The EU: Past, Present, and Future

About this Episode

Guests
Donald Hempson,  Lauren Henry, Chris Otter

On this episode of History Talk, Patrick and Mark sit down with Donald Hempson Lauren Henry, and Chris Otter to discuss the history of the European Union, an organization that has united Europeans in ways that were almost unthinkable a century ago. Today, the EU faces an unprecedented combination of challenges, including a lingering economic crisis, a massive influx of migrants, and the specter of terrorism.  But as our guests tell us, the EU has proven to be surprisingly resilient and adaptable, constantly reinventing itself in the face of sweeping historic changes.

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Cite this Site

Patrick R. Potyondy, Mark Sokolsky , "The EU: Past, Present, and Future" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
April, 2016
https://origins.osu.edu/historytalk/eu-past-present-and-future?language_content_entity=en.
April, 2016

Transcript

Patrick Potyondy  
Welcome to History Talk the podcast that brings together a panel of experts to discuss current events in historical perspective. I'm your host, Patrick Potyondy.

Mark Sokolsky  
And I'm your other host, Mark Sokolsky. Today we address the past, present and future of the European Union, that unique institution that has brought together 28 sovereign states and over 500 million Europeans under one political and economic group. Joining us today to discuss the history of the EU and the challenges it faces are Donald Hempson, Chris Otter, and Lauren Henry.

Donald Hempson  
I'm Don Hempson, Director of the International Operations for the College of Engineering here at Ohio State University. I also teach courses on security, diplomacy and European affairs for the International Studies Department here at OSU.

Chris Otter  
I'm Chris Otter, I'm a professor in the history department. I teach classes on British history, European history, as well as history of science, technology, medicine, environment.

Lauren Henry  
I'm Lauren Henry. I'm a graduate student in the history department. I study modern French history and French colonial history and I teach classes on modern European history and the history of empires and nationalism in a global and European context.

Patrick Potyondy  
Thanks to everyone for joining us today, and especially to Lauren here phoning in from Athens all the way and so to start off, we'd like to give our listeners a sense of exactly what the EU is and where it came from. So maybe just kind of let's cover a little bit of the historical origins of the European Union. When and why was it created? And maybe Don, if you wanted to start us off with this question?

Donald Hempson  
Sure. The European Union really began shortly after the end of the Second World War with something called the European Coal and Steel community, an attempt to bring six countries together in an attempt to integrate some of their economies in their primary industries with the idea that those with shared economic interests are less likely to repeat the devastation and the hostilities that it had plagued the continent with the first two world wars. And it really evolved from there. It evolved from a community of six countries, six states, primarily in Western Europe, to become a more integrated economic community of states, becoming the European community, and eventually evolving through a series of treaties to become the European Union that we know today. Expanding, really the largest expansion being in 2004, when it nearly doubled in size, but again, again, bringing in additional States since that time.

Mark Sokolsky  
So just generally speaking, who at the beginning were the big proponents of European integration, either people themselves or the particular states?

Donald Hempson  
Primarily, I'd say the initial push for the European integration, European Coal and Steel Community, came from state level actors. Not to say that there wasn't a popular support for this in some way. But unless you go back to earlier periods in the 20th century, and some late 19th century movements that were sort of Pan-European that had some popular support, you were really looking in the late '40s, early '50s, at state actor driven, diplomatic driven initiatives to create a scenario whereby again, sort of the quote, unquote, bad actors of the previous conflicts actually integrated their interests economically. And so this was being driven by the international community at the highest level, both from the state actors that were coming together, France, West Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Italy, but also some of the other drivers of international affairs at times, the United States, the UK, and others, encouraging this type of integration.

Mark Sokolsky  
How far back do visions of a United Europe go?

