The European Union— A Modern Idea?

Is the European Union simply the modern rendition of the age-old concept of a united Europe?  Comparisons are often drawn between the modern EU and historical examples of entities which united or attempted to unite Europe, such as the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, and Napoleonic France. While it is true that many of the leaders and ideologues of the EU share the same desire for European unity as their predecessors, it is more unclear whether their concept of European unity is related to their historical predecessors’ conceptions of it. After all, it is often said that the ideology driving the EU was mostly born out of the aftermath of WW2; Winston Churchill’s call for a ‘United States of Europe’ became one of the most well-known verbalisations of this drive for unity. It seems necessary then, to examine the history of ideas of European unity to see whether the European Union truly is a modern idea or not. 

European unity was first conceptualised in the millennium following the deposition of the last Western Roman emperor in 476. It was characterised by attempts to reclaim and preserve the legacy of the Roman Empire. Culturally, Latin remained as a lingua franca throughout Europe which facilitated scholarly exchange and communication across borders. Roman titles such as comes (Count) and dux (Duke) continued to be used, and Roman Catholicism remained the dominant religion. 

The European Parliament in Brussels. (Credit: Jordiferrer, via Wikimedia Commons)

Actual attempts at political union were most thoroughly pursued by the Holy Roman Emperors— beginning with Charlemagne, who was crowned ‘Emperor of the Romans’ in 800, and claimed the universal authority of the old Western emperors. Eventually, however, lands such as France and Italy drifted away from the Empire, and its imperial ambitions stopped at its German borders.

Attempts to reclaim the Roman legacy were not exclusive to the Holy Roman Emperors nor the Middle Ages; other rulers such as Alfonso X of Castile issued law codes in the style of Roman imperial edicts. Later rulers invoked imperial imagery—in particular, Napoleon introduced Roman eagle standards into his armies and established the Legion d’Honneur which had a structure loosely based on Roman legions. He also alluded to Charlemagne in his coronation and issued a ‘Napoleonic Code’, no doubtl building on the legacy of imperial edicts.

A related unifying force to the Roman imperial legacy in medieval Europe was Roman Catholicism. Unity along ‘Latin Christian’ lines was spearheaded by the clergy and the papacy. Most notably, during the Crusades, the papacy focused on uniting Latin Christendom against Islam. This, along with increased exposure to Muslims and Orthodox Greeks, helped create a pan-European identity in contrast to these other religious groups. The role of the papacy, as a supranational body often cooperating or in conflict with the governments of Latin Christian territories, could be compared to the role of modern EU institutions such as the Commission and the Court of Justice in their goal to promote liberal democracy among EU member states, seen most clearly in recent action against Hungary and Poland for anti-LGBT legislation. However, these comparisons are only superficial given the huge ideological differences between the medieval papacy and the modern EU.

As the Early Modern Era progressed, papal power diminished and the Crusades were seen as a thing of the past. The concept of Europe united by one faith was shattered by the Reformation and subsequent wars between Catholics and Protestants. In this period, European unity became something to be feared, as it often meant domination by a nearby hegemonic power attempting to create a ‘universal monarchy’. For instance, Protestant states such as England feared that Catholic Spain could become a universal monarchy, especially under Charles V.

New ideas on European unity developed from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. Whereas before, European unity meant the restoration of the Roman Empire by a hegemonic imperial power, these centuries saw some thinkers developing the idea of a union of European states, created in order to prevent conflict— which had become increasingly more bloody and devastating as military technology advanced. On one end, some, like Quaker William Penn, argued for a European Parliament where disputes could be settled rather than on the battlefield, while on the other end,  Victor Hugo and anarchist Mikhail Bakunin among others called for a fully-fledged ‘United States of Europe’.

Avoiding the carnage of warfare became imperative following the two World Wars, and thus the Treaties of Paris and Rome following the Second World War set Europe on course for the creation of the European Union. The ideology behind the European Union was born against the backdrop of the Enlightenment and the devastating conflicts of the Modern Era. However, avoiding war is not the only uniting factor of Europe. Shared values developed from the Enlightenment (namely, liberal democracy), unite modern Europe culturally and ideologically. The ideas that united Europe before the modern era, such as Latin Christendom and the legacy of Rome, may not be those that justify the existence of the modern European Union, but they still form an important part of shared European history and culture. They also show that, while the European Union may be a modern idea, the concept of a united Europe is thousands of years old.

Jonas Balkus, Summer Writer

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