Under the Sign of the Interim

Perry Anderson

  • The European Rescue of the Nation-State by Alan Milward
    Routledge, 506 pp, £17.99, May 1994, ISBN 0 415 11133 1
  • The Frontier of National Sovereignty: History and Theory 1945-1992 by Alan Milward
    Routledge, 248 pp, £14.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 415 11784 4
  • Jean Monnet: The First Statesman of Interdependence by François Duchêne
    Norton, 278 pp, $35.00, January 1995, ISBN 0 393 03497 6

Mathematically, the European Union today represents the largest single unit in the world economy. It has a nominal GNP of about six trillion dollars, compared with five trillion for the US and three trillion for Japan. Its total population, now over 360 million, approaches that of the United States and Japan combined. Yet in political terms such magnitudes continue to be virtual reality. Beside Washington or Tokyo, Brussels remains a cipher. The Union is not equivalent to either the United States or Japan, since it is not a sovereign state. But what kind of formation is it? Most Europeans themselves are at a loss for an answer. The Union remains a more or less unfathomable mystery to all but a handful of those who, to their bemusement, have recently become its citizens. Arcane to ordinary voters, it is covered by a film of mist even in the mirror of scholars.

The nature of the European Union must have some relation to the origins of the Community which it now subsumes but, in a typically alembicated juridical twist, does not supersede. Some political clarity about the genesis of its structure seems desirable as a starting-point for considering its future. This is a topic on which there is still no uncontroversial ground. The historical literature has from the outset tended to be unusually theoretical in bent, a clear sign that few familiar assumptions can be taken for granted. The dominant early scholarship held to the view that the underlying forces behind the post-war integration of Western Europe should be sought in the growth of objective – not only economic, but also social and cultural – interdependencies between the states that made up the initial Coal and Steel Community and its sequels. The tenor of this first wave of interpretation was neo-functionalist, stressing the additive logic of institutional development: that is, the way modest functional changes tended to lead to complementary alterations along an extending path of often involuntary integration. Cross-national convergence of economic transactions, social exchanges and cultural practices had laid the basis for gradual advance towards a new political ideal – a supranational union of states. Ernst Haas, who thought the beginnings of this process relatively contingent, but its subsequent development path-determined, produced what is still perhaps the best theorisation of this position in his Uniting of Europe, in the late Fifties.

The second wave of interpretations, by contrast, has stressed the structural resilience of the nation-state, and seen the post-war integration of Western Europe not as a glide-path towards any supranational sovereignty, but on the contrary as the means of reinvigorating effective national power. This neo-realist theme comes in a number of different versions, not all of them concordant. By far the most powerful and distinctive is the work of Alan Milward. There is some irony in the fact that the country which has contributed least to European integration should have produced the historian who has illuminated it most. No other scholar within the Union approaches the combination of archival mastery and intellectual passion that Milward has brought to the question of its origins.

His starting-point was at a productive tangent to it. Why, he asked, did economic recovery in Europe after the Second World War not repeat the pattern that followed the First – an initial spurt due to physical restocking, followed by erratic fits and starts of recession? In The Reconstruction of Western Europe 1945-51(1984), he set aside conventional explanations – the arrival of Keynesianism; repair of war damage; larger public sector; high defence spending; technological innovation – and suggested that the basis of the completely unprecedented boom, which started as early as 1945 and lasted till at least 1967, lay rather in the steady rise of popular earnings in this period, against a background of long-pent-up unsatisfied demand. This model of growth, in turn, was sustained by new arrangements between states, whose ‘pursuit of narrow self-interest’ led both to trade liberalisation and the first limited measures of integration in the Schuman Plan.

It is on the way these developed into the European Economic Community that Milward’s subsequent work has focused, with a mass of empirical findings and increasingly sharp theoretical thrust. Both his great study of The European Rescue of the Nation-State, and its coda in The Frontiers of National Sovereignty, are sustained polemics against neo-functionalist overestimation of the importance of federalist conceptions of any kind – which are dismissed as a pack of pieties in a caustic chapter on ‘The Lives and Teachings of the European Saints’. Milward’s central argument is that the origins of the Community have little or nothing to do with either the technical imperatives of interdependence – which may even have been less at mid-century than fifty years earlier – or the ethereal visions of a handful of federalist worthies. They were rather a product of the common disaster of the Second World War, when every nation-state between the Pyrenees and the North Sea was shattered by defeat and occupation.

From the depths of impotence and discredit into which pre-war institutions had fallen, a quite new kind of structure had to be built up after peace returned. The post-war states of Western Europe were laid, Milward contends, on a much wider social basis than their narrow and brittle predecessors, for the first time integrating farmers, workers and petty-bourgeois fully into the political nation with a set of measures for growth, employment and welfare. It was the unexpected success of these policies within each country that prompted a second kind of broadening, now of co-operation between countries. Morally rehabilitated within their own borders, six nation-states on the continent found they could strengthen themselves yet further by sharing certain elements of sovereignty to common advantage. At the core of this process was the magnetic pull of the German market on the export sectors of the other five economies – complemented by the attractions for German industry of easier access to French and Italian markets, and eventual gains for particular interests like Belgian coal and Dutch agriculture. The European Economic Community, in Milward’s vision, was born essentially from the autonomous calculations of national states that the prosperity on which their domestic legitimacy rested would be enhanced by a customs union.

