Too big to ignore? European integration in the history of the present since the 1970s

Too big to ignore? European integration in the history of the present since the 1970s

Kiran Klaus Patel, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München
Historisches Kolleg
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
13.07.2023 - 14.07.2023
Christian Dengg, Historisches Seminar, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

Over the past two decades the history of European cooperation and integration has been a dynamic field of research. However, many of these new approaches and findings remained marginalised within the broader field of contemporary history. This is particularly surprising with regard to the period since the 1970s – a decade that many historians see as the starting point of what they call the “history of the present”. And even though the European Union (EU) has acquired undisputed importance for today’s world, impacting the fate of whole economies and the fabric of societies, its history remains absent in many studies focusing on the most recent decades of (European) history. This was the main impetus to organise this conference, as KIRAN KLAUS PATEL (Munich) explained in his opening remarks. The aim was to launch a new dialogue on the history of European integration between leading experts of integration history on the one hand, and of broader European and international history on the other. Stressing the relevance of European integration across the historical sciences, Patel in his opening statement questioned when and why it really started to “matter” for European (and other) societies, and to what extent contemporaries have even been aware of the changes it brought. In the following thematic panels the speakers elaborated on different conceptual and methodological approaches. In doing so, they aimed at carving out an appropriate space for European integration history in the wider field of (international) history, drawing attention to new interpretations that arise from this exchange between different fields of historical inquiry.

In the panel on economic transformations, HAROLD JAMES (Princeton) examined the way in which (economic) processes of globalisation had overlapped with European integration. James emphasised the global role model character of the latter and argued that the interrelatedness of European integration and of globalisation also provides new insights into various “anti-European” movements. Discussant JAN ECKEL (Freiburg) advocated for examining the rhetoric of globalisation as an interpretation of reality; an approach, which allows historians to understand why certain actors have used that term rhetorically to justify political projects. Therefore, Eckel pointed out that a better understanding of the globalisation discourse within EU institutions would be of great interest to integration history. Furthermore, Eckel and James agreed that the often-used explanation from “neoliberalism to populism” would completely neglect more deep-rooted, societal reasons for the rise of movements critical of the EU as diverse as the Lega (Nord) in Italy or Syriza in Greece.

The panel on the role of international organisations aimed at a better understanding of the historical contingency of the European integration process. SANDRINE KOTT’s (Geneva/New York) paper (delivered in absence) argued that European integration history needs to decentre and critically question the “Westerness” of the European project. Historians could gain new insights by investigating paths not taken, in which Eastern European countries would have held a (more) decisive role. Using the example of the failed UN’s Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), she argued that European integration was increasingly understood as project against Eastern Europe. Moreover, the impact of international organisations had later been neglected by historiography because it contradicted the narrative of European integration as being driven by Western European political elites. Discussant JESSICA REINISCH (London) welcomed thinking about alternatives to apprehend the conditionality of the paths that were taken, which is why she highlighted the agency particularly of non-state actors and their networks. Reinisch, however, criticised that scholarship still does not sufficiently deconstruct the self-images of “moral goodness” propagated by international organisations. Regarding European integration history, the participants agreed that the relevance of European international organisations should not be reduced to a mere prehistory of the EU.

In the panel on political participation, MARK GILBERT (Bologna) argued that the European Commission (EC) institutions represented important forums for smaller or economically weak countries that sought to achieve parity of political influence with economically more powerful states. According to Gilbert, this explains the early enthusiasm of member states’ people such as the Irish and the Italians for “Europe” on the political level, although political participation was not high on the intergovernmental institutions’ agenda back then. Analysing subsequent decades, however, Gilbert saw an imbalance between the sheer scale of competences transferred to Brussels and citizens’ claims to take part in the decision-making-process, which led to the feeling of a “democratic deficit”. On the question of how to analytically grasp democratic participation, discussant MARTIN CONWAY (Oxford) suggested that researchers should better consider informal meetings. He argued that trade unions and environmental movements had used, and therefore altered, “Europe” by addressing their issues via supranational platforms of exchange. Ultimately, Gilbert continued the discussion on “Euroscepticism(s)”, which had already started with James’ presentation, arguing that this term ran the risk of generalising very different national sensibilities, which had been stirred by the growth of the EU’s powers.

The evening concluded with KIRAN KLAUS PATEL’s (belated) inaugural lecture at LMU Munich, in which he characterised the history of the European integration since the 1980s as “transformation on the rocks”. Patel argued that the EU was one of many European projects, which proved to be solid despite being endangered by different forms of particularisms. Through the example of the so-called Cassis de Dijon decision, Patel showed how, detectably from the 1970s on, processes on manifold “European” levels started to impact the cultural, legal, and political life of the member states’ people.

The first panel on Friday dealt with research on the postcolonial dimension of European integration. GIULIANO GARAVINI (Rome) highlighted the colonial histories of the EC/EU member states and argued that nowadays a postcolonial perspective is indispensable for understanding the impact of the EC/EU in a global context. He showed that we still lack knowledge of how Western Europe’s capacity to establish large welfare systems had been possible due to the continued economic reliance on the “Global South”. As the participants agreed, this should be of relevance regarding the EU’s contemporary global politics. Discussant JULIA ANGSTER (Mannheim) consequently stressed the importance of “rethinking Europe in a non-European world”, of coming to terms with its (post)colonial past, and of analysing European histories as entangled with the “Global South”. For these purposes, Angster raised methodological questions and called for a “Saidian turn” to question concepts of modernisation and to go beyond mere “token nods towards postcolonial themes”.

