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Doing the Continental

Enda O’Doherty

The Pursuit of Europe: A History, by Anthony Pagden, Oxford University Press, 432 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0198757665

In 1736, the Prussian crown prince Frederick, later to rule as Frederick II (“the Great”), wrote to his friend Voltaire:

The abbé de Saint-Pierre, who has done me the honour of making me one of his correspondents, has sent me a fine treatise on the best method of re-establishing peace in Europe. The whole thing is very practicable: all that is required to make it work is the agreement of Europe ‑ and a few other small trifles of that kind.

The abbé, by his full name Charles-Irénée Castel de Saint-Pierre, was an influential figure in the early Enlightenment and may also have been the first person to use the term European Union. He had acted as secretary to the abbé de Polignac, a plenipotentiary of the French delegation which negotiated the end of the War of the Spanish Succession through the Treaties of Utrecht (1713) and it was in that Dutch city that he published his Projet pour rendre la paix perpétuelle en Europe. The Project envisaged a European federation of nations drawn into close co-operation by their common perception of the great benefits of trade and agreeing to have any disputes between them settled by a council or diet, on which they would all sit, while still remaining sovereign in their own realms.

Saint-Pierre’s blueprint for European concord, which he would spend much of the rest of his life promoting, was widely mocked: in Frederick’s urbane, if somewhat amoral, irony; in his correspondent Voltaire’s view that peace among princes was as likely as peace among elephants and rhinoceroses (there is less in this analogy than meets the eye); in Leibniz’s weary observation that the powerful do not respect tribunals and perpetual peace is to be found only in graveyards. It was, however, also to be considered seriously, if critically, by later writers including Rousseau and Kant, while the dream of international brotherhood and the peaceful resolution of disputes retained, over the centuries, its intellectual appeal – and in particular its appeal for intellectuals. As war succeeded war – and those of the twentieth century were more destructive than any since the seventeenth – there would always also be idealists tempted to speculate on what a world – or even a continent – without war might be like. It is on these sometimes quixotic figures, the dreamers more than the statesmen, that Anthony Pagden’s survey The Pursuit of Europe: A History largely concentrates.

Immanuel Kant, in his Toward Perpetual Peace, a Philosophical Sketch (1795), argued that while blueprints for peace had always been “ridiculed by great statesmen, and even more by heads of state, as pedantic, childish, and academic ideas”, in the case of Saint-Pierre such criticism was justifiable only because he expected the realisation of his ideas to occur too soon. For Kant, perpetual peace was still a long way off. It could not be achieved within the existing political and legal order but only when monarchical states had been replaced by representative republics, where the citizens would not go to war, and take on the financial burdens and human costs of war, unless there was absolutely no other way out of the situation in which they found themselves. The establishment of an international “order of justice” still lay far in the future, he admitted, and was “a dream of perfection”, but it should not be abandoned “under the very wretched and harmful pretext of its impracticability”. What Kant, in his largeness of mind, had always been working towards, he wrote, was “a history of future times, i.e. a predictive history”. In this ambition he was to be followed by a large number of later thinkers, who were tempted to colour in the future not as it should be or might be but as it must be and would be.

The first project to unite Europe after the century of Saint-Pierre, Rousseau and Kant was a much more practical one. It was to end, however, after the deaths of anything between three and six million people, soldiers and civilians, on the field of Waterloo in 1815. From his exile in St Helena, Napoleon told his amanuensis that his aim, in his military campaigns, had been “to make of each of these [European] peoples one and the same national body”, to distribute everywhere “a unity of laws, of opinions, of sentiments, of points of view and interests” and thus, “with the aid of an enlightenment diffused throughout the continent”, to begin to realise a dream of “the great European family”. These retrospective claims should be treated with scepticism. Kant had welcomed the creation of the French republic in 1789 as a first step to the new order he envisaged of representative, if not fully democratic, republics. Many German “progressives”, from Heinrich Heine to Ludwig van Beethoven (until Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor), also welcomed the prospect of the overthrow of feudalism and its archaic and repressive traditions in their own land on the back of French revolutionary energies. The longer-term effects, however, of Bonaparte’s successes ‑ and eventual failure ‑ were, first, to unite the ruling powers of Europe in a pact whose object was to entrench monarchical and clerical rule and suppress republicanism and secularism and, second, to contribute handsomely to sowing the seeds of German nationalism and revanchism.

For the German historian and Reichstag deputy Heinrich von Treitschke, whom Pagden portrays, via Émile Durkheim’s (French) reading, as a kind of downmarket Hegel, what was known as civil society had no vital substance. Only the state could give coherence to the people’s random collection of customs and beliefs and shared, though perhaps ephemeral, memories. Only the state could weld these into something with a lasting meaning. But for this to happen the state’s word must be unquestioned. Nothing of any value would come out of a society led by an endlessly disputatious “civil society”, that is to say bourgeoisie. A strong state would have to be a monarchy. And its destiny, for Treitschke, was to dominate, not just within its own borders but internationally. There were states that counted and states that did not, real states and artificial or simply wishful states. Pagden writes:

… the true international role of the state … was for all great states to absorb all lesser ones, because, for Treitschke, all those states which had not achieved a certain size and level of historical grandeur did not count as states at all. They were nothing more than “veritable historical anachronisms destined to be absorbed by greater states, and the greater state which absorbs them is, in effect, doing nothing more than realizing their true nature”.

