Skip to main content

Why is unity so important to Europe?

By Bryony Jones, CNN
September 6, 2012 -- Updated 0829 GMT (1629 HKT)
The leaders of Germany and France, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande, are struggling to keep the European Union -- and the euro -- together in the face of the eurozone crisis. The leaders of Germany and France, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande, are struggling to keep the European Union -- and the euro -- together in the face of the eurozone crisis.
HIDE CAPTION
Why unity is so important to Europe
Why unity is so important to Europe
Why unity is so important to Europe
Why unity is so important to Europe
Why unity is so important to Europe
Why unity is so important to Europe
Why unity is so important to Europe
Why unity is so important to Europe
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The European Union was designed to reduce risk of war in Europe
  • Eurozone crisis is posing a serious threat to European unity
  • There are concerns Greece's financial crisis may force it to abandon euro

London (CNN) -- Europe's leaders are battling to keep the eurozone and the wider European Union together in the face of a financial crisis that threatens to split partnerships forged over more than half a century.

So why are they putting so much effort into preserving unity? And can they prevent today's debts and differences from dividing the continent for decades to come?

Why is unity so important to Europe?

The answer lies in Europe's history: The continent has historically been split by long-running conflicts that pitted neighboring countries against each other.

But despite this, the nations of Europe also share much in common, as Professor John Loughlin, of the University of Cambridge's department of politics and international studies explained.

"In the 19th century there was an idea that Europe had a natural unity, that its constituent parts shared an identity, a culture, a history," he told CNN.

"People were keen to recover this 'lost unity' which dated back to before the fragmented days of the individual nation states, to previous unions, and even to the Roman Empire."

Where did the idea of a European Union come from?

A day will come when there will be no battlefields but markets opening to commerce and minds opening to ideas
Victor Hugo

The idea of a united Europe goes back centuries, and has been proposed by everyone from William Penn -- the founder of the U.S. state of Pennsylvania -- to philosophers Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham.

French novelist and activist Victor Hugo backed the idea of a "United States of Europe" in the 19th century, looking forward to the day when the U.S. of A. and the U.S. of E. would "stretch out their hands across the sea... and join together to reap the well-being of all."

Hugo, author of "Les Miserables" and the "Hunchback of Notre Dame," predicted that: "A day will come when there will be no battlefields but markets opening to commerce and minds opening to ideas. A day will come when the bullets and bombs are replaced by votes."

However, it was not until after World War II that a European union became a realistic prospect.

Why then?

By 1945, much of Europe had been devastated by two massive wars in quick succession. Amid the rubble and ruins, politicians and the public -- exhausted by years of violence -- shared the belief that such conflict should never be allowed to happen again.

Rather than focus on trying to find a shared ideology -- the reason behind much of the earlier conflict -- politicians saw economic unity as a way of preventing future clashes.

French politician Robert Schuman, regarded as one of the founding fathers of the EU, came up with the idea of pooling coal and steel production in the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), so that the "raw ingredients" for war -- munitions -- were placed out of reach.

He hoped the ECSC, created in 1951, would mean that, "any war between France and Germany [became] not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible."

What is it?

The ECSC, which was made up of six nations (France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) later evolved into the European Economic Community (EEC) -- under which the member states established a common market, and worked to harmonize their policies on everything from agriculture and fisheries to monetary policy.

Can Greece leave the eurozone?
Drachma vs. euro as Greek currency
How would a euro exit work?

Over the following decades, the EEC became the European Union, and expanded from the original six nations to today's 27 members, from Finland in the north to Malta in the south.

That enlargement has also seen many members of the former Soviet Union join up -- highlighting another of the EU's key roles.

"During the Cold War, Western Europe united to form a bloc against the Soviet Union, because there was a genuine fear that the Communists would sweep across Europe in their tanks," Loughlin said.

"After the fall of the Berlin Wall, that part of the world was extremely unstable. It had had a kind of peace, but one built on oppression, and once that collapsed there were real fears of conflict.

"The EU was very important in ensuring peace and stability in the region -- it helped countries' transition to democracy, and build economic prosperity."

Has it worked?

Loughlin says the union has succeeded in its most basic aim.

"It is still a very important aspect of European unity that there has been no major war since World War II.

"There have been smaller conflicts, in Northern Ireland and in the Basque country, and of course there was the situation in the Balkans, but in that case, the prospect of joining the EU has been a very powerful factor in preventing further wars."

It hasn't all been plain sailing though -- national differences persist, and many issues have caused divisions and debates between the member states, from the introduction of a single currency to the war in Iraq.

The old stereotypes are still there, and they tend to resurface at times of tension.
John Loughlin

"Not all the tensions have gone away," said Loughlin. "Not all the conflicts have been resolved.