Donald Hempson  
I'll jump in there. I mean, but please don't let me be the only one talking. There are a number of 19th century movements in various forms that you could probably trace, this eventual move to what we know is the European Union. This can be, some that come to mind, are the Pan-European movement that really kind of came together in the late 19th century in various forms and it's hard to say that there was one consistent movement. But this idea that there was a shared interest in coming together, either economically or diplomatically, and sort of a cohesive unit even had smaller types of regional, if you will, attempts, Pan-Slavism, attempts to sort of unite segments of the European continent by shared ethnicity or shared geography. Some have I think have even argued that that's what Napoleon was trying to do in his conquest of Europe was to create a unified Europe clearly under a little bit more different model than we see today. One that may have been a little bit more problematic to the citizens than what we see today. But it depends on how you want to look at it, what we mean by an integrated Europe and a common Europe as to how far back we want to push those definitions or look for those types of trends. But I'd say certainly what we saw on the aftermath of World War II was consistent with similar movements that date back to the mid-19th century.

Mark Sokolsky  
Is there a sense that both world wars, they were really, maybe a key pivot for the final creation of the European Union?

Lauren Henry  
If I can step in here?

Mark Sokolsky  
Yeah, go for it Lauren.

Lauren Henry  
Yeah, I think it's almost impossible to understand European integration without thinking about the legacy of the first two world wars. I mean, I remember, around the turn of the century, when the European Union, sorry, when the Euro was first introduced, there was a sort of joke that said, if you would have told somebody in 1900s, that you could use the same currency at a cafe in Paris, or in Berlin, the person would ask you, well, who conquered who? So I think that, you know, the mindset shifts after the Second World War and that's really where the initial move to put together a union based on economics, which is really centered in kind of the Franco-German repostment that happens at the end of the war. I mean, the European Coal and Steel Community, it's sort of built out of the industry in that area and the Ruhr Valley. And so the idea that not only in general are people who are more closely economically integrated, less likely to fight one another but that France and what's then West Germany at the time, be more economically integrated, will be less likely to fight each other, is incredibly, incredibly salient. It's no coincidence that one of the two capitals of the European Union is in Strasburg, a city in the Alsace region that changed hands between the French and the Germans through the course of the nations into 20th century as a result of their frequent conflict.

Patrick Potyondy  
Chris, do you have a sense on we've mentioned coal and steel here several times as a post World War II key issue. Why those issues as kind of the base here for kind of European economic integration? Do you have a sense of that?

Chris Otter  
Well, I think as Lauren just said, I mean, aside from the fact that these are arguably the two most important industrial resources in the whole of Europe.

Patrick Potyondy  
Okay.

Chris Otter  
They're also resources, particularly coal that are located right in that sort of contested Franco-German region and obviously, the sort of industrialized nature of Alsace-Lorraine is one of the reasons why there's a continued fight over that area. And so if this is placed under some sort of common agreement, then the idea is that there will no longer be resource wars between the French, the coal-poor French and the coal-rich Germans.

Mark Sokolsky  
Okay. Trying to move away from the conflicts of the early 20th century with a key component in the formation of the coal and steel community in the European Economic Community. How did motivations change with the integration of other countries? So in the with Britain and other places in Europe,

Chris Otter  
I think there are each country has its probably its own set of particular motivations. If you look at the British case, Britain was very generally fairly happy for the coal and steel community to be formed, and had no desire whatsoever to be part of it and as Winston Churchill, say, famously, "we are we are with but not all of Europe", Britain, in in the immediate post war period was nationalizing its industries. The last thing I wanted was then to reintegrate them into some supernatural, natural, supernatural supranational agency and the many of the the British postwar governments, particularly the labour governments were dismissive of joining of joining Europe. They they liked the idea of retaining national sovereignty and in every area, but I think there's sort of the the political balance between countries is also important. The goal was, was was very much opposed to Britain joining the European community, and, and after his, his resignation, in I think 69 Pompidou was was much more pro-British as this coincided with Heath becoming Prime Minister in Britain. He he's quite clearly the most of Eurofilic Prime Minister in the post war, British period and so a sort of combination, and I think that's at a political level, in a sense. And the effects of decolonization, the distancing in time from the end of World War Two, contributed certainly to to Britain's motivations to join in the 70s, but unlike a lot of other countries, Britain did not ever get fully with the program. You know, there's there's there was never Britain was very happy for free trade zone and people will repeatedly say that, that we wanted that we'd like that. But we never wanted anything else and and I think that's a pretty unique position. I mean, you have to sort of think that some countries never joined Norway never joined Sweden. Sorry, Switzerland never joined. various countries have had their own sets of particular motivations. So I think it I don't think there's any single patent. 

