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March 26, 2007

Of Unions and threats: Brendan Simms examines the historical evidence and argues that, unlike the European Union, all previous successful political unions have been based on a common fear of an outside threat - not on economics

Posted by Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms - Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge - argues that all previous successful political unions have been based upon a common fear of an outside threat. Dr Simms sees no reason to believe that this should be any different for the European Union. Without such a fear of an outside threat - and a common purpose to combat that threat - the EU will never command the allegiance of its subjects. The views expressed here are those of Dr Simms, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

The European Union has just celebrated its fiftieth birthday with intergovernmental fanfare. At one level, the experiment - which the French, West Germans, Italians, Luxembourgeois, Dutch and Belgians began on 25th March 1957 at the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome - has defied the sceptics. The European Economic Community of then has been transformed through the European Community into the European Union of today.

The six have become the twenty-seven. Whole swathes of southern and western Europe have known prosperity unimaginable fifty years ago. The Republic of Ireland, then a basket case has become an unstoppable economic dynamo, not least through its own efforts, but very much also because of the opportunities and support offered by Brussels. In purely territorial terms the shift has been equally dramatic. The European "grand area", once largely confined to the old empire of Charlemagne, now stretches across most of the Mediterranean and the Baltic. Most of the former Soviet satellite states are now members or to become so very soon. The economic and trading power of the Union has never been greater, and with an annual budget of 7 billion euros, the Union is the world's largest international donor.

And yet in two important respects, the Union of today is further away from the vision of a United Europe than the six were fifty years ago.

Most European still identify overwhelmingly and increasingly with their sovereign states rather than with the idea of a politically unified Europe. The hugely symbolic concept of a European Constitution was recently rejected in referenda by two of the founder members: France and the hitherto staunchly pro-European Dutch.

Moreover, the European Union is very far from being the political and strategic actor which its economic, demographic and territorial weight would warrant. Europe failed miserably over Bosnia in 1992-1995, prevailed on the coattails of the Americans in Kosovo and was not only bitterly divided but ineffective over Iraq. Europe in short, has failed to fire the imaginations of its citizens and to find its voice in the world.

Both of these failures are well known. They are rarely, however, seen as essentially linked, and so far as I am aware, they have never been viewed in the context of earlier and more successful political unions. Here the economic lens has ever been more of a barrier than an aid to understanding. Moreover, the relationship between the rise of national sentiment and the consolidation of political union has often been read back to front.

The historical record shows that while economic integration and patriotic feeling are important to union, they are not sufficient. In 1707, for example, Scotland and England united to form Great Britain, not primarily as a corporate merger of previously competing economic interests, but because the threat of French hegemony in Europe, and Louis XIV's support for Jacobitism, necessitated a common foreign policy. Eighty years later, the newly independent United States, many of them deeply suspicious of any form of governmental power and Virginians or New Yorkers first and foremost, came together to agree a Constitution, an executive, a navy and a army. They did so because the young Republic feared partition at the hands of predatory European great powers. In so doing, they created the roots of the military-expansionist complex which did so much to create "Americans" in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Likewise, the German customs union of 1834 - the famous Zollverein - was not enough to make a united Germany. Nor was the welling national sentiment among ordinary Germans after the Napoleonic Wars. The process by which Bismarck manoeuvred the various German states, many of whom had only just won full sovereignty with the Congress of Vienna, into a unified Germany in 1871, was very similar to the one which led to the unions of 1707 and 1787. In all three cases, turkeys were being asked to vote for Christmas, and they did so only because the alternative, partition at the hands of a hostile power - usually France - was worse. Bismarck may have manipulated this threat rather more than the architects of union in Britain and America, but it was not less real for all that. The union, in short, was both forged by external threat and consolidated by a common military project: the War of the Spanish Succession, the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War in Britain's case; the war of 1812, the Mexican war and the Spanish-American war in the case of the United States; and the Franco-Prussian war in the German case.

Europe did not experience this transformative impulse for two reasons. First of all, because the vital area of security was never part of the project. It had been hived off to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in 1949, long before the six met in Rome. For this reason, Europeans were often grateful to "Europe" for their prosperity, but they knew that they owed their security to that other international organisation in Brussels: NATO. When the former Soviet satellites turned to "Europe" in the 1990s, they were clear that they wanted their economics from the EU but their protection from NATO. Today, as the threat of global Islamic terror looms large, most citizens again look to their national governments, to NATO and perhaps even to the Americans in the first instance, not to Brussels.

Secondly, the original architects of the Union do not seem to have wanted a political union on British, American and Bismarckian lines. Their model was not the second empire of 1871, but the Holy Roman Empire of the past: a loose commonwealth held together by an overarching sense of identity in which problems would be resolved peacefully and legally. The peace that the six sought to preserve, in short, was that between themselves, or to be precise, between France and Germany. They did not concern themselves with the actual danger of the time, which was that of Soviet power. At its very core, therefore, the European project hearkens back to the introspective and inoffensive "Empire" of yesteryear, rather than the dynamic unions of the modern age.

Despite the fears of Eurosceptics, the Union is currently no danger to anyone, neither to the sovereignty of its component states, not to the many threats building up beyond its borders. Until this changes, the European Union will never command the allegiance and the power so many of its protagonists crave.

Dr Brendan Simms is Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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So is Brendan Simms saying we should invent a threat in order to build a united Europe? Shades of Leo Strauss, I fear.

Posted by: David at March 27, 2007 12:15 PM
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