Why are so many British historians eurosceptic?by Charles Grant / December 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
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.
The end of the cold war has reinforced these trends. So long as the Soviet Union was a serious threat, the west could not easily interfere in other countries’ internal affairs. Now it is prepared to intervene with force to prevent the abuse of human rights, when it is practical to do so. Thus there are Nato troops on sovereign Yugoslav territory, while a UN tribunal at The Hague has had dozens of indicted war criminals snatched from Bosnia. The British government has no objection in principle to extraditing General Pinochet to Spain. Meanwhile in eastern Europe, EU applicants are having to comply with its criteria on minority rights to help advance the cause of their membership.
Strobe Talbott, US deputy secretary of state, understands the new Europe better than some British historians. “The old system of nation-states is giving way to a new system in which nations feel secure enough in their identities and their neighbourhoods to make a virtue out of their dependence on one another,” he said at Chatham House last month. “The treaties of Westphalia and Versailles seem to be giving way to those of Maastricht and Amsterdam.” Talbott said that this new order was not just about shifting power to the supranational level: “Where communal identities are at stake, with language and education for example, central government is devolving power to local level.”
But hang on, Eurosceptics will say, all these international organisations belong to elites. Ordinary people don’t care about how Latvia treats its Russian minority. They love their country and tend not to like foreigners. The nation-state is built on more solid foundations of blood, language and democracy.
Nation-states are certainly not going to disappear, but they are not immutable either. Big changes always provoke opposition. But one thing Karl Marx got right was the primacy of economic and technological change in driving history. He thought the “superstructure” of politics, ideology and culture could move in a different direction to the underlying economic “base,” but only for so long. Eventually, most Europeans will see that globalisation brings benefits and that some of its undesirable consequences need to be tackled transnationally. Just as medieval man was happy enough to live with multiple and overlapping layers of political authority, so will third millennium man.