Why was the EU not founded earlier?

"You can like it or hate it, but the EU is incredibly important"

Because of everything according to plan: For the historian Kiran Klaus Patel, the European Union is a church building full of extensions and conversions. A conversation about the most important construction sites after Brexit.

Interview: Anna JikharevaMail to the authorTwitter profile of the author and Kaspar SurberMail to the authorTwitter profile of the author

WOZ: At Christmas, the European Union and Great Britain agreed on a trade agreement. Who is it the better deal for?
Kiran Klaus Patel: Most likely for the EU. Mutual access to the financial markets has not been clearly clarified, and this would be much more important for the United Kingdom than the fisheries question, which has been so hard-fought until recently. A clear loser can already be identified: the parliamentary systems on both sides. You need to get the deal off so quickly that there is no time for serious consideration.

The development of the EU is often described as the “Ever Closer Union”. Is Brexit the first step backwards?
Definitely not! It is just the break in a story that many have long believed in. Earlier cases have contradicted the standard history of the EU of deepening and enlargement: in 1962 Algeria withdrew from the Europe project, followed by Greenland in 1985. In addition, some political areas used to be more integrated into the EU and its predecessor organizations than they are today. In the area of ​​agricultural policy, for example, the Member States have more say than they did in the 1970s. In this respect, it is one of the many myths of European integration that the project only knew one direction until Brexit.

Can the exit of Algeria and Greenland be compared so easily with that of Great Britain, a great economic and military power?
The starting conditions were actually very different: Algeria and Greenland joined the European project as part of the legacy of European colonialism - and then decided to leave. After the War of Independence, Algeria wanted to break away from France and thus from the European Community (EC), Greenland still wanted to belong to Denmark, but not least because of the fisheries policy had nothing to do with the EC.

But if you look at the time after leaving, you can certainly draw parallels. The following applies to all three countries: after the negotiations are before the negotiations. Brexit dragged on for four and a half years. The idea of ​​the former British Prime Minister David Cameron to clarify the relationship with the EU once and for all with a referendum - "once and for all" - turned out to be completely wrong. The agreement now will not be the last result either, but just one step among many.

Is it just a historical joke that both Greenland and Great Britain were ultimately about the fish?
In terms of gross domestic product, fishing is completely irrelevant to both the EU and the UK, but it has a very high symbolic value. In a heroic act, the Prime Minister himself could argue with Brussels and act as a representative of national interests. So it was less about the fish than about populism. I am now putting it somewhat ironically; For those affected, their living environment and economic prospects, this is of course bad.

In your book “Project Europe” you investigate the question of whether the history of the EU has turned out as the politicians claim in their Sunday sermons. In addition to the myth of constant deepening, it is often emphasized that the EU secured peace after the Second World War. Is that correct?
The EU has played a different role than is commonly thought. The standard story that she brought peace in the early post-war period as the teaching of the so-called Founding Fathers is too simple. Because when the EC saw the light of day, the brutal order of the Cold War was already in place. In addition, their competencies in security and foreign policy were extremely low.

Instead, however, it later made a noticeable contribution to social peace. What was important was the soft, almost invisible dimension of coming together, negotiating, and compromising, which the machine EG institutionalized in the first place. Don't forget: In 1958, men were sitting at the table as commissioners in the European Economic Community, who fifteen years earlier had been at war with each other in warring armies, or who were resistance fighters or forced laborers.

How did the jointly agreed policy consolidate social peace?
It has encouraged some redistribution between Member States. Take the common agricultural policy, the CAP. It is rightly seen as a nuisance due to the ecological problems it causes, the high costs and protectionism towards third countries. But it was also a covert form of social policy: it cushioned the high transformation costs for the primary sector, which was still very important in the first half of the 20th century. Farmers have also been forced out of agriculture by the mechanisms of the CAP, but much more slowly than would have been the case by sheer market power.

Against this background, one has to ask how the EU could help the losers of modernization processes today. Because there is still no broad social policy, the member states are clearly keeping their foot on the brakes.

Is the myth of the EU as a peacemaker perhaps also emphasized so strongly because it hides deficits elsewhere?
It sure is like that. The EC was just one of many international cooperation organizations after the Second World War. It may have had a slightly larger ego, but was initially no more important than the Council of Europe or the OECD. In order to gain legitimacy, she has resorted to self-mythization since the 1960s and referred to a nostalgic starting point. This fits in with the male image of the founding fathers, who, in their wisdom, should have known exactly which course Europe should take. This focus on the beginnings shows a certain laziness of thinking that pays too little attention to the recent past and the complicated present.

