Whence Europe? Past and Present Sources of European Union

I have now updated my 2010 doctoral thesis in comparative politics at the University of Bergen and optimized it for publication as an e-book: Whence Europe: Past and Present Sources of European Unification.

My research question was why continental and southern Europe historically has been more favourable to European integration than the north. At the outset, I argue that this is an important problem for two reasons. First, because the fact that there are more and less Europeanist member states has been and remains the most basic political constraint on European integration. Second, because exploration of the problem may add substantially to our theoretical understanding of European unification and its historical interplay with nationalism and the nation-state.

European polity-building

Inspired by the Norwegian comparativist Stein Rokkan, I interpret European integration as a case of polity-building comparable to other instances of state- and nation-building in history. Thus I assume that integration is a fundamentally political process with power, or more precisely sovereignty, as its core issue, and that the regionally differentiated pattern of attitudes to European union reflect territorially distinct, historically evolved ideas of sovereignty. I differentiate between what I call the locus and scope of sovereignty. The ‘locus’ dimension concerns opinions about where sovereignty rightly belongs, most basically whether it descends from on high or ascends from below. The ‘scope’ dimension expresses opinions on whether the community over which sovereignty is exercised should be universal (potentially the whole world) or particular (divided into separate sovereign communities).

This dichotomisation yields a two-by-two table defining four basic polity-ideas – normative ideas about a legitimate political order – that structures the study’s comparative-historical analysis: universalist-descending (whose historical expression has been empire); particularist-descending (kingdom); particularist-ascending (nation-state); and universalist-ascending (supranational/cosmopolitan union/federation).

The clash of paradigms

I argue that each polity-idea is associated with a particular discourse, ideology or paradigm. Furthermore, I contend that the main cleavage in the post-1945 European debate has been between what I call the national-liberal and the Christian-democratic paradigms of integration. The former is basically particularist and intergovernmentalist and based in northern, Lutheran or Anglican Europe. The second is inspired by Christian universalism and Stoic cosmopolitanism, favours a federal or unitary Europe, and has its mainstay in continental and southern, Catholic and Calvinist Europe.

On this basis, and in order to identify theoretically possible sources of Europeanist attitudes, in Part 2 I examine existing integration and international relations theory as well as general political science theory. This discussion concludes with a working hypothesis based on Rokkan’s notion of the European ‘city-belt.’ Could, as Rokkan himself explicitly suggested, the city-belt, stretching roughly from Central Italy to the North Sea and representing the historical core territory of the Catholic church and the Holy Roman Empire, be the home base or ‘primary territory’ of a European ‘nation’?

The historical strength of universalism

While conceding that his perspective is indeed valuable and relevant, my historical discussion in Part 3 criticises Rokkan’s notion of the city-belt for national-liberal reductionism (see also my separate discussion of this here). The Rokkanian thesis neglects the ancient and medieval tradition for unity and universalism espoused by the Roman Church and the Holy Roman/Habsburg Empire and underrates the continued influence of these institutional agencies even after the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. Moreover, the thesis is too structuralist, implying that the European Union emerged more or less by default. Like intergovernmentalist and neofunctionalist integration theory, Rokkan underestimates the role of ideologically aware, but also reasoning human agency. Hence I argue that Rome, represented by the Roman Church as well as by successive Roman empires, is a more important territorial and historical source of Europeanism than city-studded Central Europe.

The rise of nationalist discourse

Part 3 further discusses how the ascendancy of particularist, or nationalist, discourse resulted from the fragmentation of unitary medieval Christendom into a modern Europe dominated by autonomous states. State-builders propagated the notion of territorial sovereignty, which eventually turned into the hegemonial particularist-ascending idea of national sovereignty. Here France and the Protestant states of north-western Europe were the pioneers, their kings’ control of national churches being an important factor. Anglican and Lutheran Protestantism was particularly conducive to particularism, which notably in the German context turned exclusivist and eventually racist.

The particularist paradigm survived two World Wars in its more benign, North Atlantic form. I submit that this is an important factor accounting for the natural inclination of national-liberal, Protestant Britain and Scandinavia to advocate retention of as much national sovereignty as possible in the nation-state.

Catholic Europeanism

But on the Continent the Papacy as well as the Holy Roman/Habsburg empire continued to represent a strong counterweight to particularist discourse even after the Reformation and the ensuing religious wars. The Papacy came to terms with the modern, secular nation-state and national mass politics only with difficulty, criticising nationalism as a political religion. However, in the late nineteenth century Catholic parties emerged that enabled Catholics to participate in secular, national politics. But they continued to look beyond the nation-state.

The final Part 4 of the study narrates how transnationally networked, Christian democratic parties of Western Continental Europe jointly formulated a Europeanist-ascending programme for European union after World War II. The European Union was launched on its supranationalist path when these parties, led mainly by statesmen from Carolingian-Lotharingian Europe, dominated the governments of the six founding states from about 1945 to 1965. Their discourse was dominated by ideas and ideology rooted in the universalist European legacy, whose mainstay remained Catholic, continental and southern Europe.

Whither Europe?

In conclusion, I raise the question whether the traditional pattern of support and opposition to European union is fundamentally changing as a result of the fall of communism and subsequent enlargement towards the east. The rejection of the European Constitutional Treaty in the 2005 referenda in France and the Netherlands certainly suggests so. Moreover, new member states in Central and Eastern Europe do not have the same historical stake in union as the founding members. These and other developments may seem to strengthen nationalist discourse.

On the other hand, the possibility of Turkish membership and the growing presence of Islam in Europe could conceivably be reawakening an old sense of European identity that could boost ideological Europeanism. However, also these factors now seem rather to feed old-fashioned nationalism.

For historical reasons, the European Union remains fundamentally a modernist (liberal and secular) project, and is increasingly post-modernist (infused with multiculturalist and multireligious ideology) too. Its legitimacy has become gradually less dependent on ideologically, historically and culturally determined commitment to Europe per se and rests increasingly on its ability to deliver tangible benefits to citizens through rationalist, positive-sum co-operation.

For several years now the European project has been in crisis, arguably because of a showdown between Europeanist idealism (represented by the euro) and nationalist realism (the persistence of the national right to veto treaty changes that may give the common currency an adequate political backbone). But also nationalist or national-liberal «realism» is highly ideologically charged.

I think that to the extent that the European project survives, it will be more for negative than for positive reasons; more due to the costs of backtracking than to ideological Europeanism. Real progress would require a political leap that would significantly strengthen the universalist-ascending paradigm in Europe, but on a more rationalist footing than before. Still I doubt whether European (or any other) polity-building can succeed in the long term on the basis of just grudging rationalism.

6 responses

  1. Tilbakeping: It’s the religion, stupid! « Europæus norvegicus

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