Kiran Klaus Patel: The European Union has unexpectedly become too important to ignore

In this conversation with RevDem editor Ferenc Laczó, Kiran Klaus Patel discusses key themes in his brand new book “Europäische Integration. Geschichte und Gegenwart” (European Integration: History and the Present Day). Patel embeds the history of the European Communities in the broader history of international cooperation and explores three elements that made the EC stand out from the 1970s onwards. Patel also shows how the EU has used recent crises as an opportunity to expand its powers – and how its history can help us explain why values and norms are not firmly secured within the EU today.

Ferenc Laczó: Your newest book Europäische Integration. Geschichte und Gegenwart (European Integration: History and the Present Day) uses a constructivist approach to the study of the postwar period to show how the European project as we know it today is not so much a grand idea that materialized over time in a sort of teleological fashion, but rather the in many ways unforeseen result of the confluence of many different initiatives in various areas. You argue that while there was at times visionary thinking behind these initiatives, the European project often disappointed the high expectations it raised in certain quarters. 

Its actual strength could rather be observed in its orientation on the pragmatic and the doable. You also show very nicely how there were different visions of Europe in early postwar Europe as well as significant overlaps and competition between various projects of international cooperation and integration, and that this broader field of international cooperation and integration clearly impacted the actual shape the European Communities took.  As a first question, let me ask you how you would characterize your approach to the history of European integration, how that approach might fit into recent and ongoing trends in the writing of this history, and how it might differ from other prevalent scholarly approaches?

Kiran Klaus Patel: Thank you very much for this question, but also the insights into my book. My work on European integration starts from perspectives that were absent when this field of research first emerged. European integration history is a comparatively young field of historical inquiry. This is not surprising, given that the subject at stake is also comparatively new. There was, in a nutshell, a period in the 1960s and 1970s and into the 1980s, when historical research on European integration was mainly a history of ideas – it concerned the ideas of visionary men that ultimately led to an institutional reality. From there, you had a period which was very much focused on diplomatic history and the various steps of political negotiations over policies. Scholars such as Alan Milward challenged the earlier, more idealistic historiography, and instead agrued that European integration was very much about saving the nation states.

In this simplistic way of talking about the state of the art, I would like to say that today we have a much more variegated set of approaches to European integration history. This reflects not only a certain maturity in the state of the art, but also the fact that European integration has changed massively. In the 1960s and 1970s archives were still closed. Fast forward to the 1980s and 1990s, when it first became possible to do archival research on the 1940s and 1950s. Now we can already examine the 1990s and to some extent even the 2000s with archival sources. In this recent past, the EU became a very different creature in comparison to the first postwar decades, and it needs to be studied accordingly. 

Concerning my own approach more specifically: first of all, I did not come to this field as somebody who was trained as a diplomatic historian. I was more interested in comparative and transnational perspectives and approaches. This certainly rubs off on my way of doing integration history to this day. In Project Europe, I focused on the impact of European integration as a political phenomenon on European societies.  

My new book Europäische Integration is a work of synthesis. It’s a comparatively short book, which owes its succinctness to the character of the series in which it is published. The idea was to introduce readers who are interested, but maybe not particularly well informed about the details, into the most important issues in the history of European integration from the very beginning to the present day. 

The point is not to bring out a teleology whereby either this is all about hubris and doom and gloom or about triumph and an “ever closer union”. It is rather to introduce readers in a very short format to the open-endedness, the countertendencies, and the multiplicity of sources and effects of European integration.

There is a certain focus on political negotiations in my book. In comparison to my last book, I pay slightly less attention to the effects of European integration, but that continues to be an angle that interests me very much.  

I don’t want to look only at the political process of what becomes the European Union but provide a wider context for this development. Hence, I write about phenomena such as the Cold War and globalization. I also seek to insert this specific international organization into a broader set of forms of international cooperation. The argument is that it was not foreseen that the European Union that we know today – which is a very important political actor, for better or worse – would become so important. 

As recently as the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, it was one among many. In that sense, my book tries to complicate the story. 

I also play with this a little bit ironically. I think the pre-history matters, but I am convinced that it doesn’t matter too much. The European Union of today is very much a post-1945, to some extent a post-1970s creature. So my first chapter’s title – 2500 Years and Five Minutes – is meant slightly ironically. It refers to the long pre-history of European engagement, on the one hand, and the five minutes, on the other, which was roughly the length of the Schuman declaration in May 1950, which then became the starting point of today’s EU. The long history matters to some extent, but there must be a lot of attention to very recent history. For me, it was particularly challenging and interesting to about write the history of the contemporary era, of the last thirty years.

