European Integration Before BREXIT

What history reveals about the future

By János Matus, Ph.D., International Business School, Budapest, Hungary

The British vote to leave the European Union came as a surprise to many people and raised many questions about the EU’s future, even its very existence. But were there warning signs in the EU-British relationship that should have signaled the referendum’s surprising outcome? And is there a reasonable approach to this complex problem that can help a majority of the British public understand what is happening with the EU? A short summary of the history of Europe’s conflicts is helpful when trying to understand the need seven decades ago for fundamental changes in Europe. An overview of the theoretical concepts behind the foundation of a peaceful Europe brings a better understanding of the basic idea of European integration. Finally, whether the governments of EU member states and the EU’s institutions in Brussels pursued wise growth policies also begs an answer.

Building peace

Jack Levy, an American political scientist, prepared a summary of European conflict between 1495 and 1945 and identified 114 wars in which great powers participated on one or both sides. Statistical data revealed that France was the most frequent participant in those wars, and the victorious powers generally hold Germany responsible for the most destructive conflicts of all — the two world wars.

For centuries, balance-of-power politics was one of Great Britain’s most important foreign policy tools. A famous statement by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is a good characterization of the balance-of-power politics pursued by successive British governments: “For four hundred years the foreign policy of England has been to oppose the strongest, most aggressive, most dominant Power on the continent. … We always took the harder course, joined with the less strong Powers, made a combination among them, and thus defeated and frustrated the Continental military tyrant whoever he was, whatever nation he led.” Just before World War II, Churchill characterized his attitude toward military alliance: “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.” Even though he believed there was a natural affinity for democracies, 19th century British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston declared, “England has no permanent friends; she has only permanent interests.”

Pro-Brexit crowds gather outside Parliament in London in 2016. Were signs missed that signaled more support for Brexit than the polls showed? EPA

The United States distanced itself from Europe for many years. At the end of his presidency in 1796, George Washington warned his successors about the dangers of European conflicts and suggested they stay away from them. In 1823, U.S. President James Monroe further developed the concept by warning the European powers not to intervene in the internal affairs of the Western Hemisphere. Before announcing the Monroe Doctrine, the president rejected a British proposal regarding joint Anglo-American opposition to a possible European intervention in Spain’s former American empire. The doctrine stated that any attempt by the European powers to impose their system on the Americas would be viewed as dangerous to peace and security, according to author Stephen J. Valone in Two Centuries of U.S. Foreign Policy. The Monroe Doctrine remained in force — except for the last two years of World War I — until the beginning of World War II. After the war, a lengthy debate in Congress was followed by a decision in which the U.S. committed itself to long-term security cooperation with Western European countries. At the same time the U.S. expressed full support for close political, security and economic cooperation with countries within its own region.

Security has become a major issue of European integration. The argument that Europe’s past must not be Europe’s future figured in speeches by European leaders, especially on commemorative occasions. In a major speech in 2000, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said: “Fifty years ago almost to the day, Robert Schuman presented his vision of a European Federation for the preservation of peace. This heralded a completely new era in the history of Europe. European integration was the response to centuries of precarious balance of powers on this continent, which again and again resulted in terrible hegemonic wars culminating in the two World Wars between 1914 and 1945. The core of the concept of Europe after 1945 was and still is a rejection of the balance-of-power principle and the hegemonic ambitions of individual states that had emerged following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, a rejection which took the form of closer meshing of vital interests and the transfer of nation-state sovereign rights to supranational European institutions. … A step backwards, even just standstill or contentment with what has been achieved, would demand a fatal price of all EU member states and of all those who want to become members; it would demand a fatal price above all of our people. This is particularly true for Germany and the Germans.”

Former French President Jacques Chirac also took special opportunities to underline the importance of history in building a peaceful Europe. He characterized Franco-German relations the following way: “Germany, our neighbor, our adversary yesterday, our companion today. … What France and Germany have experienced and undergone in history is unlike anything else. Better than any other nation, they grasp the deep meaning of peace and of the European enterprise. They alone, by forcing the pace of things, could give the signal for a great coming together in Europe.”

