Policy Papers


Alas, poor Europe

Eirini Karamouzi , Luc-André Brunet |

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Executive Summary

  • At the point of its 60th anniversary, the European Union (EU) faces an ‘existential crisis’. Multiple challenges include the prospect of Brexit, financial difficulties, migration patterns and the rise of populism. The European Commission White Paper on the Future of Europe sets out five potential future scenarios, including a ‘federal leap’ and multi-track integration. Largely, however, the tone is one of nostalgia and a desire to preserve the status quo.
  • The phrase ‘ever closer union’, contained in the Treaty of Rome, has influenced perceptions of the history of European integration. According to the ‘neo-functionalist’ model there is a ‘spill-over effect’, with economic incorporation leading on to political and monetary union. In such narratives, enhanced integration is both good and inevitable. Yet historians including Alan Milward have for some time challenged such interpretations.
  • Some observers regard Jean Monnet, the early pioneer of integration at the time of the European Coal and Steel Community, as consciously stimulating the long-term process of continental incorporation. But others have emphasised the pursuit of intergovernmental national interests in this initiative.
  • Democracy was not a key component of the European project in its early years. The European Assembly was added later, and the European Parliament, as the Assembly became, was only directly elected from 1979. However, beginning in the 1970s, the Community began to present itself as a promoter of democracy, particularly with the Southern European enlargement of the early 1980s.
  • In the past, the driving force of European integration has been the close Franco-German bilateral relationship. The relative decline of France and the emergence of Germany as a ‘normal state’ have undermined the potential for the two countries to collaborate as closely. Another crucial advocate of the European project from the outside has been the United States. The election of Donald Trump as President has led to a shift to a hostile attitude in Washington.
  • When considering options for the future, European policy-makers should be wary of the idea of a ‘federal leap’, based in misinterpretations of a one-size-fits-all or teleological nature. Rather they should focus on the specific conditions that might be conducive to presenting European integration to the European population, and to diverse national electorates, in a manner that can command their support.

Celebrating a diamond anniversary and keeping any union together for 60 years is an impressive feat – managing it when that union has reached a size of 28 members is remarkable. On 25 March 2017, the leaders of the countries of the EU will meet to renew their marriage vows and attempt to infuse new life into the troubled bloc. Spoiling the EU’s 60th birthday bash in Rome, however, is the undeniable fact that ‘Europe’ finds itself in the throes of the worst ‘existential crisis’ of its history, juggling the concurrent crises of Brexit, ongoing financial trauma, migration flows and burgeoning populism whilst eking out barely any concrete results. In its role as the ‘guardian of the treaties’, the European Commission published a White Paper on the Future of Europe, offering diagnostic and prognostic contributions to the state of play of the European project. Setting out five possible scenarios for the future, one proposed remedy involved the option of a multi-speed Europe in which some countries would forge ahead with deeper cooperation in specific areas, even if others do not want to follow suit; an alternative proposal was a ‘federal leap’ towards more Europe. For the most part, however, the tone of the proposed scenarios reflected a mix of nostalgic politics and an obsession with clinging to the status quo. Selling the present flatters to deceive, however, since the Union seems to be slowly unravelling. Selling the past is an age-old political strategy but the problem with the history of European integration is our complicated and hybrid understanding of it, beset with local vernaculars and distinct national versions, a collection of European stories. As European leaders meet to discuss these remedies for the ailing Union, a more critical understanding of the Union’s history, its successes, and its failures should inform their decisions for the future direction of the EU.

A history of ever closer union?

Understandings of the history of European integration have been shaped by an evocative phrase included in the Treaty of Rome: that the goal of the process was ‘ever closer union’. Political scientists devised the ‘neo-functionalist’ model to explain the ‘spill-over effect’ of the process: the integration of the coal and steel industries of the founding members in the early 1950s ‘spilled over’ to closer economic integration, leading inevitably to the creation of the common market with the Treaty of Rome.  This economic integration, following this theory, would similarly ‘spill over’ into other areas, resulting in political union (with the creation of the European Union in 1992) and monetary integration (with the creation of the single currency). ‘Ever closer union’ is thus seen as both inevitable and desirable. The well-worn cliché of European officials in Brussels likening the European project to a bicycle that must perpetually move forward – or topple – reflects this understanding of the integration process. Moreover, this teleological reading of the history of European integration promotes uncritical calls for ‘federal leaps’ towards more Europe to deal with current challenges.