Donald Hempson  
I would agree with Chris on that part. I mean, you really do need to as the European Community evolves into the European Union, and this greater integration occurs, you really do need to look at what is the motivation behind each of those countries, and you can isolate them to certain countries, and maybe even certain blocks. You know, for instance, in the late 80s, and throughout the 1990s, for those states that had been trapped behind the Iron Curtain in Soviet dominated Eastern Europe, for the latter half of the 20th century, many of them saw membership in the European Union as a return to Europe various ways in which that can be defined and again, that becomes, you know, depending on which country you're looking at, but the sort of general idea that membership in the European Union meant they've been rehabilitated, they've been brought back into the fold and even in places like the Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia, what come through the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary. They even saw that as a way of dropping the adjective, right, that they were no longer the other Europe, they were no longer Eastern Europe, but the European Union, as much as it brought some certain economic benefits in terms of funds for rehabilitating some of their their economy, they are infrastructure, things of that nature, it was very symbolic of returning to the fold returning to a cultural home that they'd always felt part of.

Patrick Potyondy  
Gaining a status, maybe

Donald Hempson  
their status. And absolutely, but I think also a sense that they are always have been, culturally Europe, that they have not been the sort of tread upon satellite states of a monolithic Soviet Empire, on the fringe of Europe, but certainly a status as well,

Lauren Henry  
I just want to say that I think that this idea of the membership in the European, you know, whether it's the European Economic, economic community, or the European Union as a status symbol, and that sort of symbolic resonance of it is really, I think, an important factor and even dates before, the bringing in of these of these post communist states, looking at the expansion of the EU in the 80s and the, the entrance of Spain, and Portugal, these are two countries that sort of also use membership in the European community, as a way of kind of signaling their membership and sort of moving out of isolation. Of course, in both of these cases, it's less about, you know, approach communist development and sort of moving past dictatorship. So the death of Franco in Spain and the Carnation Revolution, in Portugal in 74, and the establishment of democracies there. So I think it's an interesting sort of pattern that we see that in some ways, membership in the European community, and then later the European Union, you can see that sort of a validation, or a recognition that you're a member of kind of larger democratic society in Europe.

Patrick Potyondy  
and maybe quickly, and that makes me wonder, have current member states, you know, at any point in time, always wanted to expand the European Union? And maybe what are the limits of that expansion? Because at some point, as you go further and further east, the question does become when are these nations or states European or not?

Donald Hempson  
And that's that age old question, Where does Europe begin? Where does it end? Where's it? You know, you know, we all got those in grade school, or maybe not so much anymore, but is it geographic definition, a political definition? And I think that's where some of the challenges of the way the EU evolved, are coming into play in contemporary events. 

Patrick Potyondy  
Okay.

Donald Hempson  
I mean, to step back just for a moment to the origins, conversation we're having you could define what the European coal and steel community was, you understood the limits of it? Right, what were the objectives of it? As you've evolved into what is now the European Union. It's not just a question of how far does it expand, but what is it? Is it simply an economic or is it a political or is it a status symbol? And that is as much as a part of the conversation, I think, as what are the the physical limits of the European Union.

Chris Otter  
Exactly. And, and I think that the physical limits is one question, but political and legal limits is another, and certainly, the European Union has evolved in it not necessarily intentional ways from being as a relatively small economic union to be to being a sprawling and politically extremely complex, political, economic, judicial, of union and, and this is where conflicts begin to begin to arise again, to sort of repeat what I said earlier on, for for Britain, which I think is a unique, very unique case. The Britain has always been really a predominantly free trading country, for the last, you know, couple of hundred years, this has been the dominant economic ideology and therefore, the idea of a free trading zone is very, very, very appealing, but Britain is also firmly opposed to federalism. It probably more so than than most European countries and the idea of seeding any kind of national sovereignty, is political suicide in Britain. And both parties in both major parties in Britain have never wanted to go down that depth down that route. So as the European Union has expanded, in terms of in terms of its functions, this is this has created problems, problems across Europe, but certainly problems with with regard to Britain.

