A lot is written on the integration process of modern day Europe. Most of these texts discuss internal factors to describe and explain the very existence, continuation and for some the probable end of the European Union. Though what often is overlooked, are external factors. Although international anarchy seems to come to an end in present-day Europe, it is still anarchy right outside its borders. Interestingly, similarities can be found between European integration today and nation-state building back in the 19th century. Comparing 19th century nation-state building in France and the Netherlands with European integration today could provide us with some useful insights in what direction the EU is heading, or should be. Given the politicians’ debate for or against more Europe, both consociational democracy and centralization seem viable outcomes at this point. Yet 19th century cases provide us with the insight that perhaps predominantly external factors will determine the outcome of this debate; though perhaps not against the wishes of the Europeans themselves.
19th century anarchy was quite different than in the 21st century. With the establishment of the UN in 1945 and a dozen other international institutions such as the OECD, the WTO and the like following in the decades afterwards, cooperation has become much more viable in the modern age. In this context, war on the warring European continent in the 19th century was quite a threat to the rising nation-states. What made the difference between the development of the state of France and the Netherlands was their respective position in the international system. A neutral Netherlands could walk another path than a competitive France. Given Dutch internationally respected neutrality, there was much less pressure to centralize and unite state and nation in order to be able to compete in the international system. France, however, experienced defeat in the Franco-Prussia War. The political elite subsequently realized domestic unity was the corner stone in international strength. When the left-wing republicans took over after the 1876 elections, the state’s power was efficiently used to purge the clergy and royalists out of public life, whilst education and the draft were used to achieve national unity. It is a matter for debate if the Catholic pillar could have achieved such an outcome. What matters is that external pressures, fearing a follow-up of another Franco-German war, forced the outcome. Following this notion, non-neutral states have a higher need to centralize to avoid weaknesses caused by internal divisions. A dominant nationalism was therefore needed to draft huge armies to compete in and outside Europe, which would ultimately end in 20th century trench warfare. Participating in interstate rivalry would mean losing domestic diversity.
When international anarchy is considered a factor in nation-state building, one would wonder what it would mean if this concept is applied to the European project. As stated above, we are living in quite a different world than two or even just one century ago. No threat of European war is imminent. The only wars fought by European armies are in different continents and states, ironically called peace missions. The greatest threats to European societies are of a different kind: mass migration from Africa and the Mid-East, terrorism, financial distress or resource competitions. But considering the EU abstractly as a state in becoming or at best a weak state, it are serious threats to be reckoned with for it not to disunite.
It is clear the EU is not and nor does it wish to be a neutral entity, having dispatched an anti-piracy fleet in East-Africa and sending troops into Mali. The EU does not wish to stay merely an economic power and tries to have an impact in interstate politics. Then being compared with 19th century France and the Netherlands, the Union finds itself on a crossroads. Ironically it are the smaller states such as the Netherlands and Belgium which had a tendency to neutrality who are calling for more European defence cooperation, whilst the bigger states wish to retain independent armed forces. When one is to compete in the international system, it demands unification to overcome internal divisions and weaknesses. Standing at the crossroads, it are these states who should make the decision for either unification and compete on the international stage or remain independent with strong state armies but having to play a minor role in world politics. Unification comes at a cost in independence, but history showed it also has its advantages. A stronger, democratic Europe would serve the interests of both nations and states.