What is Europe?
What is Europe?

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

What is Europe?

3 Europe as a project

Plans to refashion Europe or create it anew had been known in earlier times, although specific projects for Europe have been more characteristic of the modern period. Napoleon's attempt to create an ‘association européene’ was the first such explicit initiative, but it succeeded in the long term only in bringing into being a conservative alliance representing existing imperial and monarchical interests opposed to any alternative and more modern conceptions of European identity. There was particular resistance to the idea of a single European system imposed by one dominant power, and the concept of a balance of power continued to exercise a significant influence. Dominant for the rest of the nineteenth century, too, was the idea of progress on an international scale and strategies for European expansion were pursued throughout the globe, thus diverting many political ambitions from the European mainland. Conflicts involving the major European states broke out mostly around the margins, and particularly concerned the weakening of Ottoman power. The main exception was the transformation of Prussia into a German empire, and the pursuit of national values that brought it into conflict with first Austria and then France. It was the later outcomes of nationalism in the aftermath of the First World War that provided more fertile ground for the elaboration of broader projects for Europe as a whole.

One of the key principles applied to post-1918 Europe in the attempt to defuse the tensions that had produced world war was that of national self-determination, given concrete form by the creation of a number of new nation states (mostly from parts of the former Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires – the European part of the Ottoman Empire having been mostly dismembered in the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913). A supranational framework for the new pattern of states this produced was also created in the form of the League of Nations, although the USA never joined the organisation and the League's objectives were never fully realised. A more specific project for European integration was launched in 1923 with the creation of a ‘Pan-European Union’ by one Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi. His objectives lay primarily in the realm of security, with the creation of a system of mutual defence pacts, as well as with the European economy, for which he envisaged a system of self-sufficiency. Both Russia and Britain were excluded from this project, the latter because of its strong international position which had led to it having ‘grown out’ of Europe.

Apart from establishing its own branches throughout Europe, the Pan-European Union attracted support from French politicians Edouard Herriot and Aristide Briand. In 1929 Briand, as French prime minister, was asked by the League of Nations to prepare an initiative in this area, but he came up with little more than proposals for a moral union and a series of meetings (Bugge, 1995, p.104). Moreover, he was convinced of the need for effective British cooperation if any European security organisation was to succeed – and this was certainly not forthcoming. Both the League of Nations and such tentative moves towards a project for joint European security remained quite powerless in the face of German rearmament and growing Hitlerite aggression.

It was only in 1945, with the complete defeat of the Axis regimes and the exhaustion of their nationalist traditions, that further projects for Europe not only returned to the political agenda but now appeared as a prime necessity if the idea of Europe was to retain any meaning or offer some hope for the future. If all traditional European values now appeared to be at least partially compromised, it was only in action towards a specific European project that former values might be restored or new values created. Europe in 1945 had little incentive to look back to its past; it was in redefining Europe as a new project that any contemporary political meaning could now be found for the region. As Jean Monnet, a French economist and leading proponent of the post-war European idea, wrote in 1950: ‘Europe has never existed. It is not the addition of sovereign nations met together in councils that makes an entity of them. We must genuinely create Europe’ (see Reading D). By 1945 the prime European value had become that of survival and the avoidance of further wars. The core of the European project had become the creation of a continent of relative security and sufficient mutual tolerance between states and their citizens to maintain that security. Monnet headed a commission to prepare for the restoration and modernisation of French industry after 1945 and in 1952, appropriately enough in terms of prime anti-militarist principles of post-war Europe, became president of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC).

The growth of European integration and the launching of the ‘project’ was by no means straightforward or uncontested as a process. The UK was relatively active in this context although, in line with traditional perspectives, it sought to restrain federal initiatives and press for more limited forms of association (as occurred in 1949 with the formation of the Council of Europe). As its imperial base contracted, Britain placed growing emphasis on relations with the USA, although the USA itself was making strong efforts to integrate western Europe as a whole. In addition, Britain did not suffer the traumas of defeat experienced by most other countries of Europe during the Second World War, an experience that prepared them for participation in a radically new European project. Britain still had an extensive overseas empire which enabled it to link perceptions of its weakened contemporary position directly with the global supremacy it had enjoyed in the nineteenth century. It lacked the push of such factors for participation in the new European project as well as the pull of any prior strong continental commitment, having traditionally – and with much success – based its European relations on a detached insular position.

Among eminent Britons Winston Churchill did, indeed, argue in his famous Zurich speech of 1946 for a United States of Europe (Churchill, 1946). But the UK was never meant to be included in this continental association, and Europe was clearly understood to be composed of countries on the mainland. Britain remained in a different category and was still seen as a global, imperial power (Ponting, 1996, p.40). The then Labour government, like Churchill and the Conservatives, was equally unwilling to participate in any supranational European project. Britain thus pressed for a low level of integration and a high level of discretion to be left with individual states as the Council of Europe was founded in 1949. When the first supranational body was formed as the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, it involved France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands – but not the UK and other countries less enthusiastic about European integration. The major objective was the political one of strengthening the prospects of a lasting peace between France and Germany, but also of making the waging of another war impossible in material terms. Further steps towards this goal were taken with the formation of Euratom and the European Economic Community in 1958, as well as the merger of the various organisations to form a single European Community in 1967. With some difficulty a Common Agricultural Policy was formulated and came into full operation in 1968.

Activity 3


Click to view Winston Churchill's ‘Zurich Speech’ (Reading B), and Jean Monnet's 1945 extract from Memoirs and 1950 Memorandum (Readings C and D). [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   What kind of projects for Europe do they propose? What major differences and similarities can you detect between them?

Churchill's main idea in 1946 was to ‘recreate the European Family’, and ‘provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom’. Although he made the ‘astonishing proposal’ that a partnership between France and Germany was necessary for the recreation of the ‘European family’ and the establishment of a ‘United States of Europe’, he later makes it clear that this initiative would be led by France and Germany and should attract the support – rather than the active participation – of Britain, America and Soviet Russia. The first step, he said, was to establish a Council of Europe although, it soon turned out (predominantly under the pressure of British influence), this was to develop very much as a deliberative intergovernmental organisation rather than one with independent powers of its own.

In 1945 Jean Monnet (one of the 'founding fathers' of the European Union), too, argued for a federation of the ‘States of Europe’ or a ‘European entity’ to secure prosperity and social progress. He was fearful of the restoration of national sovereignty, which was likely to encourage the return of ‘prestige policies and economic protectionism’ with further consequences in terms of armed conflict. Particularly interesting was his recognition that the British continued to occupy a special position and, like the Americans and Russians, had a ‘world of their own into which they could temporarily withdraw … England had to be brought in’ somehow, however, and the revival of nationalism was to be prevented by a joint initiative. But precisely how this was to be achieved remained unclear. Monnet's Memorandum of 1950 continued to emphasise the salience of Franco-German relations – and by this stage it was assumed that the future of Britain lay in it being drawn closer and closer to the USA. It was in this context that Monnet emphasised that Europe did not exist but had to be created – and that France was the only country with the motivation and capacity to bring it into being. In this respect, it is the similarity of the views of Churchill and Monnet, particularly with their appraisal of the roles of Britain and France, that is as interesting as any differences. But the fate of the British turned out to be less divergent from ‘Europe’ than either thought, and you should consider why this turned out to be the case.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus