Though the EU is currently embroiled in an enveloping crisis, with centrifugal political parties growing in strength across its member states, and despite Brexit delivering the EU’s permanence an ontological blow, the concept of a united Europe will continue to be an attractive one on both historical and philosophical grounds.
After a First World War that was so brutal and destructive of human life it was considered to be ‘the war to end all wars’, a chorus of voices across Europe began making the case for a united Europe in order to prevent the possibility of such a calamity occurring again. None was more vocal in this cause than the Austrian writer and novelist Stefan Zweig. In 1934, amid the Great Depression and, with it, the alarming rise of extreme nationalism and fascism across Europe, Zweig wrote, “The European idea is not a primary emotion like patriotism or ethnicity; it is not born of primitive instinct, but rather of perception; it is not the product of spontaneous fervor, but the slow-ripened fruit of a more elevated way of thinking.”
History records that the primitive instincts driving nationalism and patriotism proved stronger than Zweig’s “elevated way of thinking” during the 1930s. Hitler’s vision of a united Europe, however, was of an entirely different order from that of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, or for that matter Stefan Zweig’s.
The fascist dictator rose to power in Germany obsessed with gaining vengeance for a German people that had been “stabbed in the back” during the First World War. He blamed a “Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy” that was intent on destroying the nation state and taking over Europe and the world.
After the war Winston Churchill, Britain’s legendary wartime Prime Minister, also mooted the possibility of a united Europe – a United States of Europe, which together with the British Commonwealth and the United States would forge a world underpinned by peace and security. He outlined his idea in a speech in Zurich in September 1946. “The structure of the United States of Europe, if well and truly built, will be such as to make the material strength of a single state less important. Small nations will count as much as large ones and gain their honour by their contribution to the common cause.”
This brings us to the forerunner of today’s European Union, which as with Churchill’s vision was born out of the devastation of the Second World War. French diplomat and businessman Jean Monnet is credited with being the father of what became the EU. It started life with the Treaty of Rome in 1951, which gave birth to the establishment of a European Coal and Steel Community (ECSE) made up of Belgium, France, West Germany, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.
As Monnet had it, “There will be no peace in Europe if the States rebuild themselves on the basis of national sovereignty, with its implications of prestige politics and economic protection (…). The countries of Europe are not strong enough individually to be able to guarantee prosperity and social development for their peoples. The States of Europe must therefore form a federation or a European entity that would make them into a common economic unit.”
The idea of sacrificing some sovereignty in the interests of peace and security, with the objective of avoiding anything like the 20th century conflagrations of the First and Second World Wars occurring again, is the philosophical cornerstone of European unity in our time.
The recrudescence of nationalism and emergence of centrifugal political parties committed to breaking up the EU has given us a Europe more divided than at any time since the 1930s.
A divided Europe, as the last century has shown, is in the last analysis a Europe at war. However if European unity is to succeed, it has to be on the basis of equality between states, respect for cultural differences, and underpinned by an economic system that serves the masses of the people instead of a small elite. It must also, by necessity, include rather than exclude Russia.
It is why the EU in its current form is not fit for purpose.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Why the European Dream of Integration Won’t Die’