Why are so many British historians eurosceptic?by Charles Grant / December 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Published in December 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
Why are so many of Britain’s talented young historians Eurosceptics? The likes of Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson consistently damn the EU and all its works. Part of the answer may be that, like their mentor Norman Stone, they have focused on Europe in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. In the era of balance-of-power diplomacy, crumbling empires and total war, the nation-state emerged as Europe’s pre-eminent political unit. Perhaps these historians find it hard to recognise the shift towards a new system of European governance, based on cooperation and interdependence because it challenges their idea of the nation. They may even be guilty of a historicism which views the last 500 years as progress towards the perfection of the nation-state.
Let us define a nation-state as a precise geographical area in which most of the people identify with each other and with the political system. Some parts of northwest Europe-Spain, England and France-began to develop nation-states in the 16th century. Much of the rest of Europe did not achieve nationhood until the late 19th or early 20th century, when a succession of empires dissolved.
Medieval Europe, on the other hand, consisted not of nation-states but of a patchwork of overlapping feudal loyalties. Political entities were often unrelated to the ethnic groups over which they ruled. When Aquitaine passed to and fro between the French and English monarchies, it made little difference to the people who lived there. The Europe of the next millennium may resemble the multi-layered complexities of medieval Europe more than the nation-state system beloved of Bismarck and Henry Kissinger. Instead of the Holy Roman Empire, the Papacy, the Hanseatic League, and various kingdoms, corporations, duchies and archbishoprics, we shall have the EU, Nato, the WTO, the OSCE, the European Court of Human Rights, the UN, NGOs and multinational companies telling us what to do.