Even today, the EU is a dazzling projection surface: to some it appears to be the greatest, to others as the greatest evil. Where does this polarization come from?
This is closely related to their increase in importance over the past four decades. When the farmers moved to Brussels to protest against agricultural policy in the 1970s, no one else cared much about what was happening there. In the past ten years, however, EU flags have fluttered in Kiev as a sign of hope, and in Athens they burned. You can like it, you can hate it, but today the EU is incredibly important for the welfare and woe of entire economies. It was only late in the day that many understood the impact it had on our lives. This is due to the fact that it has gained significantly in competencies without these having been adequately discussed in public.

Simplifying interpretations have also gained in influence because the EU is very difficult to grasp: it is not a nation state, but has not replaced it either; sometimes it plays an immensely important role, then again none at all. In certain policy areas, institutions such as the European Central Bank have a lot of power, in others the member states decide. The citizens undoubtedly have the least to say.

Why was the EU even able to increase its importance in such a way?
I would give three reasons. First, there is their economistic logic. As a transatlantic military alliance, NATO relieved them of security policy, while value issues were more closely related to the Council of Europe. Economic integration, on which the EU was able to concentrate, proved to be particularly effective in opening up ever new areas of policy: environmental protection, for example, has nothing to do with belief in the free market, and is often in contradiction to it. Nevertheless, it could become an issue via the polluter pays principle. Corona is currently also a wonderful example: the EU can take care of pandemic protection because of the economic consequences, even if this does not belong in its area of ​​competence.

What are the other reasons?
Second, the supranational dimension of European law was important. The historians, I would also like to exercise some self-criticism on my subject, have often overlooked its incredibly important role in the unification process. Institutionally, however, this right is closely tied to market integration: the market can be enforced in the EU today much more through the law than the values. This is evident in many of the current challenges. Thirdly, the company's own financial resources are to be mentioned for the gain in importance: This enabled the EU to set the tone more than other organizations.

The EU is often criticized from the left for its focus on market integration: it has helped the dogmas of neoliberalism to break through. Do you share this assessment?
I would say that this is partly and in phases, but never entirely. The question is whether the EU is seen as a single piece or not. To me it looks more like a medieval cathedral: a wild mix of styles with constant additions and renovations. This picture can be transferred to their economic policy. Anyone who describes agricultural policy as neoliberal, for example, has not understood what neoliberalism is; it is very protectionist - and after all, around forty percent of the budget goes there. There was certainly a strong neoliberal tendency in the nineties and noughties; however, it has decreased again since the euro crisis in 2009. Overall, the EU is far too complicated to be committed to one position.

During the corona pandemic, the EU decided for the first time to take on debt itself. Will this decision change economic policy, will a separate financial and tax policy emerge alongside monetary union?
To stay in the picture, this is certainly an essential addition. It was prepared by many small measures that were often not noticed. It was by no means the case that only an austerity policy was enforced during the euro crisis. At the time, the European Central Bank made a number of decisions that contradicted the German creed of the black zero, for example to expand the money supply. At the moment it is interesting that the German government also supports the taking on of joint debts. It remains to be seen whether this will actually result in a debt union. But mutual solidarity is definitely becoming more of an issue.

You have drawn the EU as a sacred building, full of extensions and conversions. Where do you currently see the biggest construction site?
There are too many at the moment to be tied to one. Global warming is of course central. Here Ursula von der Leyen's commission had big plans, which were then partially slowed down by Corona. Refugee policy remains another major construction site, which belies talk of the EU as a community of values. One could only agree on a shaky formula compromise, with the Turkey deal pushed the problem outward and thereby reduced it. But this is not an ethically or politically justifiable policy - and also not a sustainable one. If the world turns upside down, the EU will again be confronted with refugee movements.

The EU's only consensus on refugee policy is isolation. As so often in history, does the demarcation from supposedly strangers also serve to construct one's own identity?
I would rather say that there is no common perception of the problem. And because they don't exist, you can't develop a solution. Due to the Dublin regulation, the Mediterranean countries have to cope with the pressure of the problem more or less on their own, supplemented by states that are willing to take in refugees, such as Germany or, at times, Sweden. In the East Central European countries, on the other hand, they are extremely satisfied with the status quo.

Does this show again - contrary to the often invoked European values ​​- that human rights have historically not been the focus of the EU?
That’s how it can be summed up. If you look at the previous treaties, safeguarding the rule of law and human rights is not really anchored in them. To date, it has been difficult to implement these principles, both within the EU and vis-à-vis third countries. The blatant violations of democracy and the rule of law by Viktor Orban in Hungary or the Polish PiS party are difficult to punish. The quote from the sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf remains true for the time being: "If the EU were to apply for membership in the EU, it would have to be rejected because of its lack of democratic order."

