International relations in Europe

Since my book, The Paradox of German Power, came out, I’ve had some interesting discussions about the implicit assumptions about the nature of international relations in Europe on which it is based. In particular, especially in Germany, some have questioned whether the concepts I use make sense in the context of the European Union. The EU, they argue, has transformed international politics into domestic politics. So does it make sense to use concepts like hegemony in this context? Thus discussion of the “German question” – a phrase that implies continuity with pre-World War II Europe – inevitably raises broader questions about how to understand the way in which international politics in Europe has changed. How exactly has European integration transformed relations between European states?

One thing that has clearly changed is the role of military force in international relations in Europe. War is no longer possible between European states. Of course, this was one of the aims of European integration going back to the Schumann Declaration in 1950. Robert Schuman, at the time the French foreign minister, declared that pooling coal and steel production in this way would make war between France and Germany “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible”. This elimination of the possibility of war in Europe is of course a huge achievement. But military force is only a tool. So is it simply that international relations in Europe functions in largely the same way but using different tools than in the past? Or has something also changed in the logic of international relations in Europe?

“Pro-Europeans” often claim it has. For example, in the speech at the Humboldt University in Berlin in 2000 (which prompted the debate that led to the development of the European constitution that was subsequently rejected by voters in France and the Netherlands in 2005), Joschka Fischer argued that “the core of the concept of Europe after 1945 was, and still is, a rejection of the European balance of power principle and of the hegemonic ambitions of individual states that had emerged following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648”. In other words, European states have transcended the realist logic of international relations up to that point, which was based on the concepts of the balance of power and the concept of hegemony. Some “pro-Europeans” go even further still and suggest that international politics as such no longer exists within the EU.

An academic version of this debate took place in 1996 around the issue of the relevance of the sub-fields of comparative politics and international relations to the study of the EU. Does the language of comparative politics suffice to understand relations between EU member states, or is a combination of the languages of comparative politics and international relations needed? Responding to an article by Simon Hix, Andrew Hurrell and Anand Menon argued – rightly, I think – that EU member states continued to play a central role in policymaking and that international relations helps us understand the intergovernmental bargaining between them. In other words, power is still a relevant category in the context of the EU. Member states may be semi-sovereign but they remain unequal and have preferences that they use power to impose on others.

It seems to me that these questions about power within the EU have become more urgent since the euro crisis – not just because of the apparent resurgence of intergovernmentalism (which Chancellor Angela Merkel codified in her speech at the College of Europe in Bruges in 2010, in which she contrasted the  “union method” with the to the “community method”) but also because of the renewed discussion about German “hegemony”. My argument in the book about German power in Europe was prompted in part by this discussion that has taken place since the crisis thrust Germany into a position that is unprecedented in the history of the EU and raise difficult questions about it. As I wrote in the introduction, it is difficult even to articulate current developments in Europe, which do not seem to be captured by the mixture of visionary and bureaucratic language with which the EU is described.

In their 1996 article – in other words long before the euro crisis – Hurrell and Menon discuss Germany as an example of the power considerations that they argue continue to matter within the EU. “The most important single example of power considerations is provided by the question of Germany and by the extent to which institutional enmeshment or entrapment remains fundamental to the management of German power in Europe”, they write. They point out that “the specific project of regional integration arose precisely as the preferred means of dealing with this problem: permitting rearmament and economic rehabilitation by tying a semi-sovereign Germany into an integrated network of institutions in both the economic field (EU) and the military (NATO/WEU)”. Thus even in the mid-1990s, the “German question” illustrated the openness and relevance of the question of state power within the EU.

In the book, I argue that German reunification in 1990 upset the balance between European states and that Germany has now become a “semi-hegemon” – in other words, it is an analogous position to the one it occupied after German unification in 1871. Though I don’t say there is a “balance of power” in Europe today, I do imply there is something that is at least analogous. Classically, the balance of power is based on military force, so if there is a balance of power in Europe today, it is obviously a different kind of balance. But economic power is also a form of “hard” (i.e. coercive) power. It is therefore at least theoretically possible for states to reject the use of military force but continue to use economic tools within an analogous logic. Even if, for the sake of precision, one should avoid talking about a balance of power in the EU, it is surely legitimate to talk about the distribution of power among member states.

Particularly interesting in this context is the English School of international relations, which is sometimes called “liberal realism”. It accepts the realist idea that international politics take place in a context of anarchy but sees it as a “society of states” that is moderated by norms and institutions, which change over time. (The balance of power itself was as an “institution” in this sense.) This allows us to see the EU not as a complete, clean break with pre-war international relations in Europe but rather as a continuation or development of it. A kind of balance of power may even still exist in Europe, but it is an “institutionalised balance”, as someone put it at a recent conference I attended at Warsaw University on realism in international relations. The EU has changed international relations in Europe, in other words, by creating a deeper and denser institutional framework to constrain state behaviour than that which existed before 1945.


One thought on “International relations in Europe

  1. Thank you for your informative essay. For some insights on the EU see this video of Yanis Varoufakis’ comment on the EU, that begins with some preliminary historical framing at the 46:00 mark and ends at about 56:00. Be prepared for his advocacy of a reformed and democratized EU, that began its life as a cartel, after his unsparing critique of the EU, as it is presently constituted, by its nature undemocratic, and the dire need for reform. And the approaching catastrophe of its dissolution, if those reforms are not made.

    On the question of Cosmopolitanism and Global Domestic Politics, see Ulrich Beck’s Twenty Observations on a World in Turmoil, chapter 12 titled Global Domestic Politics from Below : How Global Families are Becoming Normal.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s