In Great Britain, the use of history was somewhat different from the German and French concept of integration. British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook wrote in an article during the Kosovo war in 1999: “There are now two Europes competing for the soul of our continent. One still follows the race ideology that blighted our continent under the fascists. The other emerged fifty years ago from behind the shadow of the Second World War.” British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in a November 2000 speech in Croatia: “The 15 member states of the EU — countries that in the lifetime of my father were at war with one another — are now working in union, with 50 years of peace and prosperity behind us. And now, holding out the prospect of bringing the same peace and prosperity to the Eastern and Central European nations and even to the Balkan countries.”

The securitization of history — when past issues are presented as existential security threats — has been clearly demonstrated by the leaders of the largest and most powerful EU members, the ones who have had the most direct experience in traditional power politics and who have also suffered the consequences. History as an object of securitization has been emphasized in the strongest way in statements by German politicians. Mutual securitization of history by France and Germany has been confirmed by the statements of politicians from both countries. Great Britain securitized history and the European integration differently, which can be explained by the special balancing role it played in European conflicts. Great Britain joined the European Economic Community later, and differences on fundamental issues soon surfaced.

Theories and ideas

In the first half of the 20th century, two competing schools of thought dominated the theory of state behavior and relations among them. Political realism, the older concept and practice, held the view that international relations are conflictive by nature, wars are unavoidable, and states are the primary and dominant actors. In the international system, security is the most important concern of states and military force is its principle guarantor. The concept and practice of the balance of power belongs to the political realist school. World War I, the first global war, triggered sharp criticism of political realism and strengthened the position and influence of the second competing school of thought, classical liberalism, which favors international institutions when shaping state preferences and policy choices. Liberals rejected balance-of-power politics and the use of secret diplomacy in the relationship of states. They saw a better future with an international institution promoting greater cooperation among the states. Conflicts among states can be avoided when a harmony of interests exists. The first explanation of the liberal view of international relations and its implementation in international politics can be found in Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points.

European developments in the 1920s and 1930s produced increasingly convincing arguments against the liberal concept and political practices based on it. British historian Edward H. Carr criticized the liberal view of harmony of interests among states and ushered in a more articulate political realist explanation of international relations. The publication in 1939 of his book The Twenty Years’ Crisis opened the first major debate between the liberal utopian and the realist understanding of world politics. Carr considered political realism the more correct and efficient approach to international relations but didn’t completely discard integration since he viewed it as a way to promote changes in international relations. He suggested that any political thought must be based on elements of both utopia and reality. In subsequent decades, these two approaches influenced the theoretical approaches to international relations. In practical terms, governments followed foreign policies characterized by a mixture of both theories. Political realist views regarding international relations dominated the East-West rivalry and especially the confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Even if the ideological conflict was not as intense in other regions of the world as in Soviet-U.S. relations, political realism still had a stronger influence than liberalism almost everywhere. Western Europe was an exception. Due to its history of conflicts, Western European countries began following an unchartered course some experts characterized as a common adventure to an unknown future.

Anti-Brexit protesters display their allegiance to the European Union outside Parliament in London in 2017. EPA

After World War II, liberal thoughts regarding international relations survived and emerged in various forms of integration. Securitization of the past and the lessons learned from history influenced the evolution of liberal ideas and policies in Western Europe. David Mitrany, a frequently quoted representative of integration theorists, was a British political scientist who belonged to the functionalist school of integration theory. Mitrany suggested that a peaceful international order could be achieved through cooperation among functional areas of different countries. He viewed the use of old, formal, constitutional ways as an impediment to creating a working international system. Societal links and cooperation among countries would be more efficient. In practical terms, it meant that a solid foundation of peaceful international relations could be built upon people-to-people contacts. Mitrany also expressed an important warning: “The problem of our generation, put very broadly, is how to weld together the common interests of all without interfering unduly with the particular ways of each. … We have already suggested that not all interests are common to all, and that the common interests do not concern all countries in the same degree.” The first example of functional links among Western European countries was the European Coal and Steel Community.