Ferenc Laczo: You indeed argue that it seemed quite unlikely in 1945 that something like the EU would become a major played on the continent and that even at the beginning of the 1960s it seemed rather improbable that the European Communities would emerge as the dominant form of cooperation and integration in Europe. You show that many small and often not particularly spectacular steps were taken in the 1970s and the 1980s that in a sense paved the way for the breakthroughs of the second half of the 1980s and the foundation of the European Union in the early 1990s. How did the EC and how did its relation to other international organizations get transformed in the 1970s and 1980s in your understanding? What might have made the organizations that eventually became the EU emerge as the dominant form of cooperation and integration in Europe? 

Kiran Klaus Patel: These are very important questions.  If I may, I would like to go back to the first part of what you said concerning the post-1945 moment just for one second. In the literature and even more so in the way the European Union narrates its own history, I see a tendency to argue that after 1945 Western Europe had basically two options: to continue “bowling alone,” as nation states with full sovereignty, or to go for European cooperation, EC-style.

My argument is different: amongst the political options after 1945 and particularly in the first postwar years, European integration was one and a rather marginal option amongst many.  Let’s remember that in the beginning this was a small project of a few Western European countries. Moreover, empire was still a very powerful form of political governance. Finally, you have a whole set of forums of international organizations and not only the European Communities that tried to govern Western Europe in this period. 

Other options first had to wither away to create real space for the EC: the idea of staunch national sovereignty, of a more traditional sense of empire, of transatlantic cooperation in a more sustained sense, of Eurocommunism and alternative international organizations. The point is to try to understand what made the European Community different to other Western European international organizations, such as the Council of Europe, the OECD, and many others that I could add to this list. 

My starting point is that if you take 1960, for instance, there was no fundamental difference between the EC and several of its contenders. It was only over time and through various and often technical steps that the EC started to emerge to be different. 

I argue that three elements made it stand out and gave it additional momentum from the 1970s onwards. Firstly, the EC had an economic DNA. It tried to address issues of any kind as economic challenges and proposed economic answers to the problems of the time. This mattered. Consider the alternative: if you addressed political problems as political problems and proposed an internationalist or maybe even supranational answer, national resistance would often be very big. 

Think about the Council of Europe, an international organization slightly older than the European Union of today. The Council of Europe addressed questions of high political salience, such as human rights. That is the very reason why national resistance made sure it never became too powerful.

If, on the other hand, you had a political issue where you could say that “we have to see this more as an economic affair, as a technical issue”, your chances were good to meet less resistance. This logic is very important, and it started to gain further momentum in the 1970s and 1980s, when the economic boom of the early postwar decades was over.  Economic approaches started to matter more in times of crises and when neoliberal ideas gained momentum. 

Second, law matters. The EC stood out because of the more binding character of EC/EU law in comparison to the law of other international organizations. On many issues, EC/EU laws have direct effect on Member States. That again has to do with this supranational element. 

Take the 1970s as example. At the time, new problems were identified, such as the environmental challenge. It was around 1970 that “environmental policy” was “invented” as an issue of international cooperation. Soon, a whole host of organizations was getting busy in this field, from NATO (yes, NATO!) over the OECD to the EC. All of them tried to develop new powers in this rising policy domain. But law made a difference and that helps to explain that, due to its more binding character, the European Community – over the long term and not always but often – became the dominant actor.

Consider the effect: Today, there is no fully fledged national environmental law in the EU Member States; instead, EU environmental law dominates. In contrast, the environmental regulations of, say, the OECD or the Council of Europe remain secondary.

My third argument is that over time, and particularly since the early 1970s, the European Community started to acquire a budget of its own. Next to its economic DNA and law, money matters. It allowed the EC time and again to invest into new projects, and these projects often allowed the Communities to widen the set of powers and competencies further. To give one example: in the 1970s, the Community started to become engaged in cultural policies, which were for a long time the prerogative of the nation state and at the international level of organizations such as UNESCO and the Council of Europe. 

Those organizations at the international level, however, lacked funding. The EC had funding and could argue, “look, we have the funds, you’ve got the ideas and the expertise. Why don’t we join forces and do this together?” And that, in a nutshell, helps to explain why the EC became an actor in its own right in these additional policy fields where it tended to have little powers previously.

