Amidst debates of varying speeds and directions of European integration, Michael J. Geary and Kiran Klaus Patel point to the need for historical reflection. Historians, they argue, can provide a fresh contribution to the ongoing interdisciplinary discussions on the future direction of the European integration process.
Michael J. Geary and Kiran Klaus Patel
Contemporary debates on the future of European integration are dominated by political scientists, legal scholars, and practitioners. We contend that historians can also provide an essential contribution to the ongoing interdisciplinary discussions. In this short contribution, we give two illustrations of how historical research can provide a novel perspective on the on-going debate.

To understand the link between differentiation and inter-institutional dynamics, one needs to zoom in on the various processes in which the EU has been linked to other International Organizations in its history. The EU (and its predecessors) was often a relative latecomer in international cooperation; entering policy debates and fields in which organizations such as the Council of Europe, the OECD, the UN’s Economic Commission for Europe, and others had already become active before. This implies that the EU has often learned from its competitors at the international level and selectively adapted governance mechanisms, ways of reasoning, etc. from them. To give a concrete example: EC action during the 1970s in fields as diverse as environmental policies, human rights, and cultural affairs cannot be explained without considering the interaction with other organizations that were already active in the field, or that tried to create new roles for themselves at roughly the same time. In environmental policies, even NATO served as a point of reference. Among the various EC/EU organs, it is particularly the Commission and the EP that have pushed for these kinds of policy imports and also for links to other organizations. Inter-institutional linkages are therefore a fascinating dimension of European cooperation and integration (history) that has not attracted enough attention so far.

What can the study of past enlargements tell us about whether differentiation, a by-product of the EU’s rapid expansion, is part of the multi-speed integration narrative or whether it has set the EU and some of its members on different paths? The accession of established Eurosceptic or mildly Eurosceptic countries, or of countries that developed Eurosceptic tendencies post accession or of non-aligned, neutral states less keen than the original six to merrily travel down the road of ever closer union has forced the EU since the 1970s to become a great deal more flexible than it might have ever expected. The EC/EU has expanded in every decade since the 1970s; as a policy, enlargement has impacted on every other policy field in the Community. The Economist once declared it to be the EU’s most successful policy, bar none. It has been highly successful as a stabilising feature for many of the 22 countries that have thus far sought and gained entry. However, it is important to reflect on the policy beyond the impact that it has had on its membership through the usual lenses of democratic promotion and boost for rule of law, etc.

The study of the development of the EC/EU through an enlargement lens, as opposed to viewing it through other policy specific approaches, is quite limited. The Community’s founding fathers always envisioned that it would expand beyond its founding six and it did, rapidly after 1973. Each of those countries applied to join the EC/EU for rather different reasons; a desire to play a meaningful part in the building of an ‘ever closer union’ was never top of any applicant’s agenda. The reasons for wanting membership have varied including, perhaps unsurprisingly, access to financial resources and generous structural funds. In some instances, countries joined because they feared political or economic exclusion. Yet, once inside, and in the absence of any post-enlargement policy, countries were, and continue to be, treated quite differently within the policy framework, with many opting in or out of specific areas of integration/cooperation. Is the outcome simply one of a multi-speed Europe or something that more resembles a multi-directional future? In order to understand the future trajectory or direction of today’s EU, there is a strong necessity to look more closely at the impact that individual accessions have had on the integration process, and especially the impact that the policy of expansion has had on the development of some of the EU’s policies including Common Foreign and Security and Policy (CFSP) and Economic and Monetary Union (EMU).

Whether we wish to call this differentiation or flexible integration or enhanced cooperation or whether it smells of disintegration is a discussion that is going to continue, a continuation made possible by the lack of any finalité politique. A historical study can thus prove instrumental to understand both the origins of the EU’s fuzzy legal order as well as its future directions. Such a perspective will also lift the study of differentiated integration from its sui generis character into a (historical) comparative setting. As Confucius noted: “Study the past if you would define the future.”


MichaeMichael Gearyl J. Geary (CERiM) is currently an Assistant Professor of Modern European and EU History at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Maastricht University. For his personal page see here.



Kiran PatelKiran Klaus Patel (CERiM) is the Jean Monnet Professor of European and Global History at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Maastricht University. For his personal page see here.





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