American political scientist Karl Deutsch, a representative of the transactionalist school of international relations, studied the formation of political community among nations. He concluded that the minimum condition needed to create an international political community was the existence of what he called a “security community.” He identified two kinds of political communities: pluralistic and amalgamated/united. A pluralistic political community can be a security community that is politically fragmented. A united political community can be a federation of states or a nation-state with a central government. European integration started with the creation of a security community. The Brussels Treaty of 1948 and the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949 were the most important steps in this process.

Deutsch also invested intellectual capital in the identification of possible stages of integration. According to his model, the evolution of modern nation-states can be an example for the development of an international political community, or the emergence of united security communities. The first stage is the establishment of functional links, such as trade, migration, services, military and security cooperation. At the second stage, due to the mutual benefits of collaboration, the intensity and the scope of transactions increase. The third stage is characterized by the development of socio-psychological processes that lead to the assimilation of peoples and their integration into larger communities. Communication, personal connections and learning about each other is crucial in this process. The fourth stage of integration is the emergence of one political community via assimilation of smaller political communities. The fifth stage is the conclusion of the integration process with the creation of institutions that represent and protect the identity and interests of the international political community. This is the final stage of the emergence of a united security community.

In Deutsch’s view, peaceful change in international relations has its origin in the perception and identification of people. That is why sentimental change precedes institutional change, and social assimilation and community formation precede political amalgamation. Other integration theorists criticized Deutsch for his neglect of international institutions and emphasis on social change as the primary source of political change.

From left, German Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher, Dutch Foreign Minister Hans Van Den Broek, Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos and Italian Foreign Minister Gianni De Michelis celebrate the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in the Netherlands in 1992.

Deutsch’s contemporary, Ernst Haas, also an American political scientist, followed in Mitrany’s footsteps and called his own theory neo-functionalism. In opposition to Deutsch, Haas believed that international institutions have the primary role in the process of integration because they are the entities that can encourage a shift in the cultural orientation and political loyalties that contribute to political unification. Haas’ intention was to give political dynamism to the process of integration by putting the emphasis on the role of international institutions. The neo-functionalist theory assumes that with the spread of functional links, and with the extension of the range of international activities, more and more functions will be performed by international authorities. The inclusion of new functional areas sets into motion political processes that generate demand for further steps. National governments face the dilemma of surrendering additional autonomy or risking the achievements the community has attained. Neo-functionalist theory assumes that political pressure will grow on governments to move toward greater unification. Haas described integration as an intense political process. In this process numerous political actors, while pursuing their own interests, put pressure on one another to move toward policies that are collectively and individually beneficial. In this continuous game of bargaining, there would always be governments that are reluctant to give up additional elements of sovereignty, while others would resist risking the previously achieved level of integration. When Western European integration slowed in the 1970s, theorists lost their enthusiasm for further research into the problems of integration. But the dilemma of setting priorities — whether social or political, emotional or institutional — remained with governments and the bureaucrats in international institutions.

Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye, well-known representatives of the American neo-liberalist school of international relations theory, introduced the term “transgovernmentalism” in connection with everyday operations of international institutions. With growing interdependence, governments have become more sensitive to foreign developments that might impact the political, economic and social conditions of national societies. They identified two types of transgovernmental behavior, which they thought to be valid for European integration as well.

Foreign ministers of the six participating nations sign the Schuman plan treaty in Paris in 1951, a big step in Western Europe’s cooperative effort toward economic and defense solidarity. The treaty pooled the coal and steel production of Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

First, transgovernmental policy coordination takes place when working-level officials of different government bureaucracies communicate informally among themselves. In face-to-face situations, working-level government officials often convey more information than officials working at higher government levels. As working-level meetings become routine and a sense of collegiality develops, a transnational reference group emerges. Second, transgovernmental coalition building takes place when lower levels of national governments attempt to involve lower levels of other governments or transgovernmental institutions to influence the decision-making processes of their own governments. Officials within national governments opt for transgovernmental coalitions when they are unable to get high-level support for solving internationally recognized problems requiring urgent action. The Cold War period recorded a number of arms control and environmental cases involving multilateral diplomacy.