This simplistic narrative has been challenged by academics for decades, with the late Alan Milward being perhaps its most notable critic. Since the financial crisis, however, it has become increasingly clear that ‘ever closer union’ is not necessarily a desirable inevitability.  The unpopularity of the austerity measures closely associated with the EU, the rise of Eurosceptic parties across the EU, and the ‘leave’ vote in the UK referendum of June 2016 suggest a fraying union rather than an ever closer one. The once enduring myth of the ‘founding fathers’ is also crumbling. In the ‘postwall period’, as dubbed by Timothy Garton Ash, the myth of the ‘founding fathers’ myth greatly emphasized the idealistic aspect of the integration process. It was often embedded in an interconnected and yet wider theme of European integration as ‘reconciliation’ and ‘peace process’. European integration was described as a ‘communal house’ based on principles of ‘solidarity’ and ‘cooperation’ among former enemies. While this narrative appealed to populations that had suffered through the horrors of the Second World War, and later to those who welcomed the reunification of a Europe divided by the Cold War, it is hardly a relatable narrative in this age of fracture.  Indeed, the myth of the ‘founding fathers’ essentially depicts a small clique of elites devising plans for the continent behind closed doors and without consulting the electorate – precisely the caricature that populist Eurosceptic parties paint of the EU.

In practice, the first European institution, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), was the result of a French initiative aimed at pooling the coal and steel industries of France and Germany, and open to other European countries. While the idea for the ECSC came from Jean Monnet, the energetic head of economic planning in France, the reasons behind the initiative have been debated among historians for decades. Proponents of the neo-functionalist model have argued that the far-sighted Monnet (first and foremost among the ‘founding fathers’) understood that sectoral integration would ‘spill over’ into broader economic and political integration, culminating in a genuine European federation. More critical studies have explained how the plan met French national interests; by integrating the French and German economies, the economic recovery of West Germany presented less of a threat to France, which had been invaded by German troops on three occasions since 1870. The choice of whether to join the ECSC was similarly made by each national government based on their perceived interests; it was on these grounds that the British government opted to decline to become a founding member of the first European institutions.

The Treaty of Rome, signed five years after the ECSC became operational, emanated from a series of proposals, far from predetermined, that sought to address particular national interests and priorities. On economic integration, the Dutch, whose economy was heavily dependent on exports (especially to the booming Western German market) were pushing to make permanent the liberalisation which had already been underway through the Marshall Plan-inspired Organisation for European Economic Cooperation and thereby avoid a repeat of the protectionist interwar years. On the other side, the French were more interested in the integration of transport and atomic energy. The success of the Treaty of Rome lay in a formula devised by the Belgian negotiator Paul-Henri Spaak to establish a link between the proposed Customs Union and EURATOM (the European Atomic Energy Community). The Suez crisis and the subsequent French humiliation offered a final push and, as the West Germany Chancellor Konrad Adenauer suggested to the French, ‘Europe will be your revenge’. Far from being an inevitable ‘spill over’ preordained by the creation of the ECSC earlier that decade, the Treaty of Rome was instead a successful example of accommodating distinct national interests in the form of a supranational project. Indeed, to the political leaders of the six founding member states, European integration promised three highly desired outcomes: peace, prosperity, and power.

Economic integration, and particularly the creation through the Treaty of Rome of the Common Market, contributed immeasurably to the development of close relations among countries in Western Europe who had fought bitterly in two devastating wars in the first half of the century. For the former Axis powers, (West) Germany and Italy, membership of the European Community restored their standing as respectable members of the international community. For France and the Benelux countries, integration allowed them to benefit from and, in a limited sense, control the economic resurgence of Germany. While not all national leaders were committed to the ultimate goal of a European federation, steps in that direction were endorsed by leaders who had suffered during the Second World War and who understood the tragic consequences of competing nationalisms, and this reflected the desire of their electorates to avoid yet another European war.

While the economic recoveries of the member states had been underway well before 1957, the elimination of trade barriers among these increasingly wealthy and productive countries fostered a sustained period of economic growth unique in the history of contemporary Europe. As a means of shoring up an integrated Western Europe as a political power in its own right, on the other hand, the Treaty of Rome had only limited success.  Peace and prosperity allowed the European Community and then the European Union to emerge as an important voice on issues related to trade and the economy. Yet initial hopes that a united Europe could emerge as a ‘third power’ to counter the weight of the United States and the Soviet Union never came to fruition. Many French leaders expected the additional five members to simply amplify France’s voice, but divisions among the Six over international issues undermined this strategy. Attempts at forging a common foreign policy for the European Community and, later, the European Union have been disappointing at best. More recent innovations such as the creation of a High Representative for Foreign Affairs and the development of the EU’s own diplomatic corps, key innovations of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, have done little to alter this.

