The Historical Relevance of Europe’s Integration

The purpose of this short introduction is to put the relevance of the process of European integration into a longer-term, historical perspective. In order to do that in a relevant way, it is very important to realize that the European continent has a long history of competition, conflict and violence. Not only in the Dark Middle Ages, but also in what historians call the Modern Era, when states began to dominate the European realm. From the days of the Thirty Years War in the early Seventeenth Century until the Second World War in the Twentieth Century, Europe has been the theatre of war and bloodshed. Longer periods, of let’s say more than three or four decades, of peace and stability have been relatively rare. The seventy-five years of peace in Western Europe since the Second World War, are, therefore a remarkable phenomenon, or, if you like a remarkable achievement. Looking at the on-going violence in other parts of the world, but also looking at Europe’s own past, we should, and I would like to underline that conclusion, not take the present-day peaceful and co-operative relations, now in Europe as a whole, for granted. Things can get worse again, as the history of Europe’s international relations shows us.

There have been alliances and other inter-state arrangements, before. But alliances and interstate institutions, as well as states themselves, can fall apart, and they have been falling apart, even in the more recent past. You, as citizens of Slovakia, know that all too well. Slovakia has been – as part of Czecho-Slovakia-, member-state of several interstate institutions that do not exist anymore, such as the Warsaw Pact. My own country, the Netherlands, has similar experiences. We were, in the decades between the First and Second World War member of the League of Nations, but that League does not exist anymore either. To give a somewhat older example: in the nineteenth century, Europe experienced a longer period of stability, led by the so-called European Concert. But ultimately, the European Concert could not prevent renewed inter-European warfare. So far, as history shows us, periods of stability and peace, have always ended in periods of renewed conflict and violence. So I repeat, we should not take the present-day peaceful and co-operative European interstate relations within the EU framework for granted.

However, there are also reasons for a certain optimism. The present-day European Union is different from earlier forms of inter-state cooperation. It is a historically unique experiment, because it is much more than an alliance, or a loose inter-state arrangement like the nine-teenth century European Concert. It has resulted in common institutions, in common decision-making procedures, even in the rule of common European law. Jaap de Zwaan and others will focus more on the institutional aspects of the process of European integration and the European Union. I would like to make a few remarks about the historical circumstances under which European integration started. Nowadays, we tend to look at the European Union, or at ‘Brussels’, with sometimes wary or, if you like, ‘realistic’ eyes. European integration seems to have become a matter of strong disagreements, of grim business-like negotiations, of calculated interests. We often seem to forget the idealist basis of Europe’s integration.

The process of European integration that ultimately led to the European Union as we know it now, originated in the late 1940s, with the evelopments that led to the establishment of the European Community for Coal and Steel in 1952. Looking back at these early days, it is important to note that the process of European integration was, in the first place the result of political idealism. That is to say the ideal to create common, European, inter-state institutions that would bring an end to the curse of war and violence. And to accomplish Europe’s, or rather Western Europe’s, postwar economic reconstruction in a co-operative and co-ordinated way, without relapsing into economic autarky and political and military rivalry, like in the pre Second World War years.

It is important to realize that the process of European integration, started, in the years immediately after the end of the Second World War, a war that cost tens of millions of Europeans their lives, and brought massive human suffering and social and economic misery to all parts of the continent. Of course, negotiations over the European Community for Coal and Steel in the early 1950s, and later on negotiations over the European Economic Community, also involved very concrete economic and political interests. But the ideal to prevent the return of autarky, conflict and even violence, was a crucial precondition for the success of such negotiations. Most diplomats that were involved in these negotiations realized they were contributing to the creation of a new European state order.

There was another broad political goal, or ideal, involved in the origins of the process of European integration. The late 1940s, the moment the process of European integration started, also saw the beginning of the Cold War. The process of European integration, of Wrs European integration tob e precise, was – at least in part – the result of the division of the continent in two halves. It was also based upon the West European wishes to build a strong, prosperous and united Western Europe, against the threat of the Soviet Union. The division of Europe in two opposing blocs of states, was, of course also the simple reason that the Middle and Eastern European states did not participate in the process of European integration. The Soviet Union did not allow that to happen. Therefore, European integration was, until the end of the Cold War, in fact a West European, and later on also, South European affair.

Nonetheless, Western Europe’s economic and political integration was certainly not a foregone conclusion. The esteblishment of the European Community for Coal and Steel was the start of a long and sometimes difficult process that started with only six nations, the Six Founding Fathers, my home country the Netherlands, one of them. Moreover, not all integration initiatives succeeded. Plans to establish a European Defence Community, for instance, failed. And it was only in the late 1960s, after a period of stagnation and disagreement, that more European nations than the original Six – the United Kingdom one of them – decided to join the European Community. Nowadays, almost all European states – in all parts of the continent – have joined the European Union. But that would only happen some fifty years after the original establishment of the European Economic Community.

