Should we be depressed or happy about the state of Europe? In truth, no one knows.

It is not difficult to be depressed about the EU these days. A recent re-read of the Laeken declaration that set in motion the whole European Convention, the Constitutional and Lisbon Treaties exercises just made me think (more) how far is EU's current state (and institutional basis) from the stated ambitions of 2001. Here us a useful reminder of the spirit of the declaration:

"What is Europe's role in this changed world? Does Europe not, now that is finally unified, have a leading role to play in a new world order, that of a power able both to play a stabilising role worldwide and to point the way ahead for many countries and peoples? Europe as the continent of humane values, the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the French Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall... The European Union's one boundary is democracy and human rights...  Europe needs to shoulder its responsibilities in the governance of globalisation. The role it has to play is that of a power resolutely doing battle against all violence, all terror and all fanaticism... In short, a power wanting to change the course of world affairs."

The truth is that throughout most of its existence the EU was as frustrating and depressive for its supporters as is it now. And yet, it still is the single most successful international organisation in history. So how do we balance euro-pessimism and optimism, history and future, success and failure, analysis and wishful thinking?

The EU spent 7 years (or two decades - depending what's your starting point) wrangling with endless institutional reforms. For the last few years the underlying feeling with many in Brussels was "just wait for us to adopt/ratify the constitution/Lisbon treaty and then we will show the world and anyone else what the enlarged EU is capable of... just wait a moment, this last effort and we will do wonders... we only need the new institutional set-up and the EU will enter a new historic phase." Well not exactly. The appointment of Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton only confirmed the EU's usual modus operandi based on a strong bias in favour of the lowest common denominator and against personalities with strong views and profiles.

But then I've finally managed to read Moravcsik's entire book "The Choice for Europe: Social Purpose and State Power from Messina to Maastricht" - a detailed history (and theory) of European integration from the 50s to the 90s. Until my recent vacation, I only managed to read its 100 pages long introduction (ie the key theoretical part), 30 pages-long conclusions and scattered passages. Reading detailed historical accounts of the EU is useful. It puts things into perspective. The more history I read, the more pervasive is my sense of deja vu and the fewer reasons to be pessimistic I have.

Just like history at school is a long list of wars, EU history often looks like a list of failed initiatives and unfulfilled ambitions. In the best case - it takes decades for ambitions to become realities. A common currency and a European Central bank were first proposed in 1969 (the Euro appeared in 1999). A president of the European Commission (Hallstein) called himself the prime-minister of Europe already in the 60s. Ideas for a European Constitution and a European foreign minister were first muted in the late 70s-early 80s. Big launches such as the European defence community (of 1954) proved failures, while many "modest" initiatives that few bothered to notice at the time (like competition policy) proved to have a huge impact on European integration.

Any detailed account of EU history reads like an endless list of failures, disappointments, backtracking, non-compliance with commitments, unfulfilled expectations, hard bargaining, dull and unimpressive bureaucrats, selfish national leaders, egoistic states, ever-growing skepticism, blatant behaviour of large member states, a ridiculous common agricultural policy, etc etc.

Just think of the following. In the 50s the adoption of the Treaty of Rome in 1957 was a backtracking from the mega-supranational nature of the European Steal and Coal Community of 1952. Euratom proved to be a fluff. Jean Monnet was not impressed by the Treaty of Rome. Then read the following paragraph in Moravcisk's book (page 95) about the attitude of the German social-democratic party to European integration in the early 50:

"Though rhetorically pro-European, the SPD had opposed concrete steps toward European integration in the early 50s. The major reasons were geopolitical: integration, SPD leaders believed, undermined prospects for rapid reunification and promoted the integration of a rearmed army into Western military plans... By 1956 SPD started to shift..." not least because the European Communities were less supra-national than the ECSC. For SPD back then European integration was going against dialogue with the USSR with the aim achieving reunification."

Then the 60s were dominated by De Gaulle's triple veto of UK's accession to the EU, the empty-chair crisis and the Luxembourg compromise which introduced a right of veto for member states on issues of crucial importance without any legal basis in the treaties. Since the 70s the European Council further de-supranationalised (or re-nationalised) decision-making. The 70s-80s were considered even worse: two lost decades of Euro-sclerosis. The appointment of Solana in 1999 constrained even further the European Commission's foreign policy ambitions. Almost every decade since the 50s witnessed often successful pressures towards less supranationalism in European integration.

And what of the dull bureaucrats? The European Commission has had 11 presidents since 1958. But who remembers presidents Rey, Malfatti, Ortoli or Thorn? You might remember Santer, but for the wrong reasons. Hallstein and Jenkins are somewhere in the back of the mind, but far from being household names. And only Delors looks impressive, but then many will tell you that he was appointed precisely because no one thought at the time he was a visionary.

And still the EU is somehow considered a big success. The truth is that the EU has almost always been an institution of dull bureaucrats pushing for incremental measures that mostly fail, and those that become successes are acknowledged as such only ten years later.

I guess, just like today, committed pro-Europeans have almost always had plenty of reasons to be depressed about the state of the EU. But the European integration somehow muddled through its way into being what it is - a huge success. I don't know whether now it will be the same - through crises and apathy ad astra. But I am neither pessimistic, nor optimistic about the EU. Or am I both. I did expect more from the post-Lisbon environment, but then maybe there is some underlying process, boring document or dull bureaucrat that is working now on what in 10 or 20 years we will call a success. Or maybe not. The truth is that no one knows.

This piece first appeared in the author's EUObserver blog


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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