The stories we tell about Europe and its peace project should neither be disregarded as innocent nor taken at face value. The history of European integration shows a competition between distinct visions and personalities but also obstacles that were not overcome and paths that were not taken in the process.

A number of years ago, the European Commission launched a call for a ‘new narrative for Europe’ with the aim to find a story that could explain the reality of Europe and what today’s and the future European Union is all about. The call pre-supposed there had been a single ‘old’ narrative, which underwent a moment of crisis or lost its relevance and needed change.

When I decided to write about the question of narratives in European integration, I considered it important to show the search for a rationale and story for Europe has a longer history, but also cannot be understood as the simple replacement of an old story by a new one.

The power of stories

Author received 2020 College of Europe – Arenberg European Prize

First of all, I should explain that when we speak about narratives in an academic sense, in a more fundamental way it is about describing the story-telling or the stories we have learned, repeated and told about Europe, how it rose out of the ashes of the Second World War, its peaceful aspirations and how the Community (and later Union) deepened and enlarged in the subsequent decades.

Some of these stories have inspired each next generation of European citizens since they talked about pioneering individuals, clear visions for the future and decisive and bold steps forward in the face of a crisis.

Yet, such stories (or narratives) are contested, for the fact they tend to simplify and overlook a more complicated reality, such as distinct visions, personal differences, competition, obstacles that were not overcome and paths that were not taken in the process.

For instance, the European Commission’s official history – as you may find it on the website or in some of its publications – tends to focus on the post-war institutional history of European integration and collective role of pioneers in building this Europe. But what origins and which ideas underscored these events and to what extent was there a degree of unity among these individuals? As often, when analysing these key moments in history, a fuller picture emerges behind the story.

A zero year in need of revision

My article contribution delves in the twentieth-century history of the European idea, in an attempt to grasp ideas and institutional efforts at European integration, across the continent and reflecting the broad range of visions and efforts. It signals how much of what we think today about European unity, as an idea, was neither a post-war invention nor the outcome of a stable consensus. While 1945 has sometimes been depicted as the “zero year” for European integration, this view needs some revision. Moreover, the fundamental role of competing ideas and ‘obstructionists’ should be given greater emphasis in how they shaped the later community and union.

Paris Peace Conference

I started my narrative with the various ideas about Europe that already took shape before the Second World War, and the instrumental role the First World War played. The loss of continental empires saw the emergence of new and reimagined spaces for a larger European constellation, as a medicine against continental decline or a reaction against global economic competition coming from America and Asia. Both fascism (or national socialism) and communism sought radical ways to rethink mankind and society, often referring to some sort of European unity in their rhetoric.

In practice, liberal ideas of international order – epitomised in the creation of the League of Nations – saw the first attempts to take a technical and expert-led approach to inter-state cooperation. While the League had universalist aspirations, it also was a thoroughly European institution that focused much of its peace-building and economic stability programmes on the region.

It is important to see past the rupture of WW2 and also identify continuity with the post-war, even though there was no single answer to the question what Europe is. In reality, competing visions failed to produce a consensus and political developments overtook a number of cross-border initiatives in the direction of a customs union and greater economic exchange.

However, it was in inter-war Europe, with its laboratory of ideas about a ‘federal link’ between nations, customs union and common market, legal mechanisms to ban illegal war and achieve peace, that a progressive narrative was born that could and would re-emerge after WW2. In some part, this was because of the individuals that had lived through this period and brought these ideas back to the foreground, but also because of institutional remembrance, which saw inter-war international civil servants and experts involved in post-war European integration.

No common view

Post-war Europe has generally been perceived as starting from scratch with a number of leading pioneers (‘fathers’ of Europe) who shared a common view on how to move forward after a devastating conflict. The reality, however, was quite different. Jean Monnet’s practical step-based approach of economic (and eventually political) integration was remarkably different from the Altiero Spinelli’s revolutionary project professed in his manifesto, or Konrad Adenauer’s notion of Europe as a third power. Churchill evoked the League, interwar politicians and thinkers in his vision of a United States of Europe, while Robert Schuman was mostly preoccupied with Franco-German reconciliation, drawing inspiration from not only a previous generation’s experience but also Erasmus and Kant.

Out of these myriad visions the perception of a single narrative took hold over the years, a top-down story that needed to guide the post-war peace project and provide a progressive rationale for closer cooperation and technical integration over the next decades.

Much of this narrative, however, was constructed in hindsight, as a teleological one – moving in the same direction and perhaps in contrast to the communist alternative across the Iron Curtain – with different visions overlooked.

As such, what place to give to classic ‘obstructionists’ such as Charles de Gaulle and Margaret Thatcher? Their ideas and speeches about Europe were at least as significant in shaping a debate or provoking responses at a moment of disagreement. While there has always been some appreciation for the necessity of crises or clashes to take leaps of integration, however, the idea of an underlying progressive logic and fixed pathway (a narrative of an ever-closer union) remains strongly in place.

Central and Eastern Europe’s ‘return’

The 2004 EU Enlargement

Even post-1989 when this single, progressive narrative had to increasingly accommodate both the deepening and widening of the community (later, union), there was no real consideration given to competing visions and the possible end to one single narrative, or how it could have turned out differently.

The big-bang enlargement was described as a ‘return to Europe’ for the Central and Eastern European states and easily accommodated their aspirations within the larger umbrella of an ever-closer union – despite the diversity of views and lived experiences in these countries. The same language applied to potential entrants in the Western Balkans, instead of reassessing the ‘return’ story.

Next to this, new themes, social, ecological and global economic competition rose to prominence but never unseated the underlying logic of progressive and forward-moving integration. Even in recent years, the search of a new narrative has not led to any radical shift – in times of crisis, the focus still on Europe doing more (in some fields), knitting countries together more tightly. At most, change is being accommodated within an existing rationale. As long as the old narrative for Europe is firmly anchored in the Union’s institutional fabric, it is hard to envision any active discussion about a ‘new narrative for Europe’. Perhaps Brexit may lead to a more fundamental shift in thinking, as the departure of member state questions the idea of countries continuing to move closer together.

In light of these developments, we can see that a single narrative driving the course of European integration was never the only game in town. While it appears to have become predominant in the late twentieth century, it was neither a post-war invention nor the only possible outcome.

A survey of twentieth-century European integration history shows how continuity, competition and the embrace of change are characteristic of this period.


This text was presented at the 3rd College of Europe – Arenberg Prize Award in Brussels, on 19 February 2020. Dr Quincy Cloet is the third recipient of the prize. A more detailed academic article on this subject is available here.

Dr Quincy R. Cloet is Managing Editor of Visegrad Insight

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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