Fast forward to the situation today, and think about the pandemic, where the European Community didn’t always fare particularly well in solving issues. But one can certainly say that its powers to deal with pandemics, and health issues more broadly, have been increased massively over the past two years. There are also new financial mechanisms too – just think of the NextGenerationEU budget. It is meant to help overcome the economic effects of the pandemic; at the same time, it increases the powers of the European Union. The mechanisms that I identify for the Cold War period clearly continue to matter.

Ferenc Laczo: You show in the book that when the European project was acquiring truly systemic relevance, centrifugal tendencies got stronger too. There were clear signs of differentiated integration practically as soon as integration assumed a tighter form. May I ask how this dialectic between deepening and differentiation has played out in recent decades? Second, how did the agenda of deepening European integration interact with the momentous process of enlarging the Union?

Kiran Klaus Patel: Differentiated integration means that not all Member States are doing all the projects together. One of the obvious examples is the Euro: not all EU Member States are part of the Euro club. My argument is exactly as you said: since the 1970s, since European integration started to get really serious and to touch upon crucial issues of states’ sovereignty, we observe a parallel tendency of some Member States to opt out and not become part of all projects of European integration. The Member States today are all in the single market, but there are policy areas where they aren’t all together, such as Schengen, justice and home affairs, or the Charter of Fundamental Rights. 

There is this dialectic: on the one hand, deepening is a process that you see happening over time, but once particularly sensitive issues of states’ sovereignty and power are addressed, there is also a tendency of Member States to opt out.  

This dialectic is further complicated by evermore enlargement rounds that we have seen since the 1970s – leaving Brexit aside for a moment. Overall, the larger the number of member states, the more difficult it becomes to agree on far-reaching forms of integration. 

Hence, differentiation is the answer to an urge among some actors, sometimes Member States, sometimes the European Commission, sometimes civil society actors, to deepen integration further. At the same time, differentiation complicates the whole question of the legitimacy of the European project. If you have a whole set of different constellations, creating transparency and democratic control is becoming ever more difficult. 

The British case is particularly interesting in this context, also leaving Brexit aside. For good reasons, the British have always been very concerned about the democratic legitimacy of EU integration. But they have also been adding to the problem by opting out and making this creature much more diffuse. Hence, finding a clear-cut answer to questions of democratic legitimacy was also becoming more difficult due to those who were particularly worried about this point. 

Ferenc Laczo: We could talk a bit more about questions of legitimacy and questions of democratic legitimacy, more particularly. A remarkable part of your argument is that there may have been general support for the European project among citizens of the relevant countries but also a widespread lack of interest and a notable absence of enthusiasm for some of the specific changes this project brought. As soon as European integration became more important in people’s lives, it has also become more controversial with more and more people questioning whether they have really consented to such deeper forms of integration. You also argue in the book that norms and values started to play a greater role only in the 1980s, especially when the entry of Greece was being negotiated. Even though basic rights and democracy are meant to be fundamental to the European project since, you claim that the EU has a rather soft fundament in these respects. Would you be willing to discuss what norms and values the EU has stood for over time? And what is your perspective on the different forms of legitimacy it has enjoyed? Or to phrase the question more directly, to what extent can we call the EU a democratic political project supported by citizens?

Kiran Klaus Patel: Let’s return to the beginning for one second: all the countries that formed the first communities in the 1950s – which eventually led to the European Community, and then the European Union – were democracies.  They shared certain values and norms: democracy, rule of law, human rights are key examples, even if they did not always live up to these ideals – remember that the Netherlands, France, Belgium, and indirectly even Italy were still empires at the time. Anti-communism would be another dimension that one could discuss in this context. When it came to values, there was a sort of double standard. 

More important for the argument:  When integration started, there was very little by way of securing values and norms at the level of the Communities – neither with regards to securing them within the Member States, nor with regards to the interaction with other countries, be it in the process of enlargement or be it in dealing with other countries to create new forms of association, trade with them, etc. That was quite understandable, given that the European Communities of the time were very small technical entities where these big value questions basically did not really matter. The more the powers of the European Communities grew, however, the more these issues come onto their agenda. Values and norms were addressed already in the early 1960s but was a very slow and incremental process in which they became more important.

There are two dimensions that we need to distinguish analytically, even if they often intersected with each other. On the one hand, there is the inner legitimacy of European integration and how the EC/EU itself secures values and norms, a point that became ever more important as the community gains power vis-à-vis the Member States. To be more concrete, if EC law could overrule national law, the question was how democratic standards, values and norms could be upheld. That incrementally led to more awareness and the attempt to secure those.

