The flags of Berlin, Germany and the European Union blow in the wind near the conference center for the upcoming European Union summit of the European leaders in Berlin on March 23, 1999. 
Courtesy Reuters


Like no other continent, Europe is obsessed with its own meaning and direction. Idealistic and teleological visions of Europe at once inform, legitimate, and are themselves informed and legitimated by the political development of something now called the European Union. The name "European Union" is itself a product of this approach, for a union is what the EU is meant to be, not what it is.

European history since 1945 is told as a story of unification: difficult, delayed, suffering reverses, but nonetheless progressing. This is the grand narrative taught to millions of European schoolchildren and accepted by central and east European politicians when they speak of rejoining "a uniting Europe." That narrative's next chapter is even now being written by a leading German historian, Dr. Helmut Kohl. Its millennial culmination is to be achieved on January 1, 1999, with a monetary union that will, it is argued, irreversibly bind together some of the leading states of Europe. This group of states should in turn become the "magnetic core" of a larger unification.

European unification is presented not just as a product of visionary leaders from Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman to Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl but also as a necessary, even an inevitable response to the contemporary forces of globalization. Nation-states are no longer able to protect and realize their economic and political interests on their own. They are no match for transnational actors like global currency speculators, multinational companies, or international criminal gangs. Both power and identity, it is argued, are migrating upward and downward from the nation-state: upward to the supranational level, downward to the regional one. In a globalized world of large trading blocs, Europe will only be able to hold its own as a larger political-economic unit. Thus Manfred Rommel, the popular former mayor of Stuttgart, declares, "We live under the dictatorship of the global economy. There is no alternative to a united Europe."

It would be absurd to suggest that there is no substance to these claims. Yet when combined into a single grand narrative, into the idealistic-teleological discourse of European unification, they result in a dangerously misleading picture of the real ground on which European leaders will have to build at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In fact, what we have already achieved in a large part of western and southern Europe is a new model of liberal order. But this extraordinary achievement is itself now under threat precisely as a result of the forced march to unity. What we should be doing now is rather to consolidate this liberal order and to spread it across the continent. Liberal order, not unity, is the right strategic goal for European policy in our time.


In the index to Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History, we find "Europe, as battlefield," "Europe, as not an intelligible field of historical study," and, finally, "Europe, unification of, failure of attempts at." Toynbee is an unreliable source, but he raises important questions about the long sweep of European history. The most fundamental point is his second one. Is the thing to be united actually a cultural-historical unit? If so, where does it begin and end? It is, Toynbee claims, a "cultural misapplication of a nautical term" to suggest that the Mediterranean ancient history of Greece and Rome and modern Western history are successive acts in a single European drama. He prefers the Polish historian Oskar Halecki's account, in which a Mediterranean age is followed by a European age, running roughly from 950 to 1950, which in turn is succeeded by what Halecki called an Atlantic age. Today we might refer to our era simply as a global age.

Yet even in the European age, the continent's eastern edge remained deeply ill-defined. Was it the Elbe? Or the dividing line between western and eastern Christianity? Or the Urals? Europe's political history was characterized by the astounding diversity of peoples, nations, states, and empires and by the ceaseless and often violent competition between them. In short, no continent was externally more ill-defined, internally more diverse, or historically more disorderly. Yet no continent produced more schemes for its own orderly unification. So our teleological-idealistic or Whig interpreters can cite an impressive list of intellectual and political forebears, from the Bohemian King George of Podebrady through the Duc de Sully and William Penn (writing already in America) to Aristide Briand and Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, the prophet of Pan-Europa. The trouble is that those designs for European unification that were peaceful were not implemented, while those that were implemented were not peaceful. The reality of unification was either a temporary solidarity in response to an external invader or an attempt by one European state to establish continental hegemony by force of arms, from Napoleon to Hitler. But the latter also failed, as Toynbee's index dryly notes.