One goal that was strikingly absent from the Treaty of Rome and other early initiatives aimed at European integration was democracy. As historian Antonin Cohen has shown, the first plans that Jean Monnet drew up for the ECSC failed to include any mention of an assembly – the European Assembly would be added later and its successor, the European Parliament, only had directly elected MEPs from 1979. This omission was not as odd as it may seem; Monnet originally modelled the ECSC on his French planning office, which was accountable directly to the Prime Minister and thereby bypassed both the Cabinet and the French parliament. Popular support (if not democratic legitimacy) for European institutions came not from the direct election of relatively powerless deputies, but rather by the EC’s success in delivering economic prosperity and improving the situation of national citizens. While not ordained through the ballot box, a ‘permissive consensus’ allowed national governments to proceed with European integration on the grounds that it provided rising living standards and ensured the absence of war.

In the 1970s, when stagflation dominated the industrialised West, the European Community redefined itself as an exporter of democracy. Democracy as the new binding principle of European integration was a gradual, almost accidental discovery driven by the political transitions in Greece, Spain and Portugal. With the end of the Cold War, the European Union reinterpreted its mission once again to spread democracy eastwards, now re-embracing the ‘kidnapped Occident’ at the heart of the continent. The example of democracy – absent from the earliest stages of integration yet later seized upon as a core mission of the EU – demonstrates the EU’s capacity to redefine itself. As the spreading of democracy through enlargement has effectively come to an end, the European Union must again redefine its mission to develop a renewed sense of purpose and to regain popular support among its citizens.

Europe in the world

The drafting of the Treaty of Rome and the subsequent development of the EC took place in a very particular geopolitical context, namely the Cold War. Having seen Western Europe tear itself apart twice in the first half of the twentieth century, the United States actively encouraged some form of integration among the countries of Western Europe. Indeed, every American president from Truman to Obama also encouraged the United Kingdom to play a central role in European integration to further strengthen the community. With American military protection in the form of NATO (from 1949) and economic support through the Marshall Plan (from 1947), Europe benefitted from a unique environment conducive to integration.

While one superpower encouraged European cooperation through political, military, and financial support, the other spurred European cooperation through fear. By 1950, Communist regimes had been set up in European capitals all the way to East Berlin and Prague, and the outbreak of the Korean War that June – just one month after France had proposed the creation of the ECSC – prompted some leaders to fear that the next Communist offensive would be launched against Western Europe. The presence of a seemingly antagonistic power on its doorstep gave further impetus to Western Europe to unite.

Today’s international climate, however, is fundamentally different. First and foremost, there is the shocking weakness of the Franco-German relationship, once the driving force behind European integration. Since 1950, the essence of this bilateral condominium has been based on the unspoken promise that the Germans pretend not to be powerful and the French pretend not to notice that they are. Germany currently has no qualms in exercising its power and defending its national interests as a ‘normal’ state whilst France ails; the discourse that has emerged from the current French election campaign reflects a widespread unhappiness with the status quo and a sense that France’s international standing has been eroding. This growing disparity between the relative fortunes of Germany and France has prevented the two capitals from working together to push integration forward, as previously occurred under the administrations of Mitterrand and Kohl or Giscard d’Estaing and Schmidt.

With the election of President Trump, meanwhile, the US is led by an administration seemingly hostile to the European Union: Mr Trump enthusiastically endorsed Brexit, has attacked the euro, and has encouraged other member states to leave the Union. This is a far cry from the protective and encouraging United States that facilitated European integration during the Cold War. This trend was evident long before anyone considered the prospect of Donald Trump becoming US president; President Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ reflected a relative ambivalence to Europe. Now, however, following Trump’s election, the situation has changed decidedly for the worse. Yet this also presents an opportunity for the EU to step out from America’s shadow and emerge as a distinct foreign policy actor.  What shape this takes, however, will only be clear after the national elections in 2017, particularly in France and Germany this year.

Europe faces a further challenge in the form of a dynamic and increasingly competitive Asia, and within the Asian region an equally dynamic and competitive (not to mention authoritarian and nationalistic) China projecting a new and different kind of Davos man. Finally, Europe confronts a challenge much closer to home: Russia under Vladimir Putin has emerged as a very real threat to the European Union, particularly to countries such as the Baltic states which contain a sizeable Russian-speaking population.  Faced with this threat, Europe has an opportunity to take a bold, coordinated stance that could help reinforce European solidarity, as at the time of the Treaty of Rome. The fact that there is a broad consensus among national governments across the EU – and even in Britain as it heads for the exit – that a tough and united approach is needed to deal with Russia suggests that this may be an important factor in the future direction of the EU.

It would be difficult enough if Europe were only facing one of these international ‘threats’. The fact that it is facing all four at the same time – and at a moment in time when Europe faces unprecedented internal dissent in a variety of populisms and an ongoing mid-life crisis about its own identity and mission – is indeed daunting.

