Going against the tide? Sceptical views and alternative visions of European integration

From William King, German Historical Institute London (GHIL)

This post covers our recent evening panel event of the (De)Constructing Europe London Workshop, hosted at the German Historical Institute London. It took place at 17.15 on Thursday, 7 July 2022. The introduction was given by Professor Christina von Hodenberg (GHIL), the Chair was Dr James Ellison (QMUL), and the panel members were Professor Piers Ludlow (LSE), Dr Andrea Mammone (University of Rome La Sapienza), Dr Eirini Karamouzi (Sheffield).

On a warm summer evening in London, addressing a controversial topic, our visiting experts delved into a complex web, or, in this case, a perplexing and multi-layered tide. We had around 40 attendees, and, in a hybrid session, half were in the room and half online. Unfortunately, views towards integration cannot be so tidily or easily divided into such a binary. This was no trip to the beach or tranquil swim; history is, after all, messy.

The German Historical Institute in London

Fortunately, we had some world-leading experts to help navigate a path forward. Professor Christina von Hodenberg (GHIL) opened the event with an insightful introduction outlining the (De)Constructing Europe project and several key themes. Among these were observations that critical or sceptical views towards integration were not just a product of the Maastricht Treaty – they were an essential feature from the beginning of the integration project. She further observed that there is and was a plurality of positions and views regarding integration, alternative European futures were constantly being conceived. Furthermore, transnational links and networks across borders characterise the history of European integration.

Our panel began with Dr Eirini Karamouzi, a specialist on the History of the Cold War, European Integration, Greece and Southern Enlargement. Eirini noted that one particular difficulty with studying alternative visions and paths is that we, as historians, are likely dealing with some degree of perceived failure: the desired path for certain actors or networks was not chosen. These stories of struggles and failures have, though, been largely overlooked in favour of the ‘success’ stories of integration. This is a shortcoming that needs to be overcome. In the study of European integration as a whole, Eirini observed that any study of Euroscepticism is plagued with difficulties relating to definitions, but, historians must constructively engage in a field primarily left to political scientists. Likewise, in selling the importance of European integration history to policy-makers, historians have so far struggled to garner interest and support. Eirini’s realistic opening statement was thus also a call to action, seeking to encourage historians to be more involved and to wade into these tricky waters.  

Following Eirini was Professor Piers Ludlow, whose comments explored potential typology and change over time. Piers echoed the concerns of Eirini that historians had to be careful, with Euroscepticism representing at different times and in different places different phenomenon. But, he noted that some form of loose typology could be helpful in understanding a complex topic, especially if movement between categories were allowed. His three potential categories were anti-Europeans (no to Europe), divergences over what type of Europe (no to this particular form of integration), and contestations about particular policies. In terms of change over time, Piers made clear that critical views are ever-present in the history of integration, but, not a constant – the saliency of such criticism ebbed and flowed. This process also coincided with an intensification of European integration in the 1980s, when impacts of integration began to be increasingly felt by a greater number of citizens. While not inevitably leading to more criticism, he maintained that there is a natural corollary between the intensification of integration and the scale (in terms of mass-movements) of critical views.  

Completing the panel was Dr Andrea Mammone, who specialises in the history of fascism, nationalism, and the far-right and Europe. Andrea noted that the trend of alternative visions for Europe long pre-dates Maastricht, is certainly not a recent development, and can be clearly traced to the inter-war period and inter-war fascism. He observed that there is a history of far-right Europeans trying to build a continent, for example, with Oswald Mosley in the UK, and that these often had transnational elements. In the postwar period, many neofascist publications elaborated a distinct and different vision of Europe, such as those by Maurice Bardèche. Andrea was also keen to observe that there was not just one alternative vision of Europe; figures who could be termed as populists or as part of the left or the right all had different visions of what ‘Europe’ should be. He also, as with Eirini, cautioned that historians had left the field largely uncontested and should enter these choppy waters. This was especially important as ideas travel through time and across borders, such as with the coordinating efforts between Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, and Matteo Salvini. The work of historians has an important contemporary resonance.

After an articulate overview by Dr James Ellison, the floor opened for questions. These questions were on education, presentism, a lack of coverage of criticism from the ‘outside’ of the integration project, symbolism of specific actions (Reagan’s and Kohl’s wreath-laying), a potential grand narrative bringing together national mythologies and exceptionalism, and on the question of typology and categorisation. On the latter, the act of labelling was acknowledged to be difficult, especially as this often comes with a loaded term. Categories could risk implying some shared idea of what Europe is and could be reliant on a static picture. The question of national exceptionalism, or a unique form of Euroscepticism, was also touched upon. Here, the UK was a primary point of discussion – is British Euroscepticism exceptional or unique? The panel addressed a plethora of topics in a wide-ranging discussion.

One common remark was that, in several ways, historians, as opposed to just alternative visions or critical views of integration, are also moving against the tide in a field of study that needs to catch up. Issues of definitions, categorisation and change over time render intervention a most challenging endeavour. Perhaps some historians have refrained from entering these waters for fear of getting swept away or struggling to catch a breath.

But, change is afoot. Even if recent events partly drive a renewed interest in the history of alternative visions of Europe and European integration, the (De)Constructing Europe project is one clear example that historians are increasingly diving into these troublesome waters. We are not the first. Others are already pushing against the tide, and we remain hopeful that many are yet to join.

Cite this blog post
Editorial Board (2022, July 19). Going against the tide? Sceptical views and alternative visions of European integration. (De)Constructing Europe. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/olom

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