Swedberg, Richard: The Idea of ‘Europe’ and the Origin of the European Union

Stockholm University, Department of Sociology, S-10691 Stockholm, Sweden. Notes and references are excluded.

A united Europe is not a modern expedient, be it political or economic, but an ideal which has been accepted since thousands of years by the best spirits of Europe, namely those who can see into the future. Already Homer described Zeus as “europos” – an adjectiv meaning “one who sees very far”.

Denis de Rougemont, Vingt-huit siècles d’Europe (1961)

swedbergIt is usually claimed that the European Union (EU) traces its beginnings to the years just after World War II and possibly also to various political-economic developments during the interwar period.  A recent and very valuable contribution to the literature on this subject is, for example, Coal, Steel and the Rebirth of Europe, 1945-1955 by John Gillingham, where it is argued that the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) represents a solution to the so-called Ruhr problem. But there also exists a number of works which are often ignored in the academic debate and which claim that today’s EU has a much more distant origin, as illustrated by the quote at the beginning of this article. These works look at what they call “the European idea” and its development over the centuries. Often they claim that the idea of a European community goes as far back as the Middle Ages -and sometimes even to Antiquity. One thing that is interesting with this latter type of literature is that it focusses more or less exclusively on the impact of ideas, ideals and cultural symbols as opposed to the more hardnosed political and economic forces, which play a key role in the standard literature on the emergence of EU. In this article I shall first present the literature on the European idea and then try to determine to what extent works of this type can complement our understanding of the origin of EU. In assessing this type of discourse I shall primarily be relying on Emile Durkheim’s sociolo-gy, especially his theory of how a society is constituted via symbols or “collective representations”. I will in particular try to determine if the European idea itself can be understood as one of these community creating symbols (or collective representations) that Durkheim was so fascinated by.

1. The Birth and Development of a New Discourse: Studies on the European Idea (1940s-)

The very first work on the European idea appeared in 1947 and was written by the Italian historian Federico Chabod (1947). Its title was “L’idea di Europa” and the article represented the author’s installation lecture at the University of Rome. Chabod (1947:3) said that when studying the European idea one has to begin by looking at “the origin of the concept of Europe”. And to decide the time of “the birth of Europe”, one would have to know when Europe became conscious of itself. What mattered was not so much Europe as a geographical concept – much more central were “the political Europe, the cultural and moral Europe”. Of particular importance in tracing the history of the European idea, Chabod added, was to realize that a concept always emerges in opposition to some other concept. “The concept of Europe is formed by counterposition to all that is not Europe, and it acquires its characteristics. . .through a confrontation with what is not Europe” (Chabod 1947:4). In his analysis of the idea of Europe Chabod began with Antiquity and continued till World War I. He paid particular attention to what he called “the European Republic of Letters”, that is, thinkers such as Machiavelli, Montesquieu and Voltaire. This Republic of Letters constituted the essence of Europe to Chabod as well as his own, personal ideal.

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