This is the second chapter of Oliver Hartwich essay “Why Europe Failed”, an analysis of an ageing Europe, burdened by the size of its welfare state. He draws cautionary lessons for New Zealand’s policy makers. You can read the full version here.
This second section is titled “Some revisionist thoughts on European integration”.
By Oliver Hartwich*
The official history of European integration is easily told.
The attempt to unite Europe came out of the experience of previous conflicts. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, in which Prussia defeated France, not only paved the way for Germany’s first unification. It had also humiliated the French, who had to pay substantial war reparations to Germany and cede the Alsace-Lorraine territory.
The result was deep enmity between the two countries. After World War I, which Germany lost, France not only regained its lost regions but also imposed severe financial conditions on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles. These conditions crippled the German economy and ultimately led to the rise of radical political forces, culminating in World War II. In both cases, the resolution of wars sowed the seeds of future conflict.
The French longed to avenge perceived German injustices after 1871, and it was the other way around in 1918.
Fortunately, there were politicians after World War II who sincerely believed that this vicious cycle had to be broken.
They realised that no country should be humiliated and punished following a war defeat because such measures only made the next war more likely. Instead, European countries had to work together to ensure that the horrors of the two world wars were never repeated. The best expression of this idea is the Schuman Declaration of 1950. Issued by the French government and its foreign minister Robert Schuman, it stated:
World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it. The contribution which an organized and living Europe can bring to civilization is indispensable to the maintenance of peaceful relations. In taking upon herself for more than 20 years the role of champion of a united Europe, France has always had as her essential aim the service of peace. A united Europe was not achieved and we had war.5
The contrast between past military conflicts on the one hand and European integration on the other is the founding myth of the EU. It is also the motif that European politicians cite whenever problems arise in the governance of European institutions. The message behind it is clear: Yes, integrating European countries is not without its problems. But the alternative is war.
Over the course of European integration, leading politicians like German Chancellor Angela Merkel have often appealed to such reasoning: “No one should think that a further half century of peace and prosperity is assured. If the euro fails, Europe will fail.”6
As useful as this argument may be for political rhetoric, it is wrong on two grounds. First, it is a non sequitur fallacy to proclaim that failure to integrate Europe and to drive this process to an eventual political and economic union would inevitably result in military conflict. There are many neighbouring countries in the world that are not integrated but do not go to war with each other. European integration on its own is not responsible for peace. Without the EU, would Germany invade Austria? Would the Netherlands attack Belgium? Would Sweden conquer Finland? If such questions appear absurd, it is because they are. To claim that without the EU (or even just by weakening the EU) there would be more conflict is rhetorical hyperbole and nothing else.
The second reason to question the EU’s founding myth is historical. The EU regards Konrad Adenauer, Joseph Bech, Johan Willem Beyen, Winston Churchill, Alcide De Gasperi, Walter Hallstein, Sicco Mansholt, Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Paul-Henri Spaak and Altiero Spinelli as the ‘Founding Fathers of the European Union’. The EU says on its website that these men “were a diverse group of people who held the same ideals: a peaceful, united and prosperous Europe.”7
People like Hallstein and Churchill may have been idealists to some degree. But they were also realists, pragmatists and rationalists – but most importantly, they were politicians. However genuine, would their commitment to (post-War) peace alone have impelled them to build the EU?
To ask this question is to answer it. It is quite implausible that peace-loving idealism alone would have led to a pan-European integration, otherwise Eastern Europe would have initially been part of the EU and its predecessors. Indeed, the reason Eastern Europe played no role in (Western) European integration is also the real reason for the beginning of European integration after World War II.
The Soviet Union was allied with Western powers in defeating Nazi Germany, but parted ways soon after over the spoils of war. Europe was divided into two spheres of political and ideological influence after 1945. Democracy and capitalism were the guiding ideas in the Western sphere under the United States and Britain, while socialism and central planning ruled in the Eastern sphere under the Soviet Union.
The collision of these two economic and ideological spheres defined European politics from 1945 to 1989. It divided Germany and tore Europe apart.
The European Economic Community (EEC) and its predecessor, the European Coal and Steel Community, were founded in 1957 and 1951, respectively. They were established against this background of increased confrontation between the East and West due to the Cold War and deepening schisms in their spheres of influence. Both the West and East defined their interests and united against each other. This was most evident militarily with the West’s defence alliance NATO (founded in 1949) pitched against the Warsaw Pact (1955), the Soviet Union’s military bloc.
This military integration not just bound together Western European nations as an exercise in promoting peace but also unified the bloc against a common enemy from the east. More importantly, it was a similar project (and a precursor) to Western Europe’s economic integration.
Thus the great Schuman Declaration may have waxed lyrical about war and peace – but European integration came down to something as prosaic as coal and steel. What Schuman was really talking about was a treaty to pool coal and steel production – two of the most crucial industries in Europe.
