The Maastricht Summit of December 1991 displayed a European Community poised to assume a central role in the first decades of the twenty-first century. There is, nonetheless, great uncertainty about the deeper logic of the process of Europeanization that is upon us. What kinds of new economic regulation are emerging? What structures of democratic and civic control, if any, will hold elites accountable in what is now an opaque and obscure institutional system? Most importantly, what does all this mean for progressive forces? Europe stands at a genuine crossroads. Older, nation-state-based strategies for accumulation and redistribution, whose logics formed so many of the characteristic oppositional outlooks of the modern Left, have exhausted themselves. The new Europe represents an attempt at formulating new strategies with significant supranational dimensions. It has thus far been constructed, out of the materials of capitalist crisis, by gifted politicians. The mass Left has not only been largely absent from, but hitherto also befuddled by, the process. What follows is intended to help define the nature of our problem.

The first steps towards European integration were taken in the wake of World War II, in a setting characterized by European federalist talk about ‘nevermore war amongst us’, Marshall Plan urging toward new European economic cooperation, and, above all, the Manichaeism of Cold War. The strategists who set Europe on its present way were modest and astute. Transnational unity of purpose could best be created by concentrating upon certain specific areas. Once Europe had begun to cooperate in these areas, a logic of ‘spillover’ into others would follow.footnote1 The 1951 Schuman Plan for the European Coal and Steel Community integrated two sectors of great economic and military importance. The ecsc six, who were to form the heart of the later European Economic Community—France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries—established a supranational high authority empowered to levy taxes, shape investment and intervene in the market. ecsc, like so much that came later, was essentially a Franco– German deal.footnote2 The British were notably absent.footnote3 Europe then stalled momentarily when a French plan for a European Defence Community—part of a quest to find a palatable way to rearm the Germans for Cold War purposes—was rejected by the French parliament in 1954.footnote4 The edc experience drove home the lesson that economics was the best ground for Europe, hence the very quick conversion of the six to a European Economic Community in the Treaty of Rome of 1957.footnote5

The eec, or ‘the Common Market’ as it was long called, became the backbone of European integration. It focused upon three central areas: the creation of a customs-free zone, a common external tariff, and a Common Agricultural Policy (cap). The treaty contained a number of additional provisions—an eec anti-trust policy, for example—plus development programmes for the Italian South, but its core focus was trade and its ethos strongly liberal.

The eec’s executive institution, granted an exclusive power of policy proposition, was a Commission in Brussels composed of members appointed by eec member states.footnote6 Its ‘legislature’ was a Council of Ministers representing each national government, which was coordinated by a presidency that changed every six months in alphabetical order of member states.footnote7 The democratic legitimacy for eec decisions was deemed to derive from the national parliaments (which appointed the Council ministers). A European Court of Justice, located in Luxembourg, entertained litigation and created a body of jurisprudence for those areas—mainly trade-related—where the Rome Treaty had granted eec laws precedence over national ones. A European parliament in Strasbourg composed of members appointed by national parliaments had virtually no power, except to ‘consult’.footnote8 Serving as the administrative glue for all of this was the ‘Brussels bureaucracy’, which, far from the imperial machinery of tabloid lore, was in fact rather small.footnote9

In legal terms, the new Europe was the product of treaties in which its national members delegated pieces of sovereignty. What the Common Market could do was spelled out in the Treaty of Rome. Everything not thus spelled out remained within the purview of its member states. Europe therefore began as a narrowly trade-oriented adventure, without legal purchase on much else beyond agriculture and the various areas functional to the liberal goal of the ‘four freedoms’—free movement of goods, services, people and capital.footnote10 Those who designed the eec’s institutions nonetheless nourished hopes that the Brussels market activists they were letting loose would rapidly push to ‘Europeanize’ more and more activities. Their hypothesis was that trade issues, however narrowly defined initially, would ultimately connect to a wide range of other matters and initiate a snowball effect towards greater supranationality.

The decisive intervention of General de Gaulle in the mid 1960s made clear that such hopes were utopian. As eec institutions began to take shape and as the new Commission began to flex its Europeanizing muscles, the French president stopped things by boycotting eec proceedings for a period of months. The outcome of this was what came to be called the ‘Luxembourg Compromise’ (1966), which was to govern eec institutions until the mid 1980s.footnote11 The Rome Treaty had foreseen a degree of flexibility in decision-making at Council level such that, on occasion, specific nations might be outvoted. But from ‘Luxembourg’ onwards each eec member acquired the right to invoke a national veto on matters it regarded as essential, implying a need to seek unanimity among member states. The new Common Market thus became an intergovernmental—as opposed to supranational—operation: the Commission could propose all it wanted, but the eec’s legislature, the Council, could stop it getting anything that all member-state governments did not themselves want.

For once, General de Gaulle spoke not only for France. The real issues underlying the eec’s institutional crisis of the mid 1960s ran much deeper. The coming of the Common Market occurred at the high point of Europe’s postwar boom. This moment of phenomenal economic expansion was premissed upon ideas and social forces configured in strongly nationally-based capitalist systems. To varying degrees all eec members were pursuing strategies of Fordist-consumerist expansion in which national states played central roles as direct economic agents. Moreover, they had all developed complex systems of internal redistribution, often necessitated by the presence of powerful union movements and left political parties, which depended upon continuing national-government monopolies of fiscal and monetary policy.