The attempt at European unification since 1945 thus stands out from all earlier attempts by being both peaceful and partially implemented. An idealistic interpretation of this historical abnormality is that we Europeans have at last learned from history. The "European civil war" of 1914 to 1945, that second and still bloodier Thirty Years' War, finally brought us to our senses. Yet this requires a little closer examination. For only after the end of the Cold War are we discovering just how much European integration owed to it. First, there was the Soviet Union as negative external integrator. West Europeans pulled together in the face of the common enemy, as they had before the Mongols or the Turks. Second, there was the United States as positive external integrator. Particularly in the earlier years, the United States pushed very strongly for West European integration, making it almost a condition for further Marshall Plan aid. In later decades, the United States was at times more ambivalent about building up a rival trading bloc, but in broad geopolitical terms it supported West European integration throughout the Cold War.

Third, the Cold War helped, quite brutally, by cutting off most of central and eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain. This meant that European integration could begin between a relatively small number of bourgeois democracies at roughly comparable economic levels and with important older elements of common history. As has often been observed, the frontiers of the original European Economic Community of six were roughly coterminous with those of Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire. The EEC was also centered around what historical geographers have called the "golden banana" of advanced European economic development, stretching from Manchester to Milan via the Low Countries, eastern France and western Germany. Moreover, within this corner of the continent there were important convergences or trade offs between the political and economic interests of the nations involved-the crucial ones being between France and Germany. None of this is to deny a genuine element of European idealism among the elites of that time. But the more we discover about this earlier period, the more hard-nosed and nationally self-interested the main actors appear. Contrary to the received view, the idealists are more to be found in the next generation: that of Helmut Kohl rather than Konrad Adenauer. There is no mistaking the genuine enthusiasm with which Kohl describes, as he will at the slightest prompting, the unforgettable experience of lifting the first frontier barriers between France and Germany, just a few years after the end of the war.

The national interests propelling closer intra-European ties were still powerfully present in the 1970s and 1980s. Britain, most obviously, joined the EEC in hopes of reviving its own flagging economy and buttressing its declining influence in the world. In a 1988 book entitled La France par l'Europe, none other than Jacques Delors wrote that "creating Europe is a way of regaining that room for manoeuvre necessary for 'a certain idea of France.'" (The phrase "a certain idea of France" was, of course, de Gaulle's.) In my book In Europe's Name I have shown how German enthusiasm for European integration was nourished by the need to secure wider European and American support for improved relations with the communist east and, eventually, the reunification of Germany. Finally, there was also a growing perception of real common European interests.

As a result of the confluence of these three kinds of motive and those three favorable external conditions, the 1970s and 1980s saw an impressive set of steps toward closer political cooperation and economic and legal integration. Starting with the Hague summit of December 1969, they included direct elections to the European Parliament, the founding of the European Monetary System, the Single European Act, and the great project of completing the internal market in the magic year of "1992."

This dynamic process, against a background of renewed economic growth and the spread of democracy to southern Europe, did contribute directly to the end of the Cold War. One of the reasons behind Mikhail Gorbachev's "new thinking" in foreign policy was Soviet alarm at the prospect of being left still further behind by a "Europe" that was seen as technologically advanced, economically dynamic, and rapidly integrating behind high protective walls. How much more was this true of the peoples of east central Europe, who anyway felt themselves to belong culturally and historically to Europe, felt this with the passion of the excluded-and for whom the prosperous Western Europe they saw on their travels now clearly represented the better alternative to a discredited and stagnant "real socialism." Accordingly, one of the great slogans of the velvet revolutions of 1989 was "the return to Europe." In this sense one could argue, in apparent defiance of chronology, that "1992" in Western Europe was one of the causes of 1989 in Eastern Europe. But the end of the Cold War also ended a historical constellation that was particularly favorable to a particular model of West European integration.


We cannot judge the period since 1989 in the same way, as history. The case is still being heard, and the evidence is contradictory. On the one hand, we have seen further incremental diminution in the effective powers and sovereignty of established nation-states inside the EU. The Maastricht program, with European monetary union as its central project, is supposed to make a further decisive step to unification by the end of the decade. Yet this decade has also seen the explosive emergence of at least a dozen new nation-states. Indeed, there are now more states on the map of Europe than ever before in the twentieth century. In the former Yugoslavia, these new states emerged through war, ethnic cleansing, and the violent redrawing of frontiers. In the former Czechoslovakia, the separation into two states was carried out peacefully, by negotiation. In the former Soviet Union, there were variations in between.

