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Alan Milward: The EU as the saviour of the nation state

“To supersede the nation-state would be to destroy the Community.”


Alan S. Milward, a former professor at the London School of Economics and the European University Institute in Florence, is one of the leading historians of European integration. In 1993 he became an official historian at the UK Cabinet Office. He recently had to resign from this post for health reasons.

Milward’s book “The European Rescue of the Nation-State”, published in 1992, challenged the conventional view of European integration as a process destined to produce the replacement of nation-states by a European federal political structure. Milward argues that in the wake of the Second World War the founding fathers of European integration were first and foremost interested in rebuilding their countries as nation-states. Integration, it follows, was the outcome of a conscious decision by European governments to pool sovereignty in certain areas to provide nation-states with the foundations they – given the horrible experience of the war – apparently lacked.

“There is … a strong common identity of thought between Spaak, Schuman, Adenauer, de Gasperi and Monnet. It is to be found in their understanding of the search for security by the western European population after 1945 and in the very wide interpretation which they, like the population, gave to it. Going far beyond the problems of military defence and physical protection, they interpreted it to mean an economic security in daily life of a more comprehensive and assured kind than before the war … We are not dealing with social reformers, nor, except in the case of Monnet, economic innovators, but merely with statesmen well attuned to the themes of fear, of the need of reassurance, and of the fundamentally conservative yearning for a more certain personal and political order which shaped democratic politics in those years.”

According to Milward, the European Community and the nation-state are anything but incompatible. The evolution of the Community does not imply the extinction of the nation-state as an organizational structure.

“The evolution of the European Community since 1945 has been an integral part of the reassertion of the nation-state as an organisational concept … Without the process of integration the west European nation-state might well not have retained the allegiance and support of its citizens in the way that it has. The European Community has been its buttress, an indispensable part of the nation-state’s post-war construction. Without it, the nation-state could not have offered to its citizens the same measure of security and prosperity which it has provided and which has justified its survival.”

Milward’s book, published in 1992, does not cover the latest wave of EU enlargement. Even so, it offers a framework that helps understand the experience of countries aspiring for European integration after 1989.

After the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, confidence in the state had been dented – by the communist regimes, their repressiveness, their failure to satisfy the interests of citizens, or by war, as in the former Yugoslavia. The legitimacy of many of the emerging states was weak. With the exception of Slovenia and Croatia, the successor states of the Yugoslav federation also suffered from major legitimacy problems, mostly related to poor economic performance, bad governance and contested identity issues.

There is a striking parallel between the experience of post-communist Eastern Europe and post-war Western Europe. Given the experience of the late 1930s, lacking legitimacy for the nation state was a key problem after the war. Milward points out that of twenty-six European nation states in 1938 all but six had been annexed, occupied, partially occupied or turned into satellite states by the end of 1940. The nation state’s claim to legitimacy “could only be sustained were it able to respond to a greater range of demands from its citizens.”

“After 1945 the European nation-state rescued itself from collapse, crated a new political consensus as the basis of its legitimacy, and through changes in its response to its citizens which meant a sweeping extension of its functions and ambitions reasserted itself as the fundamental unit of political organization. The European Community only evolved as an aspect of that national reassertion and without it the reassertion might well have proved impossible. To supersede the nation-state would be to destroy the Community. To put a finite limit to the process of integration would be to weaken the nation-state, to limit its scope and to curb its power.”

Given the success of the European project over the last 50 years, European integration offers the only credible vision for a prosperous and secure future for the new states in the Balkans.

  • Alan S. Milward, The European Rescue of the Nation-State, Routledge, 2000 (first edition published in 1992).