Over the past several years, the European Union’s stability and future have seemed uncertain. Deficits from the PIGS nations combined with ongoing fiscal and political shortcomings have given European voters reasons to reject new proposals to strengthen member unity. Opponents claim that twenty-first Europe’s laggard economy is evidence that the union is already a total failure. More recently, such doubt has organized into measured far-right dissent spread across social media, prompting the United Kingdom to exit via referendum, and the French elections could have produced the same result with Marine Le Pen at the helm. But given Europe’s two thousand-year history of cataclysmic war, should the idea of a consensual peace be so quickly discarded?
A History of War and Imposed Peace
Since times predating the Roman Empire, European city-states and nations have warred over monetary gain, land disputes, ethnic rivalries, and familial discord. Once Rome rose to prominence, Europeans were already well accustomed to lives of battle, and the Italian empire certainly contributed to that lifestyle. Expanding into the far reaches of Asia Minor, Rome had subdued numerous populations, forcing them under a Roman yoke and to adopt Roman customs. However, although the Roman Empire eventually created a peace that lasted for 200 years, it was a peace imposed through war, through the supremacy of one culture over the others. It is this theme of war, conquest, and of forced harmony that would trouble Europe for thousands of years.
After Rome fell to invasions from warlike Germanic tribes, Europe shattered into a collection of kingdoms and duchies that came to define the medieval period. These states would become seedlings to the modern nations comprising Europe today. English, French, Spanish, Scottish, and other European identities were forged in the medieval period, and these feudal peoples constantly warred at the demands of their nobility and monarchies.
Only one ruler came to any kind of significant conquest during the middle ages, and that was Charles the Great or Charlemagne. Charlemagne transformed disparate kingdoms of Franks into a respectably-sized Empire not seen since the days of classical Rome. Once again, with significant conquest came a peace and prosperity achieved through war. In fact, such conquest over the continent birthed a period known as the Carolingian Renaissance. According to Walter A. McDougall, it was because of Charlemagne that the idea of Europe even exists. McDougall writes that:
[Charlemagne] succeeded in [uniting Europe] to a remarkable degree: indeed, the empire based at his capital of Aix-la-Chapelle coincided remarkably with the boundaries of the original [European] Common Market formed in 1957: France, the Low Countries, West Germany, and northern Italy . . . What few people know is that . . . an anonymous court poet bestowed [upon Charlemagne with] a still grander title. He dubbed Charlemagne “King and Father of Europe.” A continent, a civilization, had been willed into being by one man. Moreover, that self-conscious European idea survived the crackup of Charlemagne’s empire to inspire monarchs, popes, philosophers, conquerors, and at last economists and mere bureaucrats for 1,200 years. The idea had to wait until the spiraling orgy of nationalism spent itself utterly in World War II. But then, indeed in the year 1950, the good burghers of the Rhineland town Germans call Aachen and the French Aix-la-Chapelle, established a prize to be awarded annually to the person who did most to advance European unity. The town fathers named it the Charlemagne Prize after the “King and Father of Europe” who had made their city his capital.
After Charlemagne’s death, Europe once again broke apart into warring powers. Even during periods of widely acknowledged refinement and culture, such as the traditional Florentine Renaissance, there were still episodes of war. Europe wouldn’t see unification or the potential for peace for another four-hundred years, when General Napoleon Bonaparte took over the revolutionary French Government and established himself as dictator and Emperor of the French. In crafting a public image, Napoleon drew heavily from both classical Rome and Charlemagne: two large-scale examples of European empire. Lenz Thierry comments on Napoleon’s preoccupation with history and the latter of these two imperial models:
A perfect reflection of the time in which he lived, Napoleon was obsessed with history. He would draw references, symbols and examples from it to justify his position and his politics and thus give his reign its place in the history of France, the Gauls right up to his immediate predecessors, including the Bourbons. Of all the references wielded by the French Emperor, Charlemagne is, if not one of the most important, then at least one of the most consistent.
Had Napoleon remained in power long enough to secure his empire, Europe may have seen the kind of peace and stability forced upon them by both the ancient Romans and Charlemagne. However, a tragic campaign into the frigid throes of Russia, combined with a determined effort led by Britain removed Napoleon from power prematurely and crumbled his growing European state. As was to be expected, once Napoleon fell, Europe descended into a chaotic mess rife with political ambiguity. With the idea of old monarchies dealt a serious blow from the American and French revolutions, as well as the rise of Napoleon, nations began to redefine themselves and emerge from more cultural and folk-based notions of nationalism: the latter part of the 1800s witnessed this notion in the rise of a unified Germany and Italy. War-like nationalist sentiments carried well into the twentieth century with a catastrophic and transformative period for Europe. Only fourteen years into the new century, the entire continent was embroiled in a devastating war that reached areas well beyond Europe. The Great War or World War I devastated Europe with a death toll that exceeded 15 million.