Does today's conflict with countries like Hungary and Poland also have to do with the way in which the eastward expansion took place?
After the Cold War, the EU drew a lot of prestige from the fact that the East Central European countries were interested in becoming part of the project. The fact that the prospect of accession for these countries was strongly influenced by the economy is evident today in its darker side: the anchoring of democracy and rule of law mechanisms was accordingly much less part of the cocktail. Linking transfer payments with compliance with the rule of law, which was decided in 2020, is certainly a slight step forward - but not yet a breakthrough to a truly value-based policy.

Right-wing populists like Orban like to construct a contrast between national sovereignty and European unification. How do you assess the relationship between the nation states and the EU?
I would speak of communicating tubes, with European integration guaranteeing the continuity of politics, for better or for worse. Fundamental political changes of course, such as those that the Hungarian government would like to undertake with regard to press rights or the judicial system, will at least be a little more difficult. Conversely, one has to endure the fact that a radical change towards a more humane refugee policy is made more difficult by the complexity of European unity. The European stage for the small states is definitely useful, and this is often underestimated: The fact that the US President meets with a politician from the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg who represents around 300,000 people can only be explained by the fact that this President is the EU Commission is.

Despite these advantages, the small country of Switzerland is as isolated as possible. Is the EU even interested in what Switzerland wants, for example when negotiating a framework agreement?
Due to its high economic performance and the fact that Switzerland lies between several member states, it is a very interesting partner for the EU. Even if it is a problematic term, there is an autistic impulse in European integration: Because finding compromises between the member states is immensely complicated, the outside world is often less perceived. And especially since the euro crisis, the EU has been concentrating very much on itself. So there is an asymmetrical observation situation: In Switzerland there is much more discussion about the EU than the other way around. If it were a member of the EU, the Swiss debates between Helsinki and Lampedusa would certainly be followed more closely.

We have talked a lot about the various crises in the EU. What is your greatest achievement in recent years?
That she survived all these crises. That this succeeded is mainly due to one reason: It managed to address them separately from one another, so that no systemic crisis could arise from it. Would it be better for us in Europe if it hadn't worked? I have my doubts about that.

European unification: a chronicle

1951: On to the sun! With the European Coal and Steel Community, often also called the Coal and Steel Community, the first forerunner organization of the EU is founded. Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands are involved.

1957: The Treaty of Rome creates Euroatom and the European Economic Community (EEC). Their aim is to create a common internal market.

1968: The customs union comes into force, with it the tariffs on trade between the member states are abolished.

1973: Great Britain, Denmark and Ireland become Member States. Greece, Spain and Portugal will follow later.

1979: For the first time, the EU Parliament will be directly elected by the citizens. In addition to parliament, the EU Commission as the executive and the European Council as a body of heads of state and government determine politics.

1985: The Schengen Agreement is concluded. This means that controls at internal borders will no longer apply in 1995. The Dublin Treaty later unified the law of asylum.

1992: The Maastricht Treaty replaces the previous agreements and the European Union (EU) is created.

1999: Switzerland regulates its relationship with the EU in bilateral agreements.In a champagne mood: Federal Councilors Joseph Deiss, Pascal Couchepin and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

2002: The first euro bills are issued. To date, nineteen states are involved in the single currency. The European Central Bank (ECB) is responsible for monetary policy.

2004: Hug after the Cold War: After the eastward expansion, the EU now has 25 members, and former communist states such as Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic are added.

2007: After the failure of an EU constitution, the Lisbon Reform Treaty is signed. The European Parliament will be strengthened and a Charter of Fundamental Rights will be adopted.

2010: As a result of the financial crisis, the EU's monetary union is also falling into a crisis. Tough austerity programs are being implemented against individual member states like Greece.

2012: The EU receives the Nobel Peace Prize for its contribution to peace and reconciliation in Europe.

2015: In the refugee summer, numerous refugees make it to Europe. Months later, in a deal with Turkey, the EU relies on foreclosure.

2020: The breakthrough will be achieved before the end of the year: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will regulate the modalities of Brexit.

The European historian

“If I were an OECD historian, you would hardly interview me. That says a lot about the increasing importance of the EU, ”says Kiran Klaus Patel (49) in an interview.

After professorships at the European University Institute in Florence and the University of Maastricht, Patel has held the Chair of European History at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich since 2019. Most recently he published the book “Project Europe. A critical story »(C. H. Beck, 2018).

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