Nor is this phenomenon of de-unification confined to the postcommunist half of Europe. The clich, of "integration in the west, disintegration in the east" does not bear closer examination. It is surprising, for example, to see the progressive dis-integration of Belgium cited as evidence of the decline of the nation-state and the rise of regionalism, for the tensions that are pulling Belgium apart would be entirely familiar to a nineteenth-century nationalist. Each ethno-linguistic group is demanding a growing measure of self-government. My own country, Britain, has for decades been an unusual modern variation on the theme of nation-state: a state composed of four nations-or, to be precise, three and a part. But now the constituent nations, especially Scotland, are pulling away toward a larger measure of self-government.

And what of Europe's central power? Since 1989 Germany has reemerged as a fully sovereign nation-state. In Berlin, we are witnessing the extraordinary architectural reconstruction of the grandiose capital of a historic nation-state. Yet at the same time, Germany's political leaders, above all Helmut Kohl, are pressing ahead with all their considerable might to surrender that vital component of national sovereignty-and, particularly in the contemporary German case, also of identity-which is the national currency. There is a startling contradiction between, so to speak, the architecture in Berlin and the rhetoric in Bonn. I do not think this contradiction can be resolved dialectically, even in the homeland of the dialectic. In fact, Germany today is in a political-psychological condition that can only be described as Faustian, with two souls in one breast. If in 1999 monetary union goes ahead and the German government moves to Berlin, then the country will wake up in its new bed on January 1, 2000, scratch its head, and ask itself, "Now, why did we just give up the deutsche mark?"

What would be the answer? Of course there are economic arguments for monetary union. But monetary union was conceived as an economic means to a political end. It is the continuation of the functionalist approach adopted by the French and German founding fathers of the EEC: political integration through economic integration. But there was a more specific political reason for the decision to make this the central goal of European integration in the 1990s. As so often before, the key lies in a compromise between French and German national interests. In 1990, there was at the very least an implicit linkage made between Mitterrand's reluctant support for German unification and Kohl's decisive push towards European monetary union. "The whole of Deutschland for Kohl, half the deutsche mark for Mitterrand," some wits put it. Leading German politicians will acknowledge privately that monetary union is the price paid for German unification.

Yet to some extent, this is a price that Kohl wants to pay. For he wants to see the newly united Germany bound firmly and, as he himself puts it, "irreversibly," into Europe. Even more than his hero Adenauer, he believes that it is dangerous for Germany, with its erratic history and critical size-"too big for Europe, too small for the world," as Henry Kissinger once pithily observed-to stand alone in the center of Europe, trying to juggle or balance the nine neighbors and many partners around it. So Dr. Kohl's ultimate, unspoken answer to the question, "Why did we just give up the deutsche mark?" will be, "Because we Germans can't trust ourselves." To which a younger generation will say, "Why not?" Many of them see no reason why Germany needs to be bound to the mast like Odysseus to resist the siren calls of its awful past. They think Germany can be trusted to keep its own balance as a responsible, liberal nation-state inside an already close-knit community of other responsible, liberal nation-states. Certainly Kohl's implicit argument will not convince the man in the Bavarian beer tent. In opinion polls, a majority of Germans still do not want to give up the deutsche mark for the euro. So Germany, this newly restored nation-state, will enter monetary union full of reservations, doubts, and fears.


Economists differ, and non-economists have to pick their way between the arguments. But few would dissent with the proposition that European monetary union (EMU) is an unprecedented, high-risk gamble. As several leading economists have pointed out, Europe lacks vital components that make monetary union work in the United States. The United States has high labor mobility, price and wage flexibility, provisions for automatic, large-scale budgetary transfers to states adversely affected by so-called asymmetric shocks, and, not least, the common language, culture, and shared history in a single country that make such transfers acceptable as a matter of course to citizens and taxpayers.

