Report on the Workshop at GHI Rome, 17-18 January 2022

From Anna Scheuble, B.A. student Europa-Universität Viadrina, intern at the German Historical Institute Warsaw

The project team of “(De)constructing Europe” gathered to discuss the state of their research in a workshop that took place from 17 to 18 January and was organized by the German Historical Institute Rome. Through the contributions of four experts, Gabriele D’Ottavio (University of Trento), Mark Gilbert (SAIS Europe, Johns Hopkins University), Andrea Guiso (Sapienza University of Rome), and Claudia Kraft (University of Vienna) the meeting aimed at discussing general overarching methodological and theoretical issues as well as at providing ideas for the operationalization of the individual subprojects. 

Apart from the consideration of the state of the individual projects, the discussions brought up general questions regarding the transnational approach and the problems deriving from teleological narratives of European integration and the resulting pitfall of retrospective determinism. Building upon the results of previous meetings, the dichotomy between Europeanism and Euroscepticism was called into question: Euroscepticism – or criticisms towards the European integration processes – has often played a central and active role in the overall history of European integration. Furthermore, since European integration is a process whose scope has consistently changed over time, also resistances to it have been articulated in ever changing ways. As a result, narrow definitions of concepts such as Euroscepticism tend to misrepresent the ambiguous, fluctuating, and volatile nature of these resistances. 

In the vein of these discussions, Mark Gilbert reflected in his keynote, “The Progressive Story of European Integration. Some New Questions”, on the problem of teleological narratives of European integration. Starting with critical considerations on the fortunes of his seminal 2008 article “Narrating the process”, Gilbert emphasized the non-linear and partially contingent character of European integration. As he argued, these features derive from the political nature of the integration project. Conflicts, contestations, clash of ideas, and changes of direction are essential components of every political process and European integration is, in this sense, no exception to the rule. In fact, even looking among supporters of supranational solutions, discussions and even fundamental disagreements abounded. Notwithstanding this contested history, European integration has been often narrated as an irreversible success story, a kind of narrative which, for instance, fails to explain events such as the debt crisis and Brexit. Any new narrative of European integration, according to Mark Gilbert, needs to consider European integration as a political and therefore contested process. Supporting one of the main goals of “(De)constructing Europe”, Gilbert confirmed that the historical study of resistances to the process of integration could be one of the most fruitful avenues of research in constructing new narratives of European integration that account for its contested political nature. Gilbert insisted on a last fundamental critical point: we should not give us content with the deconstruction of the teleological narrative of European integration. After debunking old narratives, he maintained that new coherent and compelling narratives need to be produced if historians want to make a relevant contribution to the history and the course of European integration. This plea spurred a discussion among the participants on the overall problem of narrating processes in history and more generally in the social sciences. Concluding, Gilbert added that it might not be necessary to reject the progressive narrative in its entirety and that highlighting its fundamental limitations might be enough to correct its faults and shortcomings.

The richness of these theoretical and methodological considerations, along with the ideas and advice on individual projects, which resulted from the workshop, will accompany the group members’ thoughts over the coming months. In light of what was discussed in the workshop, the challenge they now face consists of diving deep into their sources and empirical fields, while keeping in mind these overarching considerations over the narrative they intend to construct as single researchers and as a group. 


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