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What is Europe?
What is Europe?

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5.2 Conflict and consensus

The diverse forms of conflict that have marked long periods of European history hardly require further emphasis here. The first half of the twentieth century, in particular, was clearly dominated by what many have described as a European civil war. Since 1945, in marked contrast, the western part of the continent has been increasingly dominated by a growing number of freely associated countries in the name of a newly constituted ‘Europe’. It has been remarkably successful in developing mechanisms of consensus both within the majority of the nations engaged in processes of post-war reconstruction and development, and throughout the west European community as a whole. In this process it has steadily enlarged its sphere of influence and depth of commitment to a common project of integration.

Much of the internal consensus that prevailed was sustained by state-dominated processes of post-war economic recovery and a common commitment to the growth of various forms of welfare state. The continued existence across the Iron Curtain of the ‘other’, communist Europe, held in common subjugation by the Soviet Union, was also a major factor in sustaining western Europe as a political and security-conscious community, factors that had always played some part in its development despite its formal and undoubtedly prior identity as an economic association. The east/west divide thus produced a ‘permissive consensus’ that helped support (west) European cooperation (Wallace, 1994, p.21).

The military commitments this entailed further strengthened the role of the state in west European economic development and had clear implications for patterns of state expenditure. All this began to change, first with the strengthening commitment to liberal, free-market practices from the end of the 1970s and then with the end of the Cold War at the close of the following decade. While readily recognised as a stimulant to major change in central and eastern Europe, the removal of the Iron Curtain was a catalyst for greater turbulence in western Europe as well (Wallace, 1994, pp.19–20). The strengthening of neo-liberal currents in the global economy during the 1990s and early years of the new century placed the activity of the welfare state under greater pressure and prompted dissension within the EU (not least in discussions of the proposed Constitution) about the kind of guarantees that collective social and economic rights should receive.

While the elements of consensus in post-1945 western Europe should not be overestimated (the upheavals of 1968, continuing elements of ethnic conflict, the violence implicit in the partial democracy of post-war Italy, as well as the repressive elements of rule in authoritarian Spain, Portugal and Greece cannot be discounted), the significant progress made in creating the EU rested on substantial agreement, both at international level and within the states concerned. Although the elements of conflict implicit in the new, post-Cold War Europe (at least in its western portion) should not be overemphasized, there has undoubtedly been a stronger malaise and general uncertainty about the whole European project which has given rise to a range of social tensions and political antagonisms. Sharp disagreements developed within the EU and its potential members over US policy towards Iraq. Developments in eastern Europe, after the original liberation and restoration of national independence, were less positive overall in terms of conflict development, although violent clashes of any size have been avoided in many countries. But war and civil disturbance were prominent features during the 1990s in Russia, the Transcaucasus and, above all, the Balkans – where most EU members became involved in the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo/Serbia by virtue of commitment to NATO operations.