Europe has low labor mobility and high unemployment. It has relatively little wage flexibility. The EU redistributes a maximum of 1.27 percent of the GDP of its member states, and most of this is already committed to schemes such as the Common Agricultural Policy (cap) and the so-called structural funds for assisting poorer regions. It has no common language and certainly no common state. Since 1989, we have seen how reluctant West German taxpayers have been to pay even for their own compatriots in the east. Do we really expect that they would be willing to pay for the French unemployed as well? The Maastricht treaty does not provide for that, and leading German politicians have repeatedly stressed that they will not stand for it. The minimal trust and solidarity between citizens that is the fragile treasure of the democratic nation-state does not, alas, yet exist between the citizens of Europe. For there is no European demos-only a European telos.

Against this powerful critique, it is urged that the "asymmetric shocks" will affect different regions within European countries, and these countries do themselves make internal provision for automatic budgetary transfers. In France, it is also very optimistically suggested that reform of the cap and structural funds will free up EU resources for compensatory transfers between states. (But if we are serious about enlargement, some of these resources will also be needed for the much poorer new member states.) More economically liberal Europeans argue that monetary union will simply compel us to introduce more free-market flexibility, not least in wage levels. None of this makes a very persuasive rebuttal, especially since different European countries favor different kinds of response.

The dangers, by contrast, are all too obvious. EMU requires a single monetary policy and a single interest rate for all. What if that rate is right for Germany but wrong for Spain and Italy, or vice versa? And what if French unemployment continues to rise? As elections approach, national politicians will find the temptation to "blame it on EMU" almost irresistible. If responsible politicians resist the temptation, irresponsible ones will gain votes. And the European Central Bank will not start with any of the popular authority that the Bundesbank enjoys in Germany. It starts as the product of a political- bureaucratic procedure of "building Europe from above" that is even now-as the Maastricht referendum debate in France showed-perilously short of popular support and democratic legitimacy.

In fact, received wisdom in EU capitals is already that EMU will sooner or later face a crisis, perhaps after the end of a pre-millennium boom, in 2001 or 2002 (just as Britain is preparing to join). Euro-optimists hope this crisis will catalyze economic liberalization, European solidarity, and perhaps even those steps of political unification that historically have preceded, not followed, successful monetary unions. A shared fear of the catastrophic consequences of a failure of monetary union will draw Europeans together, as the shared fear of a common external enemy (Mongols, Turks, Soviets) did in the past. But it is a truly dialectical leap of faith to suggest that a crisis that exacerbates differences between European countries is the best way to unite them. The fact is that at Maastricht the leaders of the EU put the cart before the horse. Out of the familiar mixture of three different kinds of motive-idealistic, national-instrumental, and perceived common interest-they committed themselves to what was meant to be a decisive step to uniting Europe but now seems likely to divide even those who belong to the monetary union. At least in the short term, it will certainly divide those existing EU members who participate in the monetary union from those who do not: the so-called "ins" and "outs."

Meanwhile, the massive concentration on this single project has contributed to the neglect of the great opportunity that arose in the eastern half of the continent when the Berlin Wall came down. The Maastricht agenda of internal unification has taken the time and energy of West European leaders away from the agenda of eastward enlargement. To be sure, there is no theoretical contradiction between the "deepening" and the "widening" of the EU. Indeed, widening requires deepening. If the major institutions of the EU, originally designed to work for six member states, are still to function in a community of 26, then major reforms, necessarily involving a further sharing of sovereignty, are essential. But these changes are of a different kind from those required for monetary union. While there is no theoretical contradiction, there has been a practical tension between deepening and widening.

To put it plainly: our leaders set the wrong priority after 1989. We were like people who for 40 years had lived in a large, ramshackle house divided down the middle by a concrete wall. In the western half we had rebuilt, mended the roof, knocked several rooms together, redecorated, and installed new plumbing and electric wiring-while the eastern half fell into a state of dangerous decay. Then the wall came down. What did we do? We decided that what the whole house needed most urgently was a superb new computer-controlled system of air conditioning in the western half. While we prepared to install it, the eastern half of the house began to fall apart and catch fire. We fiddled in Maastricht while Sarajevo burned.