Great Britain

Since the late 1940s, European construction has been guided by a mix of the liberal ideas of international relation theory and the political strategies conceived by French and German politicians. It’s difficult to identify which of the two components has been more influential throughout the integration process. Jean Monnet, a principle architect of European integration, was a neoliberal institutionalist with a strong sense of realism. He emphasized the importance of institutions in the solution of common problems. His negotiations were characterized by a great deal of informality and by his political and psychological approach. Monnet’s basic idea was to unite people rather than forming a coalition of states. This political objective was a fundamental deviation from the traditional balance of power politics pursued by European states for centuries, according to Colette Mazzucelli in her book France and Germany at Maastricht. In this sense, he clearly distanced himself from traditional political realist theory and practice.

The close connection between Mitrany’s functional theory and one of the major practical steps of European integration is demonstrated by the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community. In this sense, functionalism as an idea, as a product of the theory of international relations, can be considered as the principal driving force in relation to political strategy. In subsequent years, the relationship between theories and strategic steps in relation to integration seems to have changed. Concepts about integration became the theoretical generalization of practical steps, which took on the primary role. Deutsch’s theory about the tempo of community building reflected Monnet’s strategic plan concerning the timetable of the practical implementation of ideas driving integration. Haas’ neo-functionalist theory, in fact, constitutes the theoretical generalization of Monnet’s suggestion regarding the role of international institutions as forums of common decision-making with a view toward solving common problems.

  1. In the 1950s and 1960s, both in strategic plans and international relation theories, the shape of the five stages of European integration was developed:
  2. The establishment of functional links among member countries.
  3. An increase in the scope and intensity of transactions among societies.
  4. The generation of socio-psychological processes that lead to the assimilation of people and their integration into larger communities.
  5. The emergence of one political community via the assimilation of a number of smaller political communities.
  6. The creation of institutions that represent and protect the identity and interests of the international political community. This would be the final stage of the emergence of a united security community.

Countries that undergo these five integration stages form a federal state within the EU concept. However, a great deal of uncertainty remains about where the various EU member states stand in relation to these stages. For sure, substantial progress has been achieved on stages 1 and 2 with the establishment of functional links and the expansion and intensification of cooperation. The assimilation of people and community formation has so far been less successful. Though central EU institutions such as the European Council, the European Parliament and the European Commission issued directives and passed laws with the assumption that progress had been made on stages 3, 4 and 5, it remains questionable whether national societies were able to follow the tempo of common actions by the governments. Additionally, discord among governments has increased recently. Disagreements over new risks in the international environment — in particular the mass movement of people to Europe from conflict-ridden regions — have been intensifying. While the successful securitization of history gave a huge impetus to integration in the 1950s, attempts at common securitization of new security risks and challenges have failed. Different threat perceptions and the diverse needs of identity and sovereignty emerged as an impediment to common securitization of new risks in the 2010s.

For a variety of reasons, Great Britain did not join the initial phase of integration. Though the British Empire suffered a heavy blow in the two world wars, it hoped to preserve its special links and preferential trade relations with the Commonwealth. Great Britain did not want to risk those important economic ties. Another explanation for the British disinterest in European integration was the comparably better shape of the British economy after the war. In 1945, the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in Great Britain was about 90 percent higher than the average for the six founding members of the European Economic Community (EEC). By 1961, Great Britain realized that economic cooperation inside the Commonwealth was losing competitiveness, and the Conservative government initiated negotiations for membership with the European Communities. By that time, the difference in per capita GDP between Great Britain and the EEC countries had dropped to 10 percent. After long and difficult negotiations, French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed British membership.

The gap between GDP per capita between EEC countries and Great Britain narrowed further. It stood at 6 percent by 1967 when de Gaulle again vetoed a British application for EEC membership, this one from a Labour government. After de Gaulle’s presidency ended in 1969, Great Britain applied for membership for the third time at the initiative of Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath. French President Georges Pompidou offered his support, and Great Britain joined the EEC in 1973. At the beginning of Britain’s membership, the average per capita GDP in the six EEC member states had reached 7 percent higher than in Great Britain.