Another 60 years?

In a speech in 1984, Henry Kissinger proclaimed that ‘the Soviet Union must decide whether it is a country or a cause’. Unfortunately, nobody warned Gorbachev that the moment the USSR ceased to be a cause, it would also rapidly cease to be a country. Similarly, pundits today push the European Union to make up its mind whether it should stick to acting solely as a single market, a service provider, in other words a means to an end, or whether it should instead embrace its role as a political project, a promise for the future. However, this binary logic of choosing between utilitarian and idealistic dimensions is utterly artificial and as such ineffectual. As former President of the European Commission Roy Jenkins once admitted, the EU ‘is a slow moving animal, not an ill-conceived one’. Indeed, the process of European integration is a slow affair that often takes paths that nobody could have foreseen. Momentum emanates in an unpredictable series of decisions by the national leaders whilst they are grappling with an interlinkage of domestic and external affairs and are forced to coordinate. This political interplay of contingency at times offers a more plausible explanation than either the federalist teleology or the Eurosceptic line of Brussels-imposed solutions.

Moreover, pulling the emergency brake sometimes works and has indeed worked in the past. In one of his prophetic essays, Tony Judt stated that ‘if we look to the European Union as a catchall solution, chanting ‘Europe’ like a mantra, and waving the banner of Europe in the face of recalcitrant ‘nationalist’ heretics, we may wake up one day to find out that far from solving the problems of our continent, the myth of Europe has become an impediment in recognising them’. Political scientists have been showcasing with their work that anxieties over European integration are less about trade and economic returns and more about pooling of national sovereignty and cultural fears of loss of community identity. While we commemorate the 60th anniversary, we need to remember that the European Union was constructed as an anti-hegemonic not as anti-national project. Recalling Alan Milward’s argument, we should see that integration in post-war Europe was ‘a choice made by democratically-elected governments […to further] the national economic interest’. Restoring the primacy of the nation state and its importance in providing security of economic, cultural or social varieties undermines neither globalisation nor the European project, and should not be read as a sign of nationalistic fervour. The history of European integration is a reminder that national governments, accountable to their citizens and acting in their interests, are the ones who have been able to drive the process forward, or stall or roll it back. At each stage, there is always a choice to be made by individual national governments.

The problem, however, is not only the message but the messenger. Breaking with the past, the EU cannot rest solely on its leaders and lawmakers. The unique political glue that has kept the Union together is in desperate need of the adhesive of public consent. We have moved from permissive consensus to constraining dissensus. To have a fighting chance, the political narrative cannot just resort to the memory of the Second World War and Cold War imperatives, but should encapsulate the active involvement of Europe’s people. The post-wall years struck an unnecessary triumphalist tone of a Europe that was not only doing well economically but believed that with its normative power it would supercede the nation state and ‘run the 21st century’. Such a myopic obsession of the elites with ‘ever closer union’ created what sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in Strangers in Their Own Land (2016) called ‘empathy walls between globe-trotting liberals and locally rooted provincials’  or what David Goodhart has called a divide between the Somewheres and the Anywheres.

As European leaders gather in Rome to celebrate 60 years of ‘ever closer union’, they would do well to avoid the remedy of a ‘federal leap’, based on misunderstandings of the history of European integration. European elites should reject a teleological or one-size-fits-all narrative of events but understand the dominant sensibilities of the public and single out the cultural, political and emotional ‘conditions of possibility’ that will try to make the ‘EU concept’ believable and relatable to Europe’s peoples. In Hannah Arendt’s words, understanding is a complicated process. Coming to terms with the past of European integration urges historians, elites and people to find a tale that will allow them ‘to try to be at home in the world’.

Further Reading


  • Tony Judt, (2011) A Grand Illusion? An Essay on Europe, New York: New York Press
  • Kiran Klaus Patel (2013), ‘Provincialising European union: Co-operation and Integration in Europe in a Historical Perspective’, Contemporary European History 22(4), 649-673
  • Mark Gilbert (2008), Narrating the Process: Questioning the Progressive Story of European Integration’, Journal of Common Market Studies 46(3), 641-662
  • Justine Lacroix and Kalypso Nicolaïdis (eds.) (2010), European Stories. Intellectual Debates on Europe in National Contexts, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Timothy Garton Ash, (2012) The Crisis of Europe. How the Union Came Together and Why Its Falling Apart’, Foreign Affairs 91(5)
  • Arlie Russel Hochschld (2016), Strangers in Their Own Land. Anger and Mourning on the American Right, New York: The New Press
  • Alan Milward (1993), The European Rescue of the Nation State, London: Routledge.

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