Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

What is Europe?
What is Europe?

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Europe as a project (continued)

The UK finally joined the EU in 1973 (with Denmark and Ireland), and was followed by Greece in 1981, and Spain and Portugal in 1986. The original plan to weaken the capacity for the expression of Franco-German enmity had slowly taken on the form of a more credible European community, particularly with the accession of the UK (as the third major European power), the inclusion of Greece with its overtones of ancient democracy, and Spain as a major actor during centuries of European history and global expansion (Waever, 1995, p.171). Despite the unprecedented level of integration achieved in the half-century after 1945 by the various European communities and – eventually – the Union which was launched in 1993, the precise nature of the post-war European project contained major elements of diversity and the forces driving it were subject to quite different interpretations. After three decades of development in various forms, several enlargements from the original small group that had created it, and major changes in the international environment in which it operated, considerable differences emerged between the European partners about where the community was going.

Activity 4

Click to view Margaret Thatcher's 1988 ‘Bruges Speech’ (Reading E) and that of Jacques Delors, President of the European Commission, to the 1988 TUC Congress (Reading F). [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] What is Thatcher's vision of Europe and Britain's place within it? What is that of Delors and how do the two compare?

In her famous 'Bruges speech' of 1988 (Thatcher, 1988) Margaret Thatcher describes Britain's place in Europe in the broadest of terms, in a discussion that extends back to Roman times but takes little account of the specifics of the post-1945 situation. The British ‘special contribution’ refers to the commitment to preventing Europe ‘from falling under the dominance of a single power’, and implicitly refers to the balance of power whose effectiveness turned out to be exhausted by the twentieth century. She refers both to a broader European identity that extends beyond the European Community (thus including countries on the other side of the old Iron Curtain) and to the reliance of the USA on ‘European values’. Her argument stresses the special role played by sovereignty and nationhood, and appeals to principles of European diversity. She stresses that Europe should be united in ways that preserve different national traditions. Interestingly, Jacques Delors also concludes his speech with an appeal to European diversity (Delors, 1988), but argues that it must be effectively managed if it is to survive. His argument highlights: the need to pool resources in order to preserve both the autonomy of Europe and its identity; the importance of cooperation and trade union solidarity across Europe (particularly in order to combat unemployment); and the role of the ‘social dimension’ as a vital element to complement the free play of economic forces. It is the latter factor that provides a main differentiating point from the views of Thatcher – both on Europe and more generally. In fact both stress the need for cooperation, although for Thatcher this should primarily be among independent sovereign states and for Delors between the national trade union movements and civil associations more generally.

Major differences in views about the future of Europe were thus apparent in the 1980s. Underlying the numerous debates about strategy and tactics was also a profound uncertainty about what the EU was actually for now. Originally designed to defuse the established enmity between Germany and France, and thus prevent further internecine European warfare, the very success of the European project in these terms made peace less satisfying as a value in itself. Anyone who had participated in the Second World War as a young adult was at least seventy by the end of the century and war, if not organised violence more generally, was a personal experience only for a very small minority of contemporary Europeans. There were clearly different conceptions of Europe and the association it now formed among the different countries of Europe, and differing levels of commitment to the European idea between governing circles and elites on the one hand, and at least some national publics on the other. Europe as a project had been increasingly sold as an economic enterprise, particularly to some of the countries traditionally less inclined to European cooperation, such as Britain. This avoided the more contentious political issues that underlay the original initiative and fitted in with the outlook of secular materialism that prevailed in most modern societies. It clearly appealed to the mass of relatively affluent Europeans, but hardly fostered the growth of a distinctive European identity. Europe increasingly took on the appearance of a continental shopping mall, with a notional capital appropriately situated just outside Calais in a Cité d'Europe.

Differences thus became evident in the mid 1980s about how far strengthening the EU was an end in itself; that is, how far there was a European project per se, further to the particular benefits to be gained from specific aspects of international cooperation (Wallace and Ridley, 1985, p.7). By the end of the 1990s the nature of the post-1945 project was problematised precisely by the length of time it had existed, the degree of evolution it had undergone and the very level of achievement actually attained. A survey of Europe in 1999 thus identified five fundamental shifts in the structure of contemporary Europe and its international relations that prompted major questions both about its future and contemporary status (Economist, 23 October 1999):

  • Having recovered both from material devastation and war-guilt, Germany has also, since the breaching of the Berlin Wall, become both a ‘normal’ European country and its leading power; this has brought about a major change in the position of France, whose position within Europe up to then had been pre-eminent.

  • Leading EU countries have developed a strong sense that they should possess a capacity for collective military action and an identity separate from that of NATO, whose leadership dominated in the Kosovo conflict of 1999.

  • The introduction of a common currency at the beginning of 1999 provided further impetus for the formation of a single European economy, and raised further questions about the development of an identifiable single ‘European interest’.

  • The European Commission has been weakened not just by the mass resignation of 1999, but also by a more general process of decline since the end of Jacques Delors's presidency of the European Commission in 1994, a change that has brought the influence of national govern ments back into greater prominence. The European Parliament has also become a vigorous political body, as President-elect Barroso found to his cost when he struggled to get it to endorse his initial group of commissioners in October 2004.

  • The removal of the Iron Curtain in 1989 opened up the prospect of extensive enlargement, a prospect that promised to turn the EU into a Union that would decisively embrace the greater part of Europe. A major step in this direction was taken with the accession of ten new members in 2004. Apart from Cyprus and Malta, they included the formerly communist countries of the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

In the late 1990s, as in the views expressed by Delors and Thatcher in the 1980s, there were major contrasts in the views expressed by leading actors and the governments of the major countries involved. Striking differences could be detected between the lines of analysis followed in defining the nature and consequences of this project, and diverse modes of conceptualising and theorising the issues involved were identified (Nugent, 1999, Chapter 18). Some judgements placed in question the existence of any European project as a political force in its own right. There were strong arguments that in so far as a distinct European project did exist, it was one governed as much by pragmatism and state interest as by the spirit of a more autonomous vision (Moravcsik, 1998; McCarthy, 1999). Conflicts also continued to break out over the desirability of some federal structure for Europe and the future of the nation state.

In any judgement on the fate of Europe overall, though, and in terms of the pursuit of a positive European identity, it could at least be concluded that the integration project pursued in the second half of the twentieth century was a dramatic improvement on the bitter conflicts and losses of the first.


  • A modern ‘project for Europe’ was launched after the First World War but, like the League of Nations, made little headway against established state interests.

  • More concerted efforts for European integration were made after the Second World War to create structures that would effectively preserve peace and maintain regional security.

  • The very length of time the post-1945 European project had been in operation produced different perceptions of what was involved, although it also demonstrated the fundamental strength of the overall project.