The best can so often be the enemy of the good. The rationalist, functionalist, perfectionist attempt to "make Europe" or "complete Europe" through a hard core built around a rapid monetary union could well end up achieving the opposite of the desired effect. One can all too plausibly argue that what we are likely to witness in the next five to ten years is the writing of another entry for Toynbee's index, under: "Europe, unification of, failure of attempts at." Some contemporary Cassandras go further still. They see the danger of us writing another entry under "Europe, as battlefield." One might answer that we already have, in the former Yugoslavia. But any suggestion that the forced march to unification through money brings the danger of violent conflict between West European states does seem overdrawn, for at least three reasons. First, there is the powerful neo-Kantian argument that bourgeois democracies are unlikely to go to war against each other. Second, unlike pre-1945 Europe, we have a generally benign extra-European hegemon in the United States. Third, to warn of violence is to ignore the huge and real achievement of European integration to date: the unique, unprecedented framework and deeply ingrained habits of permanent institutionalized cooperation that ensure that the conflicts of interest that exist-and will continue to exist-between the member states and nations are never resolved by force. All those endless hours and days of negotiation in Brussels between ministers from 15 European countries who end up knowing each other almost better than they know their own families: that is the essence of this Europe. It is an economic community, of course, but it is also a security community-a group of states that do find it unthinkable to resolve their own differences by war.


Now one could certainly argue that Western Europe would never have got this far without the utopian goal or telos of "unity." Only by resolutely embracing the objective of "ever-closer union" have we reached this more modest degree of permanent institutional cooperation, with important elements of legal and economic integration. Yet as a paradigm for European policy in our time, the notion of "unification" is fundamentally flawed. The most recent period of European history provides no indication that the immensely diverse peoples of Europe-speaking such different languages, having such disparate histories, geographies, cultures, and economies-are ready to merge peacefully and voluntarily into a single polity. It provides substantial evidence of a directly countervailing trend: toward the constitution-or reconstitution-of nation-states. If unity was not attained among a small number of West European states with strong elements of common history under the paradoxically favorable conditions of the Cold War, how can we possibly expect to attain it in the infinitely larger and more diverse Europe-the whole continent-that we have to deal with after the end of the Cold War?

"Yes," a brilliant French friend said to me when I made this case to him, "I'm afraid you're right. Europe will not come to pass." "But Pierre," I replied, "you're in it!" Europe is already here, and not just as a continent. There is already a great achievement that has taken us far beyond de Gaulle's "Europe des patries" or Harold Macmillan's vision of a glorified free trade area. Yet to a degree that readers outside Europe will find hard to comprehend, European thinking about Europe is still deeply conditioned by these notions of project, process, and progress toward unification. (After all, no one talks hopefully of Africa or Asia "becoming itself.") Many Europeans are convinced that if we do not go forward toward unification, we must necessarily go backward. This view is expressed in the so-called "bicycle theory" of European integration: if you stop pedaling, the bicycle will fall over. Actually, as anyone who rides a bicycle knows, all you have to do is to put one foot back on the ground. And anyway, Europe is not a bicycle.

If we Europeans convince ourselves that not advancing further along the path to unity is tantamount to failure, we risk snatching failure from the jaws of success. For what has been achieved already in a large part of Europe is a very great success, without precedent on the European continent or contemporary equivalent on any other continent. It is as if someone had built a fine if rather rambling palace and then convinced himself that he was an abject failure because it was not the Parthenon. Yet the case is more serious and urgent than this. For today it is precisely the forced march to unity-across the "bridge too far" of monetary union-that is threatening the very achievement it is supposed to complete.

But what is the alternative? How else should we "think Europe" if not in terms of this paradigm of unification that has dominated European thinking about Europe for half a century? How can we characterize positively what we have already built in a large part of Europe, and what it is both desirable and realistic to work toward in a wider Europe? I believe the best paradigm is that of liberal order. Historically, liberal order is an attempt to avoid both the extremes between which Europe has unhappily oscillated through most of its modern history: violent disorder, on the one hand, and hegemonic order on the other-hegemonic order that itself was always built on the use of force and the denial of national and democratic aspirations within the constitutive empires or spheres of influence. Philosophically, such an order draws on the late Sir Isaiah Berlin's central liberal insight that people pursue different ends that cannot be reconciled but may peacefully coexist. It also draws on Judith Shklar's "liberalism of fear," with its deeply pessimistic view of the propensity of human beings to indulge in violence and cruelty, and on a sense that what Shklar modestly called "damage control" is the first necessity of political life. Institutionally, the EU, NATO, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are all building blocks of such a liberal order.

