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The Battle over European Politics

Luuk van Middelaar

In the torrent of words devoted to European politics, it is possible to distinguish three basic discourses. We might label them ‘the Europe of States’, ‘the Europe of Citizens’ and ‘the Europe of Offices’. More traditionally they are known as confederalism, federalism and functionalism. Each has its favoured European institutions, its characteristic political style and prescriptions, its university home bases. Each treats history in its own way.

Those who speak of a Europe of States believe that European politics has most to gain from cooperation between national governments. Nations retain their sovereignty, but in matters of mutual interest they may sometimes take joint decisions. Only states have sufficient authority and operational capacity to buttress European unity. Supporters of this approach have little desire for central institutions, preferring to rely on meetings between ministers or national leaders at diplomatic conferences along the lines of Vienna 1814–15. They seek peace between as many European states as possible and prosperity for their peoples. Some advocates of European confederation have their sights set on a glorious leadership role for their own home nation.

The words and concepts employed by the Europe of Citizens are quite different. Here the idea is to detach certain powers from national executive, legislative and judicial authorities and transfer them to a European government, parliament and court, paving the way for federation. As in the American republic, these central bodies would exercise power over citizens directly, bypassing the constituent states, their legitimacy resting on a European electorate. This approach therefore invests high hopes in a European parliament and Europe-wide public opinion. Just as the advocates of a Europe of States are not actually the states, so representatives of this discourse are not today’s (national) citizens, but mainly writers and intellectuals who feel qualified to speak on behalf of a new European citizen, unconcerned that most citizens of flesh and blood are barely even aware that such capacity exists. The federalists’ ultimate goal is a democratic society that thinks of itself as a single political – even cultural – entity.

The Europe of Offices talks of transferring specific governmental functions to a European bureaucracy. Aims and guidelines would be set down beforehand by the states, with the central bureaucracy then left to act autonomously within those parameters. Political life is seen as overrated and superficial: more fundamental than the interplay between governments, parliaments and electorates are the broad economic and social forces that shape everyday life; European unity can arise from gradual changes to the habits and concerns of millions of individuals; a rational bureaucracy is sufficient to steer the process. Such functionalists believe there is no need for any visionary goal.

Each of these discourses originates in an environment of its own: state power, civic spirit, administrative rule. The States approach goes back as far as the European states system itself. In the fifteenth century, King Podiebrad of Bohemia, shocked by the Turkish military advance, wrote to his fellow Christian princes, describing in detail his plans for a council in which they would all take a seat. In the midst of the devastating Thirty Years’ War, Cardinal Richelieu, advisor to the French king, Louis XIII, proposed something similar (though without success). After the peace of 1648, the European states did not take up the idea of a confederal alliance, but relied instead on a balance of power. This worked more or less to the satisfaction of monarchs and national leaders for centuries. Not until the end of the tragic period of 1914–45 (referred to by one of those leaders as ‘a thirty years’ war) was a Europe of States again advocated by such statesmen as Churchill and de Gaulle.

A Europe of Citizens became conceivable only after the French Revolution. The rupture of 1789 made writers and thinkers more aware of a common history. Novalis, Burke and later Guizot equated Europe with, respectively, Christendom, freedom and civilisation. In 1814, the philosopher Saint-Simon produced a plan for a European parliamentary system, and in 1849, a year after a fresh series of democratic revolutions, writer Victor Hugo came up with the term ‘United States of Europe’, the federalist slogan to this day. After the First World War, Austrian Count Coudenhove-Kalergi captured imaginations with his Pan-Europa, an organisation that would unite ‘people, not states’. Intellectuals including Einstein, Apollinaire and Thomas Mann rallied round, as did the French statesman Aristide Briand and Konrad Adenauer, mayor of Cologne. It was not until the Second World War that their approach gained momentum. A ‘European Movement’ grew out of the anti-Nazi resistance, bringing together people in Italy, Belgium, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Norway, Yugoslavia and indeed Germany.

The concept of a Europe of Offices emerged after 1945. Its spokesmen were senior civil servants, by far the most influential among them a Frenchman called Jean Monnet who had helped to set up allied agencies for transport and resupply between American, British and French forces during the two world wars, and who had worked for the League of Nations in Geneva in the early 1920s. Other prominent functionalists included Dutch banker Johan Willem Beyen and French economist Robert Marjolin. In 1944 Beyen had helped lay the foundations for the international monetary system, and a decade later, as a non-party foreign minister, he was one of the major forces behind moves to create a European common market. In 1948 Marjolin became the top civil servant in the organisation used by seventeen Western European countries to distribute Marshall Aid. He later spent many years as vice-president of the Commission in Brussels.

At the end of the Second World War, numerous conferences were held on the subject of the ‘European idea’ and the place of states and citizens within it. The Europe of Offices turned out to offer the most practical plan. It was first launched in 1950 in the mining and steel industries. Twelve years later, when it was fully operational, Commission President Walter Hallstein put the Offices thinking into words: ‘The very nature of this world necessitates a redefinition of what we ordinarily mean by words like “politics” and “economics”, and a redrawing, perhaps even the elimination, of the semantic frontier between the two.’

The political battle between the Europe of States, of Citizens and of Offices regularly results in new power relationships, new ideological constellations and new terms. Take the concept of an ‘institutional triangle’. It refers to a balance, which must be preserved, between the Commission, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament – the three European institutions into which the three currents of Offices, States and Citizens had meanwhile flowed. The term ‘triangle’, introduced shortly after the first direct elections to the European Parliament in 1979, is rhetorically brilliant. It reconciles the conflicting positions by prescribing an equilibrium, offering a mathematical justification for political choices.

In time, three hybrids developed, and these determine how we think today: supranationalism (Offices and Citizens), intergovernmentalism (Offices and States) and constitutionalism (States and Citizens). The first two are the oldest and they dominated the debate for decades. In Brussels and in certain academic circles, every institutional change in Europe is still set against a scale running from ‘supranational’ (or ‘community’) at one end to ‘intergovernmental’ at the other. In many ways it is an empty distinction. Constitutionalism arose in the 1990s out of an awareness of the inadequacies of both. It instead proposes reading the situation as a matter of public concern that involves all citizens and all member states.

From The Passage to Europe by Luuk van Middelaar, translated by Liz Waters. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.


Luuk van Middelaar is a Dutch political philosopher.


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