EEC membership remained controversial between Britain’s Conservative and Labour parties and within the parties. The Labour government initiated a referendum in 1975, and 67 percent of the population was in favor. The referendum’s outcome did not change the principal division between those wanting to maintain a closer relationship with Europe and those who did not. In 1983, the left wing of the Labour Party, led by Tony Benn and Michael Foot, promised in a manifesto to withdraw from the EEC, which led to the split of the party. In 1988, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher explained the Conservative view on the EEC in a speech at the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium. She emphasized that the best way to build a successful European community was to obtain the willing and active cooperation of independent and sovereign states. She warned that the suppression of nationhood and concentration of power at the center of a European conglomerate would be highly damaging. Thatcher identified the encouragement of enterprise as the most important priority of community policies and warned against the danger of distraction by utopian goals. In her introductory remarks, she warned the audience: “If you believe some of the things said and written about my views on Europe, it must seem rather like inviting Genghis Khan to speak about the virtues of peaceful coexistence.”

Thatcher’s critical views on the EEC were softened somewhat by her successor, John Major, who finally signed the Maastricht Treaty and accepted the idea of political integration. However, the preservation of the sovereignty of the British Parliament remained a matter of constant worry. After 1997, Blair’s Labour government took significant steps (St. Malo Agreement on common defence, signing of the social chapter) that brought Britain closer to the EU. He seriously considered joining the euro zone, but Chancellor Gordon Brown convinced him not to do so. In 2011, the debate on the EU’s budget led to a British veto by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, and relations took a downward turn. In 2013, Cameron announced the referendum that took place on June 23, 2016. Results of the vote, with a 72.2 percent turnout, were: 51.9 percent to leave the EU, 48.1 percent to remain. 


European integration has been an adventure with an unknown future. Securitization of history was a fundamental motive for theoreticians and politicians who laid down the foundations of this complex process and construction. Integration theorists conceived five stages of integration that flow in a logical sequence from the establishment of functional links to the creation of a political union, practically the federation of European states. The first two stages — the establishment of functional links and the expansion of voluntary interactions by willing states — happened easily and in a comparatively short time. Stages 3 and 4, the evolution of the sense of community on the level of national societies with the involvement of more and more countries, proved to be a much more complicated and difficult task.

With the enlargement of the EU, this task has become even more difficult. Two important questions need to be posed here. First, have the national governments properly informed and educated their populations to become part of this community? Second, have EU institutions followed the evolution of the community carefully, and have they raised an awareness among the people as to what is happening in the EU? The answers to these questions would probably differ substantially country by country.

In one of his lectures, British political scientist Vernon Bogdanor said: “Europe has been a toxic issue in British politics, and it has caused divisions, unlike most issues, it has caused divisions not only between the parties, divisions which perhaps could have been handled, but also deep divisions within the parties. The fundamental question is this: Is Britain part of Europe? Geographically, of course, the answer is ‘yes,’ but what is the political answer? For much of British history the answer is ‘no.’” According to Bogdanor, Great Britain has always had a limited commitment to European integration because its historical experience has been totally different from that of the Continental powers. The evolution of the British political system took more than three centuries, and the adaptation of that system to the EU system proved more difficult than the adaptation of other member states, particularly the founding states. That was the fundamental reason why Great Britain rejected the idea of a federal European state.

One reason why Great Britain did not join European integration at the beginning was its special relationship with many of its former colonies. Over four centuries, Great Britain invested vast resources in the building of its empire and consequently enjoyed the benefits of cheap agricultural imports crucial for the food supply. The British Empire dissolved, but the British Commonwealth survived over the decades. Revitalizing former political and economic ties can be an obvious option for Great Britain after Brexit. Beyond the Commonwealth, new opportunities could be discovered in other regions of the world. For instance, it is highly probable that the U.S.-British relationship will become more important for both countries in the future.

The British exit is not the only unexpected challenge for the EU. Disagreements on new security risks have emerged in recent years. It would be desirable for the remaining member states to come to an agreement regarding the securitization of those new risks. The lessons from the securitization of history of the 1950s offers a useful precedent to follow.  

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