Talk at the Conference ‘(De)Constructing Europe. Tensions of Europeanization’ (DHI, Rome)

From 20 to 22 March 2024, an international group of historians, sociologists and political scientists met at the German Historical Institute in Rome to discuss a wide variety of approaches to ‘(De)Constructing Europe’ and the tensions arising thereof, with a focus at different actors from politics, administration, economy and civil society, and looking at a timeframe ranging from the 1930s to today.

My contribution to the conference focused on ‘Idealism and tension in the early European Parliament’s conception(s) of integration’ (as part of my larger research project on the institutional evolution of the European Parliament). Prior to the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) faced a double-dilemma: first, the European Parliament (EP) did not formally resemble a parliament, as it lacked noteworthy legislative power (as well as a range of other parliamentary competences). Second, few of the people whom the MEPs claimed to represent – the member state citizens – knew what the EP was doing; indeed, many were not even aware of the EP’s existence. This double-dilemma left a traceable mark on MEPs’ conceptions of ‘Europe’ and of European integration. Indeed, based on this double-dilemma, said conceptions can be understood as performative rather than static, as my paper discussed.

Prior to the EP’s first direct elections in 1979, when all MEPs were part-time delegates from the member states’ national parliaments, the EP was no target for careerists. Given its limited formal role and powers, it promised no noteworthy opportunity for political impact, nor for individual career prospects; to the contrary, it diverted its members’ time and resources away from more impactful positions at the national level. In consequence, we find two dominant groups of persons among the pre-1979 MEPs: European idealists (typically federalists) willing to invest time and resources in pursuit of greater aims than their personal career advancement on the one hand, and those with little to lose and/or limited possibilities to choose in terms of their current position on the other (that is, largely parliamentarians at the very beginning or end of their political career). This compilation of members, in turn, shaped the bandwidth of conceptions of ‘Europe’ and integration that we find in the early EP.

The pre-1979 EP has been described both in the literature and by former members as a meeting point of a group consisting almost entirely of pro-Europeans/pro-integrationists. My paper sought to disentangle this broad statement with a more systematic focus on idealism and tensions in the early MEPs’ conceptions of Europe and of integration by looking more closely at:

  1. Ideational differences within the intra-parliamentary structure of the EP, notably among the EP’s party groups and committees, but also between this meso-level of parliamentary activity and the macro-level, i.e., the EP plenary;
  2. Shifts and developments on the landscape of conceptions of ‘Europe’ and of integration from the early 1950s through the late 1970s and into the early 1980s; and
  3. The impact of socialisation processes and of particularly impactful norm entrepreneurs on the dominance of certain conceptions among the MEPs.

In connection to the above-mentioned performative dimension, the paper showed the intrinsic connection of the outlined conceptions with MEPs’ perception of their institution’s role in Community politics. Namely, while entering the EP with varying – and often rather vague – conceptions of Europe/integration, the vast majority of (active)[1] MEPs came to embrace a notion of a Community project in need of a close(r) connection to its citizens, indeed, of genuinely democratic and democratically legitimised integration. This conception of a Europe for and of the people influenced, and was influenced by, the MEPs’ parliamentary activism in Community politics. Whereas we find thus certain contingencies in conceptions of Europe and integration in