Mark Sokolsky  
Lauren, do you want to add anything to that?

Lauren Henry  
Oh, I was just going to say that this sort of, as far as this question of what the EU is, you know, where its jurisdiction lies and one of the things that I find interesting is that in the sort of debate about Britain's continued membership in the EU, which I hope we'll get a chance to talk about this a little bit. There's a sort of fixation on a specific phrase that comes from the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which set up the European Economic Community, and where the signatories of the treaty pledge to work towards, quote, "an ever closer union" and it seems that if you read anything about the so called debate around, you know, the Brexit, this phrase "ever closer union" comes up again, and again and again and I think maybe that's, you know, where some of this lack of clarity comes from. Because it's never really defining what the "ever closer union" was supposed to look like and yet at the same time, it seems interesting to me, because the idea, as Professor Otter just said, that Britain is essentially a free trading nation and that's where some of this comes from seems really true, because in conversations on the continent, broadly speaking, you don't often hear people really fixating on this line. There's a sort of sense that it doesn't have the same kind of symbolic resonance, or maybe the same kind of symbolic dread attached to it, that it does in other places. You know, it just sounds like a sort of a beautiful phrase. But the "ever closer union" has, I think, somewhat of an ominous tone to it in other contexts.

Mark Sokolsky  
Okay. So self-definition is certainly one challenge that the EU has always faced and continues to face. And why don't we jump into Brexit right now, as one of the current challenges facing the EU? What you know, broadly speaking, would be the reservations that Britains have now and and how different are those from what we've seen in the past?

Chris Otter  
Sure. I mean, I think it just to sort of give a bit of context here. Obviously, what we have at the moment in Britain is that one of the major parties, the Conservative Party, has become effectively a Euroskeptic party. There's this term, Euroskeptic, which is only about 20 years old. This has now become a sort of Central policy of the Conservative Party. This really hasn't always been the case, as I sort of hinted earlier on. The Labour Party was initially the more Euroskeptic of the two countries, partly because of the fear of excessive free trade, as we were going through a more socialistic phase in Britain. And this kind of reversal in British party politics took place in the late '80s and early '90s, and really was defined by Margaret Thatcher, who, while being nominally pro-European, at the start of her ministry in '79, by the late '80s, in a famous speech she gave in Bruges, I think, in 1988, Thatcher was basically saying that there is now sort of integration by stealth. That this economic union is effectively a Trojan horse for all kinds of socialistic Marxist horrors, being sort of developed in Brussels and expanding extending their tentacles into places like Britain. And this became really the, this is really the origins of Euroskepticism as we see it and then your have to remember that Euroskepticism has a bunch of different origins, there is sort of xenophobia, but it's too simplistic to call it that. There is British nationalism. There's also British hyperglobalism, the idea that you know, Britain is a global, free trading country with connections all over the place, why should we have special connections with one relatively small part of the globe. There are people who worry about sovereignty. This in combination with some of the more rabid statements of the tabloid press in Britain, then sort of generating the rise of the referendum party and UKIP and so forth, has created a point where now in Britain, Europe is one of the major dividing lines between parties. And we'll have a referendum fairly soon on this and  this could go either way. So this is something that has, it's not just about sort of ideas floating around. This is firmly anchored in the battle between the parties. As the conservatives became more Euroskeptic labor under Blair became more pro-European, but yet there were always limits to that. Yeah, I'd say the Blair administration was still one of the most Europhobic administrations in Europe, because of, again, the American connection.

Patrick Potyondy  
So rooted both in those kind of EU politics at a broader level, but also the politics of the nation state itself?

