Talking Politics Guide to ... European Union before the EU

We talk to historian Chris Brooke about ideas of a united Europe that long pre-dated the advent of the European Union. Since the eighteenth century philosophers, lawyers, diplomats and revolutionaries have constructed schemes to bring Europe together economically, legally and politically. How do these plans compare with what actually happened?


Talking Points: 



Where does the idea of a union of European nation states come from?

  • The conversation about union predates the consolidation of European nation-states.
  • In the 18th century, Britain and France are long-established, but much of the rest of Europe isn’t really what we would call nation states.
  • The common threads in these earlier projects are the notion of “perpetual peace” and commerce.


How do you create a union when some states are much more powerful than others?

  • You can’t escape geopolitics. 
  • From the 18th century onwards a widespread theme in arguments for European union are fears of growing Russian power.
  • The European integrationists often take themselves to be critics of the balance of power, but at some point they realize that they’re actually trying to produce a new balance of power on the global level in response to the rise of America and East Asia.
  • The Europeans want to both counter and copy America. 


The key predecessor to the customs union was the German Zollverein, which linked together the Western states in the German confederation.

  • Union became a live political issue in the 1890s after the American tariff walls.
  • In the end, these earlier projects failed because of animosity between the French and Germans over Alsace-Lorraine.
  • The early legal conversations about union have disturbing racial and imperial subtexts. 


The First World War gave rise to the League of Nations, but this was not a purely European project.

  • To understand the contemporary European union, you really need to look at the end of the Second World War.


It’s hard not to think of the 18th century schemes and 19th century proposals as antecedents to what actually happened.

  • But many things were still contingent. For example, the French were interested in cooperating because they wanted to shore up their empire in Africa, which collapsed soon after the Treaty of Rome.


Further Learning: 


And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here: lrb.co.uk/talking

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