More” or a “better Europe”

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*  The postmodern Europe that sought to dilute and mitigate national and regional identities on the ropes.

In the essay ‘Europe: The Grand Illusion’, written in 1996, Tony Judt argued that the myth of Europe was built on the fortuitous alignment of a series of distinct interests and national political cultures – necessary given the circumstances of the post-war era and rendered possible thanks to the prosperity that flourished in Western Europe after its reconstruction.

On the agenda of Europe’s elites, certain national interests had coincided at a given moment of time. The US took care of the security problem posed by the Soviet bloc on the other side of the Iron Curtain, behind which lay that other half of Europe, exotic and unknown.

In the beginning there was little of the pan-European idealism that characterised the 1990s, before a new millennium brought economic and social crisis, the rise of Europhobia and a deterioration of relations between the 28 states that comprise the EU.

In this sense, it had been an illusion to think that the circumstances that gave rise to the Union could project themselves indefinitely into the future, insisting on a sort of manifest destiny of continual expansion.

Judt anticipated that the stitches of the corset around the myth of Europe would end up bursting in an expanded Union, with its unequal economic levels and divergent interests. Achieving a close union of European peoples would prove “impossible in practice”, while continuing to promise such a panacea would be an “imprudence”.

He was essentially right. Like all collective human projects, the EU is contingent on history. Without wishing to fall into determinism or alarmist prophecies, all such collective projects tend to enter existential crises when the circumstances that facilitated their creation peter out owing to a mixture of internal and external transformational factors. Random chance is often an element, too.

Something of this nature is happening to the EU. It is clear that today’s circumstances are not the same as those which gave rise to European integration. The profile of the leaders and elites in member states and institutions has also changed. Today’s average European leader and decision-maker is utilitarian, pressed ever harder than ever by the agenda of the day and short-term interests.

Even leaving aside obvious cases such as Britain and Poland, there is widespread scepticism concerning the benefits of acting within a common European framework that is seen as having lost legitimacy. According to this perception, the advantages of collective action often fail to balance out the sacrifices involved.

The EU and its nation states are in a tricky position amidst political projects based on borderless global villages, on the one hand, and local tribes in favour of borders and drawbridges, on the other. The return of identity politics and nationalism has put the postmodern Europe that sought to dilute and mitigate national and regional identities on the ropes.

In the international realm, the rule-based and multilateral Europe provided a post-Westphalian geopolitical model that now seems old-fashioned in a world of authoritarian leaders and crude geopolitics played out between great powers.

Thucydides’ logic of the strong prevailing over the weak reigns, and in this Hobbesian environment, and with the US cut adrift, we Europeans are not well positioned or sufficiently united to defend our interests as a bloc.

To do so would require more decisive policies of strategic unity, with a high political cost that seems unbearable for domestic focused politicians. But the fact remains that neither are we strong enough to compete on an individual basis.

Continuing to bang on about “more” or a “better Europe” may be necessary in the bid to re-legitimise an embattled project, but it is not enough. Nor are the dynamics of autopilot and gradualism that have held sway for years now, wriggling through the gravest moments of crisis.

* The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at:

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  1. It is my contention that a truly united Europe is sufficiently unlikely for it to be unwise and self-defeating to insist upon it. I am thus, I suppose, a Euro-pessimist

  2. 1990s-era essay predicting just about everything bad that has indeed happened to the European Union in the ensuing years. Chock full of information and I think I probably only took in like 50% of it. It would be interesting to reread it in a few years to see how history plays out.

  3. Judt was a brilliant intellectual and historian, and I would love to still have his voice to parse the current financial and political crises in Europe, and to prognosticate what the future might bring. It is hard to be optimistic.

  4. More than an occasional piece, but much less than a history, this book is really an attempt to address three contemporary questions: What are the prospects for the European Union? If they are not wholly rosy, why is that? And how much does it, in any event, matter whether a united Europe may or may not come about?

  5. The lively discussions that followed the lectures were most helpful, and I hope that in what follows it will be clear how much I have learned from them. The original idea for the book came out of conversations with Robert Silvers and Elisabeth Sifton, and I am especially grateful to them both for their suggestions and their encouragement.

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