Chris Otter  
The ongoing domestic issues. And, you know, periodically in Britain, there are these sort of huge fractures in parties. There were a couple of them in the 19th century and the argument of some political theorists is that at the moment, the Conservative Party is going through one of these, these fractures over the question of Europe.

Mark Sokolsky  
Lauren, what's the state of Euroskepticism in France right now?

Lauren Henry  
I think that it's, certainly there's always been a sort of Euroskepticism. Remember, the European constitution was actually a revision, was put to the vote, and I believe it was 2004 and it was actually voted down in France, and I believe in Belgium as well. But usually, what you see in terms of Euroskepticism, in at least in my experience of it in France, is that it's often much more economic. So it has to do with usually, because so much of the I think tangible effects of European integration in France beyond, you know, the open borders, has to do with agriculture, and has to do with sort of farmer subsidies, the ability to trade and bring in goods. So often, when you sort of talk about European, Euroskepticism, it usually has to do with these kind of, I would call them pocketbook issues. Of course, in the last year or two with the sort of international crises of migration and terrorism, they are kind of I think, maybe in the process of reshaping the political discussions around Europe, in France, but really I would say it's more economic, at least in my experience.

Patrick Potyondy  
And so what other maybe one or two issues, and I think maybe we've mentioned a few of them here, would we highlight as being the main challenges facing the EU today? And, Don, if you want to jump in here.

Donald Hempson  
I think Lauren just mentioned one of them, which is this mountain, the issue of migrants, flooding into Europe, and the public debate that that is generating. You know, the sort of street-level debate but also the way that it's working into the the debate at the national political level. That is going to be I think, as taxing on the future of the European Union, or the direction it goes, as the economic crises of the last several years and the debt crises, the discussions on on whether or not you can actually withdraw from the European Union is, as the referendum in Britain is going to sort of play itself out or determine. So I think that that's one of the obvious challenges that's going to shape what happens with the EU. And to just sort of build a little bit on what Chris and Lauren said, before leaving the Brexit, I think one of the interesting implications for however that turns out tying into these other issues is what's that going to be, mean in terms of precedent for other member states where there have been varying levels of Euroskepticism, as well. Is this going to signal if Europe decides, or excuse me, Britain decides to withdraw, is that going to signal that there are reasons or there is an ability to exit the European Union? And will it be over the issue of migrants? Will it be over the issue of debt? Will it be over the issue of political sovereignty? So I think that's another dimension to, what's going on in Britain, I think, is relevant to the all the entirety of the European Union.

Mark Sokolsky  
Do you think that the challenges that Europe is facing right now are unprecedented? Is it in its greatest moment of crisis since the formation of the EU?

Chris Otter  
I don't know whether I would say this is greatest crisis, but it's certainly in a unique, there's certainly unique confluence of issues here. If you look at the sort of the global issues, the genuinely global issues that are impacting on Europe, the issues of security, of migration, and of the problems in the global economy, those three things have been brought together in a way they haven't been brought together before. And at the level, you know, and this is creating tremendous tensions within the European Union. The tensions we've seen between Germany and Greece, which are magnified in the tensions, that the sort of more affluent, northern and western parts of the European Union feel about introducing countries who, from an anglo-German perspective really, you know, a lot of people think these places like Greece shouldn't be in the European Union, because they simply can't balance the books and so on, so forth. And then when this is compounded with the issue of immigration, and the European Union, which has pursued open borders, and even though Britain, for example, didn't join Schengen Agreement, it's still party to the European Union's immigration laws, there's tremendous tension between the desire to free and liberate labor mobility, and then the problems that brings in its weight. These are problems of globalization and so in a sense Europe's dealing with ongoing problems that are affecting the whole world in different ways.

Patrick Potyondy  
And so for our final kind of segment, and question here, and your final comments, given what we know about the EU's, past here, and what we've discussed, we just wanted to ask all three of you, where do you see Europe going from here?

Donald Hempson  
Well that's not a big question at all, is it?

Patrick Potyondy  
Not at all, we only ask the real small questions here.