But nationalism and war would not end with the didn’t end with its conclusion. Romantic nationalistic notions came roaring back with inspired imitations of Napoleon and his designs for European empire. At first attempted by Benito Mussolini, later by Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, military figureheads leading jingoistic states brought the world once again into total war, and this time casualties surpassed 60 million people. It wasn’t until the end of World War II that ideas for a new and different Europe emerged. Imperialism, identity politics and war had shown European leaders that only mutual compromise and cooperation would bring peace and prosperity. Though despots of the past, whether they were Augustus or Charlemagne, Napoléon or Mussolini, had all realized the amazing potential of a united Europe: it was their methods to achieve such unity that has ultimately led Europe into an endless cycle of war and peace.
And so twentieth-century post-war Europe created a young union built upon consensus. As the time progressed, new member states were added and the European Union implemented additional measures, such as a universal currency, the Euro. To a certain degree, Europe had used the pen to achieve what conquerors and dictators forced upon earlier populations with the sword.
A Renewed Commitment, A Renewed Union
In the twenty-first century, there have been some thought leaders exploring what might save the union. The most novel argue that the EU needs its own Alexander Hamilton, first treasury secretary to the United States. Hamilton, in his First Report on Public Credit, explained that the people of the US should trust the Federal Government to use bonds to buy each fledgling state’s individual debt acquired during the Revolutionary War, thus creating a unified national debt. This allowed the more debt-laded states to be free of their economic woes by imparting some of the financial responsibility onto the wealthier states: after all, each state contributed to independence by sacrificing the lives of its militia and fighting the British.
While the European economic situation is similar to the one faced by a newly-independent United States, there are some differences which may make finding a solution harder. For instance, EU member-states have much deeper rivalries which make strengthening the European central government in Brussels more difficult. Although the American colonies certainly held antipathies toward one other on issues such as slavery and debt, the states had never waged war over the course of millennia like the European powers. Whether unification would require Germany bailing out Greece, or France paying for Spain, Britain bailing out Ireland, there are social, political and historical differences that make such measures highly unpopular.
One can get lost in all of the facts and figures that economists, politicians, and bloggers utilize to either argue for or against the European Union. It is difficult to understand all the complex laws and restrictions in the EU, let alone in each of its member states. But it is important that, no matter what problems the EU may face, allowing it to dissolve could be much more catastrophic in the long run.
As mentioned, Europe has witnessed more than two millennia of constant war. The European Union was established to unify the region on a consensual basis, as to prevent such war and the rise of new tyrants. If the union is dissolved, the individual nations of Europe would be open to a host of different political ideologies and figureheads; and based on Europe’s past, its future would be inevitably grim. For instance, in many of the European member states, extremist movements still exist: some have even entered mainstream politics. Others, while not holding any elected power, are more concerning based on their brazen public demonstrations. These groups often organize marches through their countries, reminiscent of the Fascist Blackshirt marches in Italy. One such group, Casa Pound Italia, named after American poet and Fascist sympathizer, Ezra Pound, is unabashed in their self-description as a Fascist organization, though they allegedly decry Mussolini’s later racial policies. The group takes a hardline stance against immigration and frequently entering the news for crimes against minorities. In the video below, Casa Pound Italia stages a demonstration in Napoli. Note the stark red, white and black flags reminiscent of the flag of the Nazi Party.
Political extremism often rises in tandem with poor economies: as a nation’s economic situation becomes worse, more extremists solutions emerge. The economies Napoleonic France, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany were all troubled by their recent pasts. Strengthening the European Union, including its central government and bank, would not only improve the economy, but also do well to keep extremist movements irrelevant in European society. If the EU were to break apart and member states slid further into economic recession, who would stop these movements from once again luring the population into subservience and, furthermore, war? Though Europe faces what appears to be insurmountable struggles, such as terrorism and shifting demographics from mass immigration, perhaps there are other solutions besides complete withdrawal from the union. Should the European nations be left once again to their individual devices, it is inevitable that a new tyrant will arise in the resultant vacuum, and neither Europe nor the outside world will benefit from another cataclysmic war.