It was after the end of the Cold War, and the collapse of the Soviet empire, that the Middle and Eastern European states could join the European Union. The enlargement of 2004 was a crucial moment in Europe’s history and transformed the European Union in several ways. Again, idealism and optimism played an important role in the process that turned the Europen Union into a truely continent-wide institution, idealism both in the original West European member states and in the new Middle and  East European participants. There were, of course, lengthy negotiations over all kinds of practical economic, political and legal issues. But I think that the ideal to unite all the nations of Europe, after the end of the Cold War and the end of Soviet rule, into a peaceful, free, democratic and prosperous European Union was, the driving force behind the enlargement that happened in 2004.

My argument is again: let’s not forget the original idealism that led to the European Union as it exists today. First, the post Second World War idealism of the late 1940s and early 1950s, the idealism to create a peaceful new Europe, without making the mistakes that had been made after the end of the first World War. And second, the idealism of the immediate post-Cold War years that led to the enlargement of the Union in 2004. It is, perhaps, only in the wake of terrible and dramatic events and experiences, that we actively and succesfully try to create new international forms of peaceful and co-operation and new international institutions. Later on, we tend to forget the dramatic circumstances that made us prepared to engage in such endeavours. Later on, we also start to take the accomplishments we realized for granted, or start to overlook their original meaning and purpose.

And there will, of course, always be certain disappointments after the first phases of oprimist idealism. The proces of European integration, as it developed in the 1950s and 1960s, would disappoint some European idealists. And in the years after 2004, joining the European Union would not fullfil everybody’s expectations in the new Middle and East European member states, either.

But it is, in my opinion, a historically unique situation that almost all European states are part of a continent-wide, common Europan institution. A common institution, with its common rules – common rules that stimulate and even oblige the member states to solve their disagreements and conflicts of interest in a peaceful way. And that is, given Europe’s conflictuous and violent history, in many ways an achievement .

I do not want to argue that the European Union is perfect, and that crititizing or discussing the present-day developments within the Union is a kind of dangerous sacrlilege. There are problems, perhaps even major problems. And we should discuss scuh problems. Again, as a historian I look at the past, to try to understand what is perhaps going wrong today.

I am, for instance of the opinion, the European Union has become too much oriented on liberalization and deregulation, combined with the monetary discipline the Euro-system demands. It means that the European Union in the past two or three decades has been aiming at a reduction of state intervention, at privatisation of state functions, strict national budgetary discipline, prioritizing containing inflation over reducing umemployment. This neoliberal orientation is one of the reasons why many European citizens feel threatened by ‘Europe’, by ‘Brussels’, or by the EU, and seek the protection of the nation-state, or rather the illusion of state-protection.

The ‘neo-liberal’ orientation of European Union of the past decades has undermined the ‘political idealism that has always moved the process of European integration forward. I think, the European Union, should focus more on the great challenges that the European nations are facing, such as growing inequality, climate change, migration, growing competition in the world economy, increasing military tensions. The ambition to address such problems could strengthen the reputation and the legitimacy of the European Union, especially among the younger generations (that are – good to notice – in most member states more pro-Europan than the older generations). It is nonetheless, in my opinion, an important task to renew the social and political support for Europe and the European Union. In several EU states, both in the older West European member states and in the new Middle and East European members, resentment against Europe is growing.

I realize, however, that is sometimes too easy to blame the European Union, or to blame ‘Brussels’ for everything that goes wrong in Europe. Such arguments are not correct. Let’s not forget that all major EU decisions have been accepted by the member states, by all member states. If we criticize the European Union, or ‘Brussels’, we in fact also, or perhaps in the first place, criticize the member states. The European Union is not an empire, as the Soviet empire, led by a powerful centre. It is not an autocratic system, ruled by ‘Brussels’. The European Union could be better described as a complicated and hybrid system, that has in many cases remarkable difficulties in creating consensus and in making effective decisions. The crises that have faced the Union in the past years, such as the so-called ‘migration crisis’, have shown its weaknesses.

A last remark about the position of smaller member states, such as the Netherlands and Slovakia. There are, of course power differences within the European Union.  Some member states are more powerful than others. But the smaller member states can play an significant role. I think the diplomatic history of my own country, the Netherlands, illustrates that. Moreover, smaller member states can join forces, like both the Netherlands and Slovakia, try to do, within the Visegrad Group and the so-called Benelux (a partnership of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg).

The European Union is not simply ruled by the governments of the major member states. This is, in fact, what some European politicians, such as Marine Le Pen, would like to see. A ‘Europe des patries’ as the French president de Gaulle used to call it, ‘a Europe of nation-states’, with a limited role for the common institutions, as they have developed in the past decades. Such a European Union is not in the interest of the smaller member states. Particularly as citizens of two of the, in geographical and military terms smaller member states, it is important to realize that our two countries have in many cases benefited from the common institutional arrangements within the European Union. The rule of law, and common decision-making within the European institutions, protect us against the ambitions and pressure of the greater powers. Our participation in the institutionalized decision-making procedures within the Union guarantee us some political leverage,leverage we would not have outside the Union.

Therefore, our two countries have, not least because of their succesfull and export-oriented economies, a great stake in securing and furthering the process of European integration. But not only for that reason. The main argument is of course that the world economy is becoming increasingly more competitive and international relations in general become more volatile and insecure. To put it briefly: ‘United we stand, divided we fall’. Thank you for your attention.