Today’s European Union may seem like a market place, a granter of subsidies, and an experiment in governance. But at its core Europe is still the search for peace – it just took a 60 year detour.
The EU has always been a peace project. It started out as one, born from the ashes of war on the continent, and its supreme goal still is to prevent the outbreak of hostilities among and against Europeans. Today’s European Union may seem like a market place, a granter of subsidies, and an experiment in governance. But at its core Europe is still the search for peace – it just took a 60 year detour.
European integration set the path towards making another World War II impossible, by denying authoritarian and racist ideology the chance to return to power, or to achieve hegemony over Europe’s state system. Integration was launched to take the war industries − coal, steel, and nuclear − out of the hands of national policymakers. It was designed to control the sort of power rivalries, territorial disputes, and narratives of exclusivity that contributed to the outbreak of World War I. And it was meant to take the sting out of national identity by bringing together Europe’s multiplicity of nationalisms, of national arts, and cultures, national histories, and national characters. Integration sought to raise awareness of the strength of European diversity. In fact, the many linkages between diverse people and peoples, interacting, and competing with each other, were the drivers of European civilisation.
European integration was conceived to stop and to reverse the downfalls Europe experienced in the two world wars, and to do so by building an order so strong that it could raise up the creative side of diversity and push down it destructive sibling.
The building of a new Europe began with the depoliticisation of the war industries and continued with the notion of common defence and a European army in place of national military forces. To control resources and act as an instrument of war in itself, the European Political Community was designed, negotiated, and put down in treaty language. And then, less than a decade after the most devastating war Europe had ever seen, this grand European project fell apart when it failed in the ratification process.
When the Treaties of Rome were signed in March 1957 this marked the second attempt at building a European order. Instead of addressing the root cause of Europe’s decline directly, policymakers chose a different path to the goal. Europe was now designed to be developed via economic integration, using the 1950s boom and its obvious potential for prosperity as a vehicle to encourage deeper cooperation among European governments. The community was intended to dilute nationalism and power rivalries by helping everyone to prosper, replacing the zero-sum logic of European politics with the positive-sum promise of common decision-making.
This Europe talked a lot about peace, but spelled it out in GDP and subsidies. Its progress was impressive in terms of market integration, but slow on the political front. When introducing majority voting in the Council of Ministers in 1966, then President of France Charles de Gaulle left the French chair empty to enforce his insistence on a national veto against supra-nationalism until an intergovernmental mechanism was agreed to use qualified majority voting and maintain a national veto at the same time.
In the 1970s, during crises over energy, employment, and terrorism, the European Community was stagnating. The spill-over from market integration to political integration didn’t seem to be working. Currency fluctuations were causing major political disruption but no consensus could be reached over how to cooperatively manage monetary policies. Foreign ministers met at the General Affairs Council in the morning, and then flew to a different place to meet as foreign ministers to advance their cooperation on foreign policy, which was to be kept strictly apart from any community activity, on the insistence of some member states. Into the 1980s this European Community hobbled, adding a layer here and there, trying out informal ways of political consensus building, with new members hopping on board and more on their way.
By the age of 40, the Treaties of Rome and the detour they had chartered out, seemed exhausted. The cooperation logic had worked, but only so far, and it seemed to have lost its momentum. Political tensions grew as governments quarrelled over financial contributions and their allocation. The spirit of integration shifted to the cost/benefit paradigm. Taking in three Mediterranean members that had successfully overcome dictatorships did not reverse that mood, but seemed to fuel distribution conflict. British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher, by way of an ultimatum, secured a rebate of 66 percent of the gap between contributions and allocations, but what she had really wanted was 100 percent cashback. At the Fontainebleau summit, Thatcher was just the extreme case. Everyone wanted money back, and more. On its detour, the peace project was breeding conflict.
Such was the state of play when Jacques Delors proposed a relaunch of the economic track to build peace. More growth should help to overcome the bickering was the thinking, and cutting transaction costs of all sorts was the strategy. The single market (code name Europe ‘92) was a huge deregulation project to eliminate non-tariff barriers and achieve a truly integrated market. Next to it, Delors proposed to put in place a Monetary Union that could firmly institutionalise the European Monetary System by creating a European currency governed by a federal Central Bank. Decided under heated debate and accompanied by conflicting perceptions of prospective winners and losers, these projects were under way when, in November 1989, the Berlin Wall came crashing down.
Suddenly, the detour started to look like the main road. Integrating Europe economically seemed like the genius master plan that no-one had ever thought of before. The Soviet Union and its military bloc had not been defeated on the battle-field, and, wisely, didn’t dare launch a military assault against NATO under American leadership. Instead, it had been outperformed economically. EC had won over COMECON. Now, Europeans could apply the logic of integration to their interactions instead of arming to the teeth. The processes of widening and deepening integration were pushed ahead at the same time. The Maastricht Treaty on the European Union marked the first major overhaul of the Treaties of Rome while the Copenhagen criteria defined the essentials of accession for the new democracies of Europe.
A few years later, that confidence was lost. Lacking agreement on a political union, the Maastricht Treaty was incomplete, it was also contested and struggled to make it through the ratification process. Both of these dynamics have become a constant of EU affairs since Maastricht: Repeated renegotiations and revisions of the treaties to achieve deeper political integration, and continued uncertainty about ratification and referendums. While the continent was declared whole and free, minority conflicts sprang up in many parts of the new Europe. Czechoslovakia split up peacefully, but Yugoslavia broke apart into many jagged pieces, bringing back war crimes and ethnic cleansing. The merchant men’s peace order was not able to prevent violence.
The rest of the story far from history, it’s the present. At 60, the EU has still not achieved its mission of building peace on the inside and outside. The ‘main road’ delusion has lost its magic. Markets and money have brought Europeans a long way, but the decisive step towards political integration still needs to be taken. The primacy of national policy has been put into question but still applies, and nationalism has well and truly returned to the political discourse. Many view the pooling of sovereignty as a fundamental problem. The original idea behind the Treaties of Rome of regaining influence over one’s destiny by sharing power, has been turned upside down in populist discourse. The founding fathers wanted to win control by way of community building, but many in national capitals demand “taking back control” by re-nationalising power.
The EU’s approach to eliminating armed conflict from the political repertoire through economic integration has given birth to a widespread negligence of the need for peace. Now, the stability and even the integrity of Europe are at risk, as well as its internal and external security. But Europeans appear to be too divided to respond forcefully. There is no other detour option left to explore.
While looking back on the past 60 years since the Treaties of Rome, political leaders should stare their unfulfilled mission plain in the face. Europe needs political integration, including a security union, to strengthen its cohesion. The layers of global order are weakening while centrifugal forces in European politics become stronger.
What European integration is to the Europeans, and what it could be to the world, needs more than celebration of anniversaries. It is up to those who believe in the peace project to take the initiative and move ahead.
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.