In the panel on social history, LIESBETH VAN DE GRIFT (Utrecht) presented the history of consumption as a decisive step towards bridging the gap between social history and the history of European integration. According to van de Grift, “Brussels” policies could be better understood when decentring them and examining, for instance, transnational protests of consumers and producers alike. In the same way, she suggested to “follow” contentious issues, e.g. disposal of hazardous waste, from the local to the European and global level. Besides emphasising the relevance of determining moments when regulations of the EC/EU had started to impact peoples’ everyday life, discussant FRANK TRENTMANN (London) attached great importance to the discursive formation of the term “citizen-consumer” from the 1970s on. He also questioned if the rise of environmentalism at the end of the decade had brought about the idea of consumers’ accountability. As van de Grift outlined, further research would have to show to what extent the perceived legitimacy of EC/EU depended on European consumers’ experiences.

In the last panel on environmental history, LAURENT WARLOUZET (Paris) argued that the inherent transnationalism of environmental history and the development of new methodological concepts had rendered a dialogue with European integration history fruitful from the start. Whereas the focus on different groups of actors – state and non-state – had somehow separated the two fields for a long time, the recent convergence of European integration and environmental history revisits two debates. On the one hand, global history approaches left an imprint by introducing the dichotomy of “leaders and laggards”. On the other hand, concepts like “neoliberalism” foster researchers’ interest in the gap between market mechanisms and the rising civic consciousness of environmental questions. Discussant ANNA ANTONOVA (Munich) underlined the interdisciplinarity of environmental and integration history approaches as their greatest potential, which is why she also encouraged historians to analyse emerging tensions in European environmental policies. For Antonova, the ambivalence between the EU’s normative objectives in environmental matters and its economic interests warrants particular attention.

The conference concluded with a showcase of current research projects on European histories by PhD and postdoctoral researchers based at Project House Europe at Ludwig Maximilians University Munich.

In summarizing the results, the participants clearly demonstrated that the history of the EU as a “European project” has become simply too big to be further ignored or marginalised by researchers engaging with questions across the fields of national and global history. The participants repeatedly argued that it was necessary to turn towards the global to analyse the multiple impacts European integration had on the societies of Europe and the world. Ongoing as well as future research should provide a clearer picture on societal dynamics between integration and disintegration, between Europeanisation and the persistence of national and new forms of populism. In general, the conference avoided the traps of exaggerating the EU’s role or of reproducing older narratives pivoting around the idea of an “ever closer union”. The conference showed that, in order to understand today’s world, the historical disciplines must better include the dynamics of the European integration process.

Conference overview:

Kiran Klaus Patel (Munich): Introduction

Economic Transformation

Speaker: Harold James (Princeton)

Discussant: Jan Eckel (Freiburg)

Chair: Hans Christian Röhl (Konstanz)

Social History of International Organizations

Speaker: Sandrine Kott (Geneva/New York)

Discussant: Jessica Reinisch (London)

Chair: Wilfried Loth (Duisburg-Essen)

Consumption and the Social History of European Societies

Speaker: Liesbeth van de Grift (Utrecht)

Discussant: Frank Trentmann (London)

Chair: Lisbeth Matzer (Munich)

Political Participation

Speaker: Mark Gilbert (Bologna)

Discussant: Martin Conway (Oxford)

Chair: Thomas Süsler-Rohringer (Munich)

Inaugural Lecture

Kiran Klaus Patel (Munich): Transformation on the Rocks. Zur Geschichte europäischer Integration seit den 1980er Jahren

The Postcolonial

Speaker: Giuliano Garavini (Roma)

Discussant: Julia Angster (Mannheim)

Chair: Frieda Ottmann (Munich)

Consumption and the Social History of European Societies

Speaker: Liesbeth van de Grift (Utrecht)

Discussant: Frank Trentmann (London)

Chair: Lisbeth Matzer (Munich)

Environmental Policies and Impact

Speaker: Laurent Warlouzet (Paris)

Discussant: Anna Antonova (Munich)

Chair: Martin Bemmann (Munich/Freiburg)

Showcasing Research at Project House Europe

Frieda Ottmann (Munich): Water Pollution

Emiel Geurts (Munich): ‘Greening’ the Common Agricultural Policy

David Irion (Munich): The Framework Programmes of the European Union: Gaining Importance through De-Economization? (ca. 1980–2002)

Christian Dengg (Munich): Debating Italy: Nation and People in Political Discourse, 1978–2002

Lisbeth Matzer (Munich): Europe in the Wine Bottle (1950–2000)

Thomas Süsler-Rohringer (Munich): Participating in an elite project? European Integration in petitions and letters from the ECSC to the EC, 1950s to 1980s

Kiran Klaus Patel (Munich): Concluding Remarks

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