Donald Hempson  
As Chris said, this is it's not a unique moment in in the EU's history in the sense that there's always been an open debate about what the EU means, the extent to which it should expand, the extent to which it can contract. There are these confluence of events that do make it somewhat more unique and I think that makes it a little bit difficult to sort of predict what this outcome is. But I think if you look back at the evolution of the European Union, it's adaptable, even if it hasn't perfectly adapted to each of the situations. And I think that's my take, is it will find a way to keep evolving and it will find a way to redefine itself. I think that we've gone perhaps too far down this road for a complete dismantling of the European Union. I think that some of these institutions have been cemented in place. What that looks like in 10 years is difficult to see. Are we going to stop seeing an expansion or we're going to see some Member States being allowed to withdraw, and therefore sort of see a shrinking backwards in on its original membership? I think those are possibilities, but I don't really see the European Union experiment dying out and this just sort of being a footnote in history. That once there was this sort of continental-wide system. I think, in some shape or form, it's going to continue to move forward.

Chris Otter  
I agree with you. There's too much momentum behind the European Union. It's suffering from problems at the moment, but I think a majority of people would say that these problems are best faced together. And, you know, if countries, you know, effectively opt out of the European Union, the problems are greater. You cease to have any kind of input into this, this gigantic political economic unit, that's still going to be heavily influential on your national trajectory. So you know, I think that's, you know, although it's an incredibly complex and problematic entity, it's here to stay, and it will transform, but I don't think it's going to disappear and I don't think it should. I think it would be a very, very bad thing if it fell apart.

Mark Sokolsky  
Lauren, you're in many ways at the fault line of the European experience right now, in Greece working at a migrant center. Is that right? In Athens?

Lauren Henry  
Yeah, I'm actually working at a refugee, sort of informal refugee camp. A bunch of them have sprung up in Poros in the port. And so right across from where the container ships are.

Mark Sokolsky  
How does the future of Europe look from your vantage point?

Lauren Henry  
I mean, I think that I am also pretty sanguine about the future of Europe. I think that these sorts of crises are in some ways, the confluence of them is unprecedented, and it can feel sort of bleak. But at the same time, I mean, going to the port, you come through, you know, this gorgeous Athens subway system, and everywhere you go, even in a place, you know, like Greece that has such a sort of complicated relationship recently with European integration, you see the EU flags flying, and you see projects that have, you know, signs with the EU logo on it. So I think that there are things that integration has brought that are still really held as important by people. You know, to give a couple of other examples, the student exchanges that happen throughout European universities through the Erasmus program are equally important. People, you know, young people use these programs, and they're a really sort of central part of, I think, the development of academic spots in Europe. Similarly, it's not an EU project per se, but the largest non-sporting televised event in the world is the Eurovision European Song Contest. You know, hundreds of millions of people watch it. And so I think that there are these prophecies that bring people in Europe together, but I think even more so, you know, than a parliament sitting in Brussels passing regulations. These are stronger than that.

Mark Sokolsky  
All right, well, that's an optimistic note on which to end this discussion, with Eurovision no less. So I just want to thank everyone for coming. It's been great talking with you. Our guests today have been Don Hempson, specialist in European and international affairs with  OSU's International Studies program, Chris Otter specialist in British history with OSU's Department of History. And Lauren Henry, historian of modern France and the French Empire with OSU's Department of History. A big thank you to everyone. 

Patrick Potyondy  
Thank you all.

Chris Otter  
Thank you.

Donald Hempson  
Thank you.

Lauren Henry  
Thank you.

Mark Sokolsky  
This episode of History Talk podcast was brought to you by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, an online publication of the public history initiative and the Goldberg Center in history department at The Ohio State University in Columbus and  Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Our main editors are Stephen Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley, our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer. Our audio producers and hosts are Patrick Potyondy and Mark Sokolsky. Song and band information can be found on our website. You can find our podcasts and more at our website Origins osu.edu on iTunes and on Soundcloud and as always, you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. Thanks for listening.

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