The European Union of States: Geopolitics and Values
Monday 1st June 2009
When Professor Michael Sutton announced that his inaugural lecture would be in a traditional format, without the visual aid of PowerPoint, I must confess I was worried. Listening to a lecture for an hour without a set of slides to look at usually proves difficult for me and I often find my attention wandering. On this occasion, however, I had no such problems.
Michael’s audience was captivated by his erudite assessment of what a historian does, and subsequently what history can (and can’t) tell us about the European Union, past, present and future.
In a somewhat bold statement for a history academic, Michael revealed that history can tell us nothing about the future beyond the obvious and the banal. What then, is the point of history? Well, aside from being the ‘pursuit of disinterested knowledge’, history tells us a lot about our present situation, and in most Brits’ eyes, our present situation isn’t very good, so lessons from history seem particularly important right now.
The European Union, Michael told us, is not a federal state, rather it is a society of states – a society where each state has its own self-interests and autonomy, whilst recognising common values and common aims which can best be advanced collectively. In other words (mine, not Michael’s), in the pursuit of national agendas, the EU is useful some of the time, and irrelevant the rest of it.
A brisk canter through the last sixty years of European politics revealed that a number of milestones in the history of the EU, from the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community to the Lisbon Treaty, have arisen not through a shared ideology, but through coincidences of self-interest, either personal or national.
With that in mind, will the EU ever become federal? Possibly, Michael thinks, but it is just as likely to disintegrate as member states pursue their own agendas. These may complement each other and so the EU will become ‘more’ than it is today, or they will clash, and the EU will have run its course. There are common values which could bind Europe together, but these may be usurped by a desire for leadership if not dominance, particularly from the three major powers of Britain, France and Germany.
This lecture – as I’m sure Michael Sutton intended – raised more questions than it answered. He was up front from the outset about the limited value of history in the prediction of the future, but armed with the facts, we can all now draw our own conclusions, thanks to this highly educational lecture.
You can view the lecture online, along with other inaugurals from the past two years.
Words by Chris Harrison