Europe’s architects

From Alexander Hobe, Hamburg Institute for Social Research 

“Bad Europeans constructing Europe?”: Is it possible that this not entirely serious suggestion for a title of our project perfectly encapsulates some of the core problems encountered by the workshop on the history of “Euroscepticism”? In the eyes of this participant, the answer seems to be a qualified yes. But how did we get there?

As the opening conference of the project, it used two academic articles and a guest lecture by the historian Wolfram Kaiser to explore some fundamental issues and concepts. One such concept is certainly “Euroscepticism.” It was quickly problematized: It could exoticize or charge its subjects normatively, the critique held, and that it ran the risk of becoming an essentialized category. These charges become clearer when seen in the light of the phenomena the concept is supposed to describe: Choosing two recent examples, both Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen can be and have been described as “Eurosceptics.” The ideological discrepancy between both politicians, also and particularly on the issue of the European Union, shows how the category seems to create a phenomenon rather than describe or explain it. Considering that both also have their own ideas for European order, this shows that the designation “Eurosceptic” is implicitly framed by the perspective of the current state of integration, against which other stances are judged. But what does this mean for the study of the history of “Euroscpeticism,” especially when we consider that integration, changing over time, is a “moving target”?1

Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The Tower of Babel
1563 // Signed and dated on a stone block in the foreground of the picture: “BRVEGEL.FE. / M.CCCCC.LXIII.” // Oak wood, 114.3 × 155.1 cm // Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemäldegalerie, inv. no. 10262

It became clear that a discussion of “Euroscepticism” cannot be divorced from a discussion of integration (or its depiction) on which the concept appears to be premised. Integration has often been described as an inexorable march towards a supranational polity, as the historian Mark Gilbert holds.3 Thus Jean Monnet plays a central role in the EU founding myth, due mainly to the alleged commitment to supranationality by this “European saint.”4 But even in looking at the present form of the EU one clearly discovers a strong role of intergovernmentalism in the institution, which can be just as well explained with the role of Charles de Gaulle as the supranational element can be explained with Monnet’s.5 De Gaulle, frequently cast as “Eurosceptic,” had a huge influence on the trajectory of integration, to the point at which his imprint may be the source of many misgivings with integration arising later. Who, then, is the “Eurosceptic?” The political scientist Sofia Vasilopoulou runs into this problem when she demands a study of “Euroscpeticism” which takes the mutual influences of the process of integration and its sceptics into account6 However, as the discussion held, it could very well be true that the concept here stood in the way of further insights. While Vasilopoulou was correct in her observation that indeed some “bad Europeans” were also the Union’s architects, the problem was her implicit value judgement. It seems like it all very much depends on “the eye of the beholder” (Kaiser): Who is “bad” and who is not? Which construction site gets to call itself Europe, which doesn’t? Moreover, it is a question of contested concepts: What you expect to come out of a construction site may radically differ from your neighbor’s imaginations, not to mention the actual plans (and in the case of Europe, this plural is very much justified).

Building on Gilbert’s work, the discussion also turned to the critique of teleology. Using a comparison with 19th century German historians of the nation state, the point was made that a teleological telling of integration history might be more harmful than their accounts, since the end product of integration is still unclear, both with regard to form (“deepening” how?) and to extent (“widening” where?). While these questions may very well have been similarly unclear to said 19th century historians, and while it appears obvious that the telos to at least some present-day historians is the supranation, the exchange held a clear insight: The comparison laid bare that the EU (and earlier institutions) were and are “polities in the making”, as it was put in the discussion. To quote Kaiser’s lecture: “The history of European integration should be told as the conflictual emergence of a transnational polity.” To give our strained metaphor a final stretch, the construction site was surrounded by architects, all of them handing in plans and meshing them into a collage, some of them already starting to build modest huts, others using wrecking balls to make room for a something more grandiose.

What does this mean for the place of our project? What can we contribute? Many suggestions were made in the discussion, from historicizing or problematizing dominant concepts, over decentering perspectives, to moving away from a history of “great men” (significantly, of course, Jean Monnet and Charles de Gaulle once more were key protagonists in this report). Two metaphors were used: that of the “mosaic,” standing in for our individual projects which hopefully will fit together in a harmonious picture in the end; and that of the “spectre of Europe,” which our protagonists attempted to alternately conjure up or exorcise, all while it was changing its shape, size, and nature. Maybe, it was suggested, our project is all about how the “empty signifier” Europe was filled with meaning. In the end it appeared obvious that we had encountered many open questions: What better result could there be for a first workshop?

  1. Crespy, Amandine and Verschueren, Nicolas: From Euroscepticism to Resistance to European Integration: An Interdisciplinary Perspective. In: Perspectives on European Politics and Society 10 / No. 3 (2009), pp. 377–393, here p. 389. []
  2. Retrieved from; 4th October, 2021 []
  3. Gilbert, Mark: Narrating the Process. Questioning the Progressive Story of European Integration. In: JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies 46 / No. 3 (2008), pp. 641–662. []
  4. To borrow a formulation from Milward, Alan S.: The European Rescue of the Nation-State. 2nd edition. London, New York. 2000, pp. 281-303. []
  5. This argument is similarly made in Gilbert: Narrating the process, p. 647. []
  6. Vasilopoulou, Sofia: Continuity and Change in the Study of Euroscepticism: Plus ça change? In: JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies 51 / No. 1 (2013), pp. 153–168. []

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