The strategic need to contain Germany as a power also played a role. But Milward argues that it was an essentially secondary one, which could have been met by other means. If the driving force behind integration was indeed pursuit of security, the kind of security that really mattered to the peoples of Western Europe in the Fifties was social and economic: the assurance that there would be no return to the hunger and unemployment and dislocations of the Thirties. In the age of Schuman, Adenauer and de Gasperi, the desire for political security – that is, reinsurance against German militarism or Soviet expansionism – and even the wish for ‘spiritual’ security afforded by Catholic solidarity, were so to speak extensions of the same basic quest. The foundations of the EEC lay in the ‘similarity and reconcilability’ of the socio-economic interests of the six renascent states, set by the political consensus of the post-war democratic order in each country. In Milward’s view, this original matrix has held fast down to the present, unaltered by the enlargement of the Community or the elaboration of its machinery.

The one significant further advance of integration, the Single European Act of the mid-Eighties, reveals the same pattern. By then, under the pressure of global economic crisis and mounting competition from the US and Japan, the political consensus had shifted, as electorates became resigned to the return of unemployment and converted to the imperatives of sound money and social deregulation. Milward does not conceal his dislike for the ‘managerial claptrap and narrow authoritarian deductions from abstract economic principles’ which orchestrated this change of outlook. But it was the general turn to neo-liberalism, sealed by Mitterrand’s abandonment of his initial Keynesian programme in 1983, that made possible the convergence of all member states, including the UK in Thatcher’s heyday, on the completion of the internal market – each calculating, as in the Fifties, the particular commercial benefits it would reap from further liberalisation within the Community. Once again the nation-state remained master of the process, yielding certain of its juridical prerogatives only to enhance the sum of its material capacities to satisfy the domestic expectations of its citizenry.

The cumulative power of Milward’s account of European integration, hammered home in one case-study after another, each delivered with tremendous insight – institutional detail and theoretical insight racing imperiously across the keyboard, individual portraits pedalled sardonically below – has no equal. But its very force raises a number of questions. Milward’s construction as a whole rests on four assumptions, which can perhaps be formulated without too much simplification as follows.

The first, and most explicit, is that the traditional objectives of international diplomacy – the rivalrous struggle for power in an inter-state system: ‘world politics’ as Max Weber understood it – were always of secondary weight in the options that led to post-war European integration. Milward argues that this truth remains as valid today as it ever did. Whether the states of the Community proceed with further integration, he writes in his conclusion, ‘depends absolutely on the nature of domestic policy choices’ (my italics). Foreign policy, as once conceived, is not dismissed: but it is taken to be ancillary to the socio-economic priorities of the nation-state. Milward postulates a virtually unconditional Primat der Innenpolitik.

The second assumption – logically distinct from the first – is that where external political or military calculations entered the balance of policy-making, they did so as extensions of the internal pursuit of popular prosperity: security in a complementary register. Diplomatic objectives are germane, but only in continuity, rather than conflict, with the concerns of a domestic consensus. The latter in turn – here we reach a third assumption – reflects the popular will as expressed in the ballot-box. ‘The preponderant influence on the formulation of national policy and the national interest was always a response to demands from electors,’ and ‘it is by their votes that citizens will continue to exercise the preponderant influence in defining the national interest,’ It was because the democratic consensus, in which the voices of workers, clerks and farmers could at last be properly heard, was so similar across Western Europe that nation-states inspired by the new aims of social security could take the first momentous steps towards integration. Here – least prominently, yet still discernibly – is a final suggestion: that where it really mattered, there was an ultimate symmetry in the participation of the states that formed the original customs union, and completed the internal market.

Primacy of domestic objectives, and continuity of foreign goals with them; democracy of policy formation, and symmetry of national public opinions. An element of caricature is inseparable from all compression, and Milward’s work is subtle and complex enough to contain a number of counter-indications, some of them quite striking. But roughly speaking, these four claims convey the main emphasis of his work. How robust are they? One way of approaching the question is to notice how Milward treats his starting-point. The absolute origin of movement towards European integration is located in the Second World War. Few would dissent. But the experience of the war itself is viewed in a quite particular light, as a cataclysm in which the general brittleness of pre-war political structures – lacking any broad democratic base – was suddenly revealed, as one nation-state after another crumpled in the furnace of conflict.

This is a legitimate and productive way of looking at the Second World War, and it sets the stage for the story of post-war reconstruction leading to integration that Milward tells. Yet the war was not just a common ordeal in which all continental states were tested and found wanting. It was also a life or death battle between Great Powers, with an asymmetric outcome. Germany, which set off the struggle, never actually collapsed as a nation-state. Nor did it lack popular support: its soldiers and civilians resisted the Allies unflinchingly, to the end.

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