When was the idea of a united Europe born? This question is fundamental to read the past and understand the present, so it’s no mystery why it is debated so much between historians and philologists. The most common answer is: the idea of a united Europe was born after the Second World War, to counteract nationalism and avoid the rehappening of the atrocities the two World Wars had brought in the continent. Even if this answer can be accepted as historically correct, it’s also clearly reductive, as the so called europeism of the Post-war era is part of a much longer process, which has its start point in Ancient Rome.
The Roman Empire was in fact the first unitarian process of the Ancient era in Europe: it adopted mainly the Greek culture and spread it in various parts of the continent: from Gibraltar to the Rhine, from the Danube to Britain. Another factor that contributed to the consolidation of European unity, even after the fall of the Roman Empire and the division in Roman-Barbaric kingdoms, was the christianization of european people: in some sort of way the Church was the heir of the Empire (it’s not a case that the Pope still has the roman title of pontifex maximus), and the common religion and culture brought to the definition of borders which defined Europe and its identity; the two main borders which delineated Europe (the Carolingian Europe, which can be considered as the Middle Ages ancestor of the modern era Europe) were the one with Muslims (in Spain, but also in Sicily) and the one with Orthodoxs (Balkans and Greece). A unity was perceived inside these borders, while the cultures outside of them were sure sometimes appreciated and imitated, but always felt as extraneous.
From the Middle Ages on a cultural unity has always been strongly present in Europe: a continuous reciprocal contagion of artistic, literary and philosophical movements has been going on between various countries and cultures, imitation felt normal and natural inside european borders (unlike the relation with the Moors for example), and the trading of ideas made Europe reach its cultural apexes. Even wars between europeans were perceived as unnatural and fratricidal, and it’s no surprise that after every war intellectuals searched for a way to gain peace and understood the necessity of a pacific european union. For example after the european wars that broke out in XVII century due to Louis XIV expansionist policies, the french author Charles-Irénée Castel, abbé de Saint-Pierre (1658-1743), wrote in 1713 an essay called Projet pour rendre la paix perpétuelle en Europe (Project for Settling an Everlasting Peace in Europe) in which he stated:
“If the European Society, which is propos’d, can procure for all the Christian Princes a sufficient Security for the Perpetuity of the Peace, both without and within their Dominions, there is none of them that will not find it more advantageous to sign the Treaty for the Establishment of that Society, than not to sign it.
Now the European Society, which is propos’d, can procure, for all the Christian Princes, a sufficient Security for Perpetuity of the Peace both within and without their Dominions.
Therefore there will be none of them but what will find it much more advantageous to sign the Treaty for the Establishment of the Society, than not to sign it.”
(Abbé de Saint-Pierre, Project for Settling an Everlasting Peace in Europe, 1713)
Saint Pierre influenced Voltaire, Rousseau and Immanuel Kant, who inspired by his work and by the peace treaty of Basel (1795) wrote in the same year Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch. Such is the strong link between the horror of war and will for a united Europe that even in the treaties of the Congress of Vienna (1815), which are considered strongly reactionary and conservatives of national identities, there can be found some clauses which state the necessity of common policies between European countries.
At this point is necessary to make some considerations on what happens after a war, since we can distinguish two opposite feelings in the minds of post-war periods’ people: on the one hand there’s the desire for peace and stability (see above) but on the other hand the result of a war inspires pride in the minds of the winners, and hatred in the minds of the losers. Unfortunately after the Great War the second feeling won over the first one, and so movements like Fascism and Nazism gained power profiting by the general discontent and will for revenge of the people. With such premises, World War II appeared inevitable.
Fortunately after the Second World War the people and the politicians of all Europe were strongly determined in setting peace once and for all in the continent, and it appeared clear that the only way to achieve that purpose was destroying the nationalist experience (because as François Mitterrand said: “Nationalism is war”) and to unite Europe:
“The dividing line between progressive and reactionary parties no longer follows the formal line of greater or lesser democracy, or of more or less socialism to be instituted; rather the division falls along the line, very new and substantial, that separates the party members into two groups. The first is made up of those who conceive the essential purpose and goal of struggle as the ancient one, that is, the conquest of national political power – and who, although involuntarily, play into the hands of reactionary forces, letting the incandescent lava of popular passions set in the old moulds, and thus allowing old absurdities to arise once again. The second are those who see the creation of a solid international State as the main purpose; they will direct popular forces toward this goal, and, having won national power, will use it first and foremost as an instrument for achieving international unity.”
(Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi, For a Free and United Europe. A Draft Manifesto, 1941)
The following years saw the birth, stabilization and expansion of the European Union. After the fall of the Warsaw Pact (1991) lot of former communist countries joined in the general europeist enthusiasm. This made the Union larger and harder to manage, and the recent economical and immigration crisis have done nothing but feeding more and more modern euroscepticism, but here there are two main reasons that, united by the short analysis above, may convince you not to stop believing in the idea of united Europe:
Number one: because the global economics are now in hands of big continental blocks (USA, China, India…) and single european states can’t hope to maintain a relevant spot staying divided and rivals to each other.
Number two: the François Mitterrand quote. How many other times do we have to experience war before we learn? The achievement of 70 years of peace can’t be ignored, just like our history.