The second dimension has to do with external relations, especially the enlargement processes. A litmus test was the Southern enlargement of the 1980s. Let me mention Greece as an example, though also Spain and Portugal would be interesting. Greece applied for membership in 1975, the year after the end of its junta regime. In the negotiations that ultimately led to accession in 1981, the EC self-fashioned itself as a community of values and tried to argue that by joining, Greece could become a stable democracy and “return to Europe.” All these rhetorical figures and ideas that we know also from more recent periods were applied already then. They were also widespread in Greece itself. Premier Konstantinos Karamanlis for instance argued that the European project should take Greece in exactly for those reasons.The idea that the EC should stand for shared values and norms was also very important in the enlargement rounds after the end of the Cold War, of course.

My argument in a nutshell is that the very historicity of the process of European integration explains why values and norms are not firmly secured in today’s EU institutionally.

If they are secured, it’s particularly for the moment of accession.  On entry, the EU pays a lot of attention and makes sure that applicant countries live up to all kinds of standards with regards to transparency, rule of law, and other norms and values.  But the idea was that “once you’re in, you’re in” and everything’s got to be nice and good. 

What we’ve seen in recent years – think of the development of Poland and Hungary particularly – is that once these countries are in and illiberal tendencies arise, the European Union has little muscle to fight these tendencies. This is something we can only explain with history. It is mainly for historical reasons that any talk about European Union as a community of values often becomes very shallow. A historical analysis can explain why these kinds of institutional dimensions are lacking, and why in a situation in which these common values are already challenged, it is very difficult to re-install them.  

There was a certain reluctance to go for a more muscular EU on this issue so early on because that would have reduced the powers of the Member States. There were many countries that didn’t want these levels of further integration with their strong supranational dimensions. Historical experience does rub off on national positions here too. Countries that survived the Second World War on the winning side and could argue that their democratic system, rule of law, and values and norms had survived the war intact. For instance, a political majority in the United Kingdom simply didn’t feel that a European solution was superior to the national system. 

If we fast forward to the situation today, what is remarkable is that the European Union tries to solve the problem – if we think about Poland and Hungary as problem cases of the moment – mainly with money. NextGenerationEU that I already mentioned has some inbuilt mechanisms: one tries to link it to living-up to a certain set of democratic standards.  

Addressing values and norms as values and norms doesn’t really work, so money is used as a lever to sort this out. 

It’s still unclear and doubtful that this will work quickly, but this is the way the European Union has been approaching these kinds of issues; history contains important lessons there.

Ferenc Laczo:  Whereas your research-based monograph Project Europe focused quite heavily on the 70s and 80s and drew on new archival research to reconceptualize them, about half of your new book Europäische Integrationis devoted to the years since 1992. A main thesis of this second half is that the EU gradually shifted from a liberal project aimed at opening, from being a freedom project to one that ambitions to secure and protect, a Sicherungsprojekt as you call it in German. You argue that we can currently observe a European project that is above all eager to protect itself amidst a crisis of trust even as there is innovation via improvisation, a sort of creeping process of further Europeanization (or what you call Vergemeinschaftung in German). Let me therefore ask you, in what ways has the European project interacted with trends of globalization and neoliberalization in recent decades in your view? And how do you observe this recent shift towards Sicherung and what do you see as the reasons behind it?

Kiran Klaus Patel: Maybe I should start out by saying that writing more about the most recent past than about earlier periods might be counterintuitive for historians, and it was also quite daring for myself, to think about the book this way. Most historians end somewhere in the past and often let their books peter out once they come closer to the present. 

My new book in fact becomes ever thicker and more detailed the closer it comes to the present day.  The reason why I do this is simple: the European Union and its history mainly deserve to be studied because of its importance today. 

Hence my attention to the more recent period since the 1980s and 90s, but also since 2009, since the economic crisis and into the period that we’re living in today.

That is the main starting point that I have: I argue that whilst there are all these countertendencies and this unclarity and the lack of a masterplan, there are certain tendencies that we can still identify in European integration. I argue that since the 1980s and 1990s, there was a period which I summarize under opening and liberalization – I borrow the concept of apertistische Liberalismus from the German sociologist Andreas Reckwitz.  The idea in a nutshell is that the main focus of European integration was very much in line with a neoliberal and globalist approach. Admittedly, there were always countertendencies. But think of the opening of borders under the umbrella of Schengen, the massive enlargement towards Eastern Europe, and the introduction of the Euro as a project that uses financial mechanisms to further European integration. All these policies create a larger, more open, and more (neo)liberal EU. 