Pooling Western Europe’s coal and steel industries fulfilled two purposes at once. Applying the lessons learnt from 1871 and 1918 helped integrate the loser of World War II, Germany, instead of isolating it. It also gave shape to Western Europe’s bloc-building exercise directed against the Soviet Union to form a strong alliance in the Cold War.
More than the genuine peace rhetoric after World War II, it was the Cold War, an ideological fear of communism, and economic profiteering that spurred Western European politicians to create the EU. After all, the EU has always been a project with an idealistic superstructure and a means of achieving less idealistic political goals. It has been a tool for overcoming nationalistic egotisms and a means of promoting national interests at the European level. It has been a framework for enabling trade between its members and a way of protecting one’s own industries.
The dual nature of European integration is exemplified by the two core nations involved in the European project: Germany and France. Both subscribed to the narrative of promoting the project of European integration. But they did so for entirely different reasons.
For West Germany, European integration through the European Coal and Steel Community and the EEC was a pathway back to international recognition. The total defeat of Nazi Germany was not just a military collapse but a moral collapse as well. By its war atrocities and genocide of the Jews, Germany had turned itself into a pariah within the community of nations. It wanted to re-enter the international community, and closer economic and political engagement with its neighbours offered just that. Germany also needed this international engagement to reinstate the sovereignty it had lost to the Allied Forces of World War II (and would not finally regain them until the so-called ‘two-plus-four’ negotiations preceding Germany’s reunification in 1990).
Reaching out to its former arch enemy, Germany, made sense for France, too. In 1952, just a year after the European Coal and Steel Community had been founded, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin proposed that Germany should be reunited and neutralised (the so-called ‘Stalin Notes’). There was a real threat of the whole of Germany being drawn into the Soviet sphere of influence. France (and other Western countries) decided to counter Soviet advances by developing closer relations with West Germany and locking it into the Western sphere.
Second, spearheading the integration of Germany into Europe allowed France a degree of control over its former enemy. Metaphorically speaking, it was a close French embrace of Germany with the unvoiced intention of reducing the latter’s ability to move. This motivation was visible in the European Coal and Steel Community, and it reared again in France’s push for a European monetary union in the 1970s. The reasoning was simple: the more Germany was enmeshed in a European framework, the less it could dominate European affairs (and the greater would be France’s influence).8
European integration was thus an insurance policy for France against both German and Soviet aggression. For Germany, European integration was a path back to respectability and sovereignty. But for either of them, it was unequivocally never solely a peace project (maybe not even predominantly).
None of this is to diminish the genuine efforts of European citizens of different countries to promote peace, reconciliation and international understanding. Of course, there were idealists driven by the desire to end war once and for all, and move towards a peaceful future for all of Europe. Out of this wish came countless initiatives such as student exchanges, town twinnings, and cultural cooperation.
Indeed, the past 70 years have been (largely) a time of peace for Europe. With the notable exceptions of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s and the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine, conflicts between states have not been allowed to escalate to the military level. The EU may claim that this is its own success, and it may be true to a degree. Having said that, the counterfactual is hard to prove. Would a Europe with NATO but without the EU have been less peaceful?
Regardless of whether and how much the EU can claim responsibility for post-War peace, there is a danger of falling prey to the European elite’s rhetoric of integration as a peace project, which is used as a justification for all sorts of polices. For example, it was used to introduce the euro currency and bail out individual Eurozone members.
Calling the EU a by-product of the Cold War is a heresy in Europe, where the idealism of the European project is stressed at every occasion. But the louder the idealism, the more suspicious the public ought to be.
It is important to realise that Europe’s integration was not just a peace project but also an exercise in power politics and economic profiteering. The role of the Cold War in creating the EU will otherwise be all too easily forgotten.
More importantly, accepting the real reasons behind the European project is essential to deal with Europe’s current crisis of existence. European integration was not founded solely on idealism. But the pretence of such idealism often makes dealing with Europe’s problems harder than it ought to be. If only we could discuss the euro crisis without having to put it in terms of war and peace, it would be easier to solve. Instead, European problems are addressed not in economic but in political terms.
It is high time to leave behind rose-tinted accounts of the history of European integration and approach it with a greater sense of realism.
5. European Union, “The Schuman Declaration – 9 May 1950,” http://europa.eu/about-eu/basic-information/symbols/europeday/schuman-declaration/index_en.htm.
6. Joe Murphy, “Peace in Europe at risk: Dire warning from German leader Merkel,” Evening Standard (London: 26 October 2011),
7. European Union, “The Founding Fathers of the EU,” http://europa.eu/about-eu/eu-history/founding-fathers/index_en.htm.
8. For an account of the origins of the euro, see Johan van Overtveldt, The End of the Euro: The Uneasy Future of the European Union (Chicago: B2 Books, 2011).
Oliver Hartwich is the Executive Director of The New Zealand Initiative. Before joining the Initiative he was a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, the Chief Economist at Policy Exchange in London, and an advisor in the UK House of Lords. Oliver holds a Master’s degree in Economics and Business Administration and a Ph.D. in Law from Bochum University in Germany.