Liberal order differs from previous European orders in several vital ways. Its first commandment is the renunciation of force in the resolution of disputes between its members. Of course, this goal is an ancient one. We find it anticipated already in King George of Podebrady's great proposal of 1464 for "the inauguration of peace throughout Christendom." There we read that he and his fellow princes "shall not take up arms for the sake of any disagreements, complaints or disputes, nor shall we allow any to take up arms in our name." But today we have well-tried institutions of bourgeois internationalism in which to practice what Churchill called making "jaw-jaw" rather than "war-war."

Liberal order is, by design, non-hegemonic. To be sure, the system depends to some extent on the external hegemonic balancer, the United States-"Europe's pacifier," as more than one author has quipped. And of course, Luxembourg does not carry the same weight as Germany. But the new model order that we have developed in the EU does permit smaller states to have an influence often disproportionate to their size. A key element of this model order is the way it allows different alliances of European states on individual issues rather than cementing any fixed alliances. Another is the framework of common European law. If the European Convention on Human Rights were incorporated into the treaties of the union, as Ralf Dahrendorf has suggested, the EU would gain a much-needed element of direct responsibility for the liberties of the individual citizen.

Liberal order also differs from previous European orders in explicitly legitimating the interest of participating states in each other's internal affairs. Building on the so-called Helsinki process, it considers human, civil, and not least minority rights to be a primary and legitimate subject of international concern. These rights are to be sustained by international norms, support, and, where necessary, also pressure. Such a liberal order recognizes that there is a logic that leads peoples who speak the same language and share the same culture and tradition to want to govern themselves in their own state. There is such a thing as liberal nationalism. But it also recognizes that in many places a peaceful, neat separation into nation-states will be impossible. In such cases it acknowledges a responsibility to help sustain what may variously be called multiethnic, multicultural, or multinational democracies within an international framework. This is what we disastrously failed to do for Bosnia but can still do for Macedonia or Estonia.

Missing from this paradigm is one idea that remains very important in contemporary European visions, especially those of former great powers such as France, Britain, and Germany. This is the notion of "Europe" as a single actor on the world stage, a world power able to stand up to the United States, Russia, or China. In truth, a drive for world power is hardly more attractive because it is a joint enterprise than it was when attempted-somewhat more crudely-by individual European nations. Certainly, in a world of large trading blocs we must be able to protect our own interests. Certainly, a degree of power-projection, including the coordinated use of military power, will be needed to realize the objectives of liberal order even within the continent of Europe and in adjacent areas of vital interest to us, such as North Africa and the Middle East. But beyond this, just to put our own all-European house in order would be a large enough contribution to the well-being of the world.

Some may object that I have paid too much attention to mere semantics. Why not let the community be called a union and the process "unification," even if they are not that in reality? Vaclav Havel comes close to this position when he writes, "Today, Europe is attempting to give itself a historically new kind of order in a process that we refer to as unification." And of course I do not expect the European Union to be, so to speak, dis-named. After all, the much looser world organization of states is still called the United Nations. But the issue is far from merely semantic.

To consolidate Europe's liberal order and to spread it across the whole continent is both a more urgent and, in the light of history, a more realistic goal for Europe at the beginning of the twenty-first century than the vain pursuit of unification in a part of it. Nor, finally, is liberal order a less idealistic goal than unity. For unity is not a primary value in itself. It is but a means to higher ends. Liberal order, by contrast, directly implies not one but two primary values: peace and freedom.

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  • Timothy Garton Ash is a Fellow of St. Antony's College, Oxford. His books include The Magic Lantern, In Europe's Name, and most recently The File: A Personal History. This essay is dedicated to the memory of Sir Isaiah Berlin.
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