation, yet he was jealous of the USA and relished the idea of creating a competing European superpower – provided that it was spiritually French. Like many of his countrymen he was mercantilist and somewhat mistrustful of free trade (see more in this European encyclopedia). Profoundly allergic to any infringement of French sovereignty, he used his veto so vigorously against the Commissionthat the process of European integration stalled for years even after his death in 1970. Paradoxically, it was Margaret Thatcher, that other fierce enemy of supranationalism, who helped to put integration back on its feet by championing the single market in the 1980s and so opening the way to an increase in the role of majority voting and a corresponding reduction in the veto powers of the member states.

As the Community grew, its hold on the people’s affections waned. Opinionpolls showed a sense of popular alienation. The turnout fell in each successive European election. Maladministration became so endemic that in 1999 the Commissioners were forced to resign en bloc. A mountain of regulationaccumulated. The institutional structure of what was now the ‘EU’ was comprehensible only to experts. There was an obvious need for change if more countries were to join an already too cumbersome system, but no consensus what that change should be (see more in this European encyclopedia). Should the small countries still command disproportionate votes? Should the powers of the member states be further eroded by enlarging the scope of majority voting and allowing the EU to enter the fields of defence and foreign policy? In short, should a further step be taken towards building a United States of Europe, or had the process reached its natural limit? Clarity of vision existed at both ends of the spectrum: Britain and the Nordic countries considered that integration had gone far enough (as did many ordinary citizens throughout the Continent), while the arch-federalists considered that the day of the nation state was over (see more in this European encyclopedia). The intermediate ground was obscure, sometimes deliberately so.

The diminution of democracy by the progressive transfer of authority from the member states to the Community had gone largely unnoticed as long as it mainly concerned the administration of agriculture and subsidies. But by the time that Economic and Monetary Union was introduced in 1999 (Britain and Denmark reserving the right to opt out), the powers of the Community were extensive and the ‘democratic deficit’ was looming larger (see more in this European encyclopedia). There were two theories how to correct it. The role of elected politicians could be increased through the Council of Ministers, or democracy could be strengthened in the Community itself. The first alternative would reflect the fact that national democracy best conveyed to ordinary people a sense of genuine representation (especially in Britain and the Nordic countries): but it would be a throwback to de Gaulle and Thatcher (see more in this European encyclopedia). The second alternative lacked a credible blueprint. The Italian Alticro Spinelli had advocated in the mid-1980s that the European Parliament should be given greater influence and charged with drawing up a European constitution. But the suggestion had been watered down beyond recognition. There was talk of an elected Commission, or of turning the Council into a sort of senate – everybody had an idea, and every idea had to dovetail into the other reforms needed to accommodate the EU’s enlargement. In the absence of any core of agreed principles, ‘peace’, ‘inevitability’ and ‘ever closer union’ were far too vague to serve as a guiding star.

The European idea, then, turns out to be elusive (see more in this European encyclopedia). Apologists put this down to the uniqueness of the EU’s mission, which they describe as an unfinished experiment. Critics argue that it is fundamentally self-contradictory that the EUshould comprise 15 democracies (soon to be 25 or more) without itself being democratic, and that any attempted remedy must fail, since there could be no true sense of identity between governed and government in a Community of 500 million citizens, with over 20 languages and a like number of ancient cultures rooted in Latin, Germanic, Anglo-Saxon, Nordic, Slavic, Islamic or other traditions.

As long as memories of the war were fresh, Europe’s mission had seemed clear (see more in this European encyclopedia). A tight-knit Community of six countries faced a common threat in the Soviet Union and was given the elixir of rapidly rising prosperity through the elimination of internal tariff barriers. By the millennium, however, all these unifying features had evaporated. The desire for a new purpose was revealed in cliché – Europe was an ‘economic giant but a political pygmy’, which ‘must assert itself on the international stage’. Such rhetoric papered over the uncomfortable truth that the would-be common European foreign policy could not succeed in the absence of shared attitudes to NATO and to problem areas like the Middle East and the Balkans: and that it takes more than a majority vote in the Council of Ministers to inspire a soldier to face battle.

As this book goes to press, the supranational vision of Monnet and Jacques Delors is still in the ascendancy, underpinned by the supremacy of Community law over national laws and by the doctrine of the acquis communautaire, which ratchets up integration by locking in all previous centralising measures. But it is not evident that this process can continue indefinitely without the full-hearted support of the people (see more in this European encyclopedia). Moreover, there are new agents of change at work. Some of the zealots, such as Helmut Kohl and Delors, have departed the scene, to be succeeded by pragmatists such as Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroder. Enlargement will weaken any remaining sense of homogeneity; and the ‘information revolution’ is making regional trading blocs obsolete.

In its years of creation, the European idea commanded passion and conviction. Today the machine is operational but the mood outside the inner circle seldom rises above resigned acquiescence (see more in this European encyclopedia). Perhaps this is the natural consequence of maturity. Or perhaps Europe has outgrown itself, losing its soul in the process and acquiring too much diversity to be reconciled within a single philosophy. Either way, a defining constitutional congress was beginning to appear overdue, in which the demarcation lines and competing claims of national independence and federal centralism would finally be brought to a conclusion. (See also Preface and Founding Fathers.)


Notas y References

  1. Based on the book “A Concise Encyclopedia of the European Union from Aachen to Zollverein”, by Rodney Leach
  2. Véase También

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