Obviously, liberalization always had its limits, and it was always very much self-serving for Europeans, so these things were not done in a truly global context. Liberalization was always complemented by a good quantum of protectionism vis-à-vis third parties, be it with regard to trade or migration. Moreover, this was mostly a project of and for the elites – just think of the lack of a robust social policy at the European level. Still, I would argue that from the 1980s to the late 2000s, apertistischer Liberalismus goes a long way in explaining what the EU was and did.

Of course, there was not one specific date when a new button was pushed; when the European Union started to move in a new direction. However, I do think that around 2009, with the economic crisis and the Euro crisis, there is a shift of direction. Since then, European policies are less about an apertistisch form of liberalization than about security. Une Europe qui protège is a sentence that we tend to hear more recently, i.e. a Europe that is protecting. Macron’s ideas about sovereign Europe is another formulation that goes into this direction: it argues that against the backdrop of global tendencies and developments, the EU should redirect its focus into this new direction. 

What does this mean concretely? That liberalization of the economic brand should have its clear limits. The current pandemic and the way it has challenged the last-minute production is only one example which has led not Member States and the EU to rethink their positions. There is more talk about protecting certain industries, of keeping vital production and the access to infrastructure within the European Union.  We also see new debates about creating “European champions” in business to live up to global competition. Another obvious example goes slightly further back to the post-2009 moment. It is the Euro, where the idea was that further instruments need to be implemented, even if they are more costly, more interventionist and more heavy-handed than the policies before, to really secure this project and make it less vulnerable to global and internal forms of crisis. Migration is another obvious example. Since 2015, the EU has installed new, highly problematic policies 5 to make sure that migration flows become less; that fewer people manage to reach the shores of Europe and instead are stopped long before. This is another form of securing not only simply the life of Europeans, but also the existing European Union. To a good extent, this a self-serving purpose. But it is also a project informed by global tendencies.

The international climate and the changes in the international arena provide another example that could be mentioned in this context. To talk about Trump and the post-Trump era (in which nobody who is seriously thinking that Transatlantic relations are all fine again): it has become clear that Europe needs to think more about its military and other security capabilities than before. 

This hasn’t led to fundamental changes, but the course is certainly changing. There is more urge behind the idea to secure what is and make the European Union more compact. 

This is obviously further substantiated by the aggression coming from Russia and China. Both countries are not just perceived as external partners or competitors, but increasingly also as threats and even aggressors when it comes to European integration. 

This new goal of securing the Union has very important internal sources. But it also reacts to global phenomena and processes that we’ve been witnessing over the past two decades. I argue that the European Union is proving to be flexible enough to allow for certain changes in its policies while still being the same union. The talk about crisis that often dominates the headlines is to some extent appropriate, of course – there were a whole long sequence of crises that the European Union has gone through over the past 20 years or so. 

The EU has basically been in constant crisis modus. But highlighting that, as most observers do, hides the more important and bigger realities, I think. Let’s go back, for instance, to the Eurozone crisis. Yes, it was a massive crisis, leading the Euro to the brink of collapse. But let’s also consider the outcome: While not leading to a truly bullet-proof system, the powers of today’s EU are massively bigger than in 2008. Overall, the EU used the crisis as an opportunity to expand its powers. 

From there, let’s go back to the 1970s, an earlier period that I’ve done quite a bit of research on. Also back then, the talk was doom and gloom. But if you look more carefully, a hidden leap of European integration resulted from those debates. Also today, the EU is making massive new inroads into policy fields which are new for it such as health while it expands its powers in others, for instance with NextGenerationEU. If we focus on crisis talk only, we miss the chance to see these fundamental processes. 

That is what I would like to share with my readers, to help them understand where we stand today, to explain where this European Union, with all its tensions and with the extreme importance it has for people’s lives today, comes from. It was by no means a given that it would one day become such an important entity, for better or for worse, and that therefore we need to engage with it and its history. 

I insist on this because I see a certain reluctance, particularly among historians, to deal with the EU as an historical phenomenon. At the same time, the wider public tends to see the EU as technical and boring and is mostly ignorant of the history which has created it. The EU has become too important to ignore. Hence this new book. It contributes to a discussion of a phenomenon that we all should be spending more time on.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Karen Culver.

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