"The old reflexes, the old fears persist. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example, [President Francois] Mitterand [of France] and [Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher [of Britain] were very nervous about the prospect of a united Germany."

However, the euro crisis has provided the union with its biggest challenge yet -- and it is one that is playing on national prejudices and resentments.

"The Greeks are very upset that their whole character seems to be being called into question, that they are being portrayed as profligate, irresponsible.

"The old stereotypes are still there, and they tend to resurface at times of tension. The danger is that they can really affect the outcome of these situations, and there is just too much at stake here."

How determined are Europe's current leaders to support unity at any cost?

In 2011, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy insisted that Europe would never give up on the euro.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he said: "We will never abandon the euro. Never! Euro spells Europe, the euro is Europe. Europe has meant 60 years of peace on our continent. We will never abandon that.

"To imagine that we might pull out of that is to ignore the fact that as people who have been at each others' throats for centuries, we now have one wish, and that is lasting peace."

However, by the end of last year, both France and Germany -- the two driving forces behind the euro -- had admitted that in order to ensure the currency's survival, Greece may have to withdraw.

Can European unity survive the current crisis?

"The EU was formed for three reasons: To prevent war, to bring political unity, and for economic integration. If the euro collapses -- and I suspect it won't -- all three of these dimensions would be at risk," said Loughlin.

"At this stage I think the process is probably irreversible -- there is too much at stake to allow the whole thing to unravel -- if it did it would be worse than the U.S. subprime crisis. So many countries are locked in to the system; even those who aren't EU members, like Norway, have so much bound up in it.

"I suspect the EU will muddle through in the end -- but then who knows? There have been so many surprises recently, and you never really know what is around the corner."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 27, 2013 -- Updated 1943 GMT (0343 HKT)
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble says the eurozone's problems are not solved, but "we are in a much better shape than we used to be some years ago."
September 4, 2013 -- Updated 1528 GMT (2328 HKT)
The G20 is held in Russia but, amid disagreements over Syria, can anything be done? John Defterios investigates.
July 10, 2013 -- Updated 1502 GMT (2302 HKT)
Summer could not have come soon enough for Lloret de Mar, a tourist resort north of Barcelona. Despite the country's troubles, it's partying.
June 7, 2013 -- Updated 1750 GMT (0150 HKT)
The euro club has suffered major shockwaves but its newest member has emerged as an economic star. What;s behind Estonia's success?
May 29, 2013 -- Updated 1323 GMT (2123 HKT)
The global recovery has two speeds: That of the stimulus-fed U.S. and that of the austerity-starved eurozone, according to a new report.
May 14, 2013 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
The flags of the countries which make up the European Union, outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.
The "rich man's club" of Europe faces economic decay as it struggles to absorb Europe's "poor people", according to economic experts.
May 27, 2013 -- Updated 0256 GMT (1056 HKT)
Europe's competitiveness is threatened as manufacturing companies scrambling to find enough skilled engineers.
July 10, 2013 -- Updated 1502 GMT (2302 HKT)
Spain's economic crisis is in its sixth straight year yet tourism, worth 11% of GDP, is holding its own, one of the few bright spots on a bleak horizon.
May 2, 2013 -- Updated 1044 GMT (1844 HKT)
As European financial markets close for the spring celebration of May Day, protesters across Europe and beyond have taken to the streets to demonstrate.
April 26, 2013 -- Updated 1210 GMT (2010 HKT)
As Croatia prepares to enter the 27-nation European Union, the country's Prime Minister says Italy must return to being the "powerhouse of Europe."
April 25, 2013 -- Updated 1656 GMT (0056 HKT)
Spain's unemployment rate rose to a record high of 27.2% in the first quarter of 2013, the Spanish National Institute of Statistics said Thursday.
March 25, 2013 -- Updated 1355 GMT (2155 HKT)
The financial uncertainty in Cyprus is generating images of long lines at ATM machines and anti-European Union protests.
March 25, 2013 -- Updated 1815 GMT (0215 HKT)
Cyprus will "step up efforts in areas of fiscal consolidation." Where have we heard that before? Oh yes. Greece.
March 23, 2013 -- Updated 0139 GMT (0939 HKT)
The Cyprus debt crisis is being felt by the banks but also by the people who work at them. Nick Paton Walsh reports.
March 22, 2013 -- Updated 0010 GMT (0810 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reports on a Russian hotel maid caught up in Cyprus' financial crisis.
March 18, 2013 -- Updated 1608 GMT (0008 HKT)
Never underestimate the capacity of the Eurozone to shoot itself in both feet, says CNN's Richard Quest.
February 21, 2013 -- Updated 1603 GMT (0003 HKT)
Spain has seen hundreds of protests since the "Indignados" movement erupted in 2011, marches and sit-ins are now common sights in the capital.
ADVERTISEMENT