This essay brings together a series of lectures given by Judt, a distinguished British historian, at the John Hopkins Center in Bologna in 1995. The book looks to the past and the beginnings of the European community, but is not so much a history as an attempt to answer key questions of the day regarding the European project and its prospects for the future. Judt denied being a eurosceptic and in fact described himself as 'enthusiastically European', although he did admit to being a 'europessimist'. He sets out his misgivings about the chances of genuine cohesion between the Member States. While he believed a 'truly united Europe' a desirable aspiration, he maintained it was not achievable in practice and that the promise of an ever-closer union between European countries was an unrealistic undertaking. The book examines nationalism and discusses the place of the nation-state. Following Judt's death in 2010 from a motor neurone disorder at the age of 62, commentators noted, and continue to point out, that his insightful and perceptive observations on Europe remain as true and relevant as when he wrote them.
The European community was founded nearly forty years ago, with the stated object of promoting the “ever-closer” union of its members. It is a remarkable accomplishment, albeit not quite so remarkable as its advocates suggest. There are few who oppose its objectives in principle, and the practical benefits it affords its members, such as unrestricted trade, are obvious. That, after all, is why nearly everyone wants to join it. It is now engaging in negotiations among its member-states to construct a single European currency and mechanisms for common decision-taking and collective action, while simultaneously holding out to the countries of former Communist Europe the promise of membership in years to come.
The likelihood that the European Union can fulfill its own promises of ever-closer union, while remaining open to new members on the same terms, is slim indeed. In the first place, the unique historical circumstances of the years between 1945 and 1989 cannot be reproduced. Indeed, the disruptive effect of the events of 1989 has been at least as great in the West as in the East. The essence of the Franco-German condominium around which postwar Western Europe was built lay in a mutually convenient arrangement: the Germans would have the economic means and the French would retain the political initiative. In the early postwar years, of course, the Germans had not yet acquired their present wealth and French predominance was real. But from the mid-Fifties this was no longer true; thereafter France’s hegemony in West European affairs rested upon a nuclear weapon that the country could not use, an army that it could not deploy within the continent itself, and an international political standing derived largely from the self-interested magnanimity of the three victorious Powers at the end of the war.
This curious interlude is now at an end. One economic fact may illustrate the point. In 1990 a chart of French economic influence shows it to be limited to the “Europe of Nine”—that is to say, the original six (Germany, France, Italy, and the Benelux countries)—plus Britain, Eire, and Denmark. With these countries, France was a major importer and exporter of goods and services. But Germany, in contrast, already encompassed within its range of economic influence not only the present “Europe of Fifteen” but also most of the rest of the continent to the south and east. The significance of this is clear. France has become a regional power, confined to Europe’s western edge. Germany, even before unification, was once again the great power of Europe.
The impact of 1989 has also posed new difficulties for the Germans. For just as weakness and declining international power arouse difficult memories for France, so in Germany does an apparent excess of power. German politicians from Adenauer to Helmut Kohl have made a point of playing down German strength, deferring to French political initiatives and emphasizing their own wish for nothing more than a stable Germany in a prosperous Europe; they have thus fallen victim to their own…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Print Premium Subscription — $99.95
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Online Subscription — $69.00
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
One-Week Access — $4.99
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.