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Appraising Europa, Pt. I

October 26, 2010

The European Union is undoubtedly one of the most audacious experiments in latter-day international politics, and so far seems among the most successful. The setbacks of 2005 in no way overshadow the overcoming of 1945. Yet because European integration now runs against geographic, cultural and institutional barriers, we can no longer take its advance for granted, nor its future form. Having achieved goals once unthinkable, the question of the Union’s value and function looms over its form. The debate at Thinking Strategically, over Britain’s role in the European project, brings to the forefront the critical questions confronting Europe today.

The European Union, in its present incarnation, has its foundations in interdependence. European states need each other, and so Europe needs the Union. Another question – just how much of Europe does the Union need? For Britons such as Aaron Ellis, Britain need not be central to the European Union to reap its benefits. Without a concrete political identity, the European Union is a mainly commercial enterprise with relatively weak legal and coercive institutions, and a vague cultural idea. The polity lacks the character for a foreign policy, or the unanimity that would even necessitate one. Britain is better off taking advantage of its insular geopolitical role to chart its own policy, working with European states and extra-regional powers as its own discretion.

This attitude fulfills its own prophecies, critics retort. If the UK (or any other major European state) assumes the EU cannot become more than an economic-social confederation, then the integrative measures necessary to enable a common foreign policy are impossible. Besides, given the magnitude of British power, abstention by itself denies the Union significant strength. An independent foreign policy is of diminishing value in the modern age. The political trend is towards gigantism. Sure, this was all the rage in the late 19th century – but given the rise of the United States, then Soviet Union, and now China and India, great power polities are only increasing in size.

As an American, I obviously cannot speak for the attitudes of Britons or Europeans generally. However, America played no small role in the genesis of the European Union. The US government was already interested in reshaping the European legal order during WWII. In the American view, the independent European states and their nationalist policies needed serious reform. In WWI and WWII, the narrow-minded Europeans drew America into their conflagrations, threatening the US vision of liberal economic and political order. The US sought to create an “Atlantic Europe” which could preserve peace and liberal ideals from the vagaries of European national politics. The failure of the EDC, however, stunted US efforts to create a pan-European military apparatus. So while European liberalization and integration continued under European auspices, for military purposes, Western Europe was an Atlantic Europe.

The myriad pacifying factors of NATO, nuclear arms, Cold War balancing and the gradual demilitarization of European politics helped pave the way for the successful economic and political integration of the EU. The chimerical character of Europe’s unifying institutions, NATO and EU, has dogged the advance of the latter into the activities of the former. So the EU is a “civilian power” not simply by choice, but also by conditioning. For all that some Euroskeptics harp on Europe’s failure to create a credible foreign policy or exert leverage with hard power, we must remember that the US often smothers European foreign policy in the cradle. The EDC was only an early example of American leadership seeking to quash a European Europe. Madeline Albright’s “three D’s” – no duplication of NATO activities, no decoupling Europe from NATO or America, and no discrimination against NATO members outside the EU – constrain the EDSP. Europe’s civilian, pacific values never constituted the sole narrative of the European project. This narrative is still indigenous to Europe and its history, of course, but it is also partially product of US policy choices and the triumph of Atlanticism in European defense.

There was another, Gaullist vision of Europe. The Fouchet plan and the intergovernmentalist approach was an obvious threat to the Atlantic idea. Europe, in this case, would have independent military and nuclear capabilities, and could act as an independent pole of global power, as both a military and civilian power. This idea had its foundation in the Franco-German treaty and actually rejected the influence of the UK. De Gaulle’s Europe extended from the Atlantic to the Urals, but Paris and Bonn, not Washington and London, would lead it. Britain was not always excluded – Monnet in 1939 and Mollet in 1956 each proposed some form of Anglo-French union to preserve a Western European great power. By de Gaulle’s time, the UK had decided to align with American Atlanticism in lieu of Parisian continentalism, and the UK became an impediment rather than ally in the expansion of European power.

Decolonization and the ascent of US hegemony and Soviet communism undermined many of the shared interests between Britain and much of the rest of the continent. Though Britain is not and was never “little America,” it is obviously more comfortable with American dominance. Strategically, Britain’s fortunes have obviously never been so intimately linked to the continent, and it has considered itself more of an independent, maritime power with global reach than a partner in the European project. Nevertheless, the “harder” the power we expect an independent European foreign policy to exert, the more finely aligned the concert of constituent interests must be. De Gaulle wisely recognized that a militarily self-sufficient Europe was fundamentally at odds with Atlanticist Britain. Clearly, however, we do not have de Gaulle’s Europe today – so should Britons and continental Europeans alike share his prejudices? The answer lies in whether a European global power requires de Gaulle’s vision or a normative and civilian power that transcends that dated vision, and thus a later post.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 31, 2010 7:40 pm

    Interesting post. I’ve always thought de Gaulle had some admirable qualities (as well as less admirable ones). The word “dated” to me implies outdated, but I have the sense that’s not necessarily what you meant here in calling his vision “dated”.

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