This was not the only available version of nationalism. The original impulse towards German unification had been progressive and republican. It was hoped that a single German state would be more open, free and democratic than the congeries of semi-feudal entities that constituted the remains of the Holy Roman Empire. The emblematic figurehead of Italian nationalism, Giuseppe Mazzini, insisted that his project was not a national but an international one. Mazzini was widely admired across Europe and even won the distinction of being regarded by John Stuart Mill as the “most … superior man among all the foreigners I have known”. The cosmopolitan, the benevolent lover of all humanity typical of the Enlightenment era, was not so much wrong as ineffectual, Mazzini thought, standing as he did “at the centre of an immense circle that extends itself around him, and whose limits are beyond his grasp”. The peoples of Europe, he believed, must first be formed into nations and only then into something larger. The unity of Europe would follow when Europeans came together to work for “the progress of all for the advantage of all”.

One of the most salient features of later nineteenth century European history was imperialism and foreign conquest. Treitschke, an influential friend of the German chancellor Bismarck, was an antisemite (he coined the phrase “The Jews are our misfortune!”, later to be taken up by the Nazi paper Der Stürmer) and an imperialist, but there was nothing particularly German about either of these political tendencies ‑ indeed as regards imperialism the Germans came rather late to the table. “We must and will,” he wrote, “take our share in the domination of the world by the white races.” That such domination was natural – ordained by God, or later by his secular substitute, History – was an intellectual commonplace, though it had been occasionally challenged by various freethinkers: as early as the sixteenth century the French essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote concerning the imperial project of “so many cities razed to the ground, so many nations wiped out, so many individuals put to the sword, and the richest and most beautiful part of the world shattered on behalf of the pearls and pepper business”.

The future status of their colonies remained a prime concern of the European powers well into the twentieth century, even as they were dreaming great dreams for Europe. Count Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi, the most prominent “Europeanist” of the interwar period, took it for granted that Africa would remain as the chief provider of food and raw materials for a continent that he hoped to see politically united and ready to match with its power the United States and the Soviet Union. The French, in the 1950s, as first the European Coal and Steel Community and then the European Economic Community were being put together, worried about what status their North African colonies would enjoy in the new dispensation. Ten years later they no longer possessed them.

The last two chapters of Anthony Pagden’s book, “Refashioning Europe” and “The Once and Future Europe” deal with the creation of the institutional architecture for the EEC/EC/EU and the challenges to the project as it expanded from six to twenty-eight and then back to twenty-seven members, a few of these it seemed semi-detached, or at least increasingly bolshie. After the contrasting but equally schematic and dogmatic visions for the future of Oswald Spengler (The Decline of the West) and Coudenhove-Kalergi (Pan-Europa), the postwar arrival on the scene of the great pragmatists Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman comes as something of a relief. At a conference in The Hague in 1948, Winston Churchill had employed his immense political prestige and great rhetorical talent to enthuse his listeners with his vision of a united, free and prosperous Europe. The only drawback was that Britain did not intend to be part of it. These years saw bitter struggles between convinced European federalists and the – rather perfidious – British, who worked to ensure that any new European organisms that might be created were no more than talking shops. Of Monnet’s critique of the previous traditions of idealistic “Europeanism” Pagden writes:

Despite all the ambitious rhetoric, “amid these vast groupings of countries,” Monnet observed, “the common interest was too indistinct, and common disciplines were too lax.” Public opinion was focused on what he referred to dismissively as “magic spells,” which the eager federalists and their allies continued to “refine” while persistently failing to understand why “reality resisted them so stubbornly.”

The essence of Monnetism is perhaps captured in the preamble to the Treaty of Paris of 1951, which set up the European Coal and Steel Community: “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.” These simple and modest words, which form such a contrast to the resounding declarations and “magic spells” of so much earlier visionary thinking, actually constitute a hats-in-the-air moment for European construction.

The apparent need for blueprints or magic spells has not, however, gone away, and Pagden cites numerous contemporary political scientists who have continued to puzzle their brains over what formulae can most accurately describe our present, and future, European Union. Is it to be a loose mechanism in which mostly sovereign states cooperate for their mutual benefit? Or should it aspire to a plane on which the nation is finally superseded? Is this a vital matter that we must decide, or should Europeans be happy, as Jan-Werner Müller suggests, with a constitutional culture that is open and incomplete?

The understandable intellectual desire to pin down, to define, to be definitive, might well be tempered by a certain humility in the face of the overwhelming forces of time and change. No book about the European project will fail (nor should it) to give due attention to the current crisis. But it is often the case that by the time the book has got to press the crisis it is pondering has passed – usually to be replaced by another one. What, our author insistently asks, are we going to do about the Syrian refugee crisis, or Brexit? And this at a time when we are thinking, or perhaps trying not to think, about where the Russia-Ukraine crisis might bring us to. This is not to say that Europe’s crises are not serious, merely to suggest that they have not, thus far, been fatal.

Anthony Pagden devotes a number of pages to the thought of the very anti-European thinker Carl Schmitt (the “Crown Jurist of the Third Reich”), whose conception of the sovereign state was based on the distinction between friend and enemy: it was the role of the state to decide which was which. The enemy of the state, and hence of the people, needed to be “in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible”.

It has often – legitimately – been pointed out that the European Union is not exactly a democracy (it is, unsatisfactorily to many, a hybrid creature). And one of the chief reasons for this is that it has no demos: there is no European people as such. But as the Greek political scientist Kalypso Nicolaïdis has argued, it may still be a demoi-cracy, a polity which, albeit indirectly and imperfectly, reflects the will and the aspirations of its plural peoples (demoi). Europe may still not quite know what it is, but perhaps, in 2022, it is beginning to have a greater realisation of what it is not: it is not a place where the expression of opinion is tightly muzzled and where certain views will simply not be tolerated; it is not a place where a demonstrator who dares to show her face on a public square can expect to be immediately bundled into a police van; it is not a place where being a prominent or troublesome dissident may lead to the loss of one’s life; it is not a place where, having failed to agree with one’s neighbours, one simply invades them. Perhaps, for the moment, that will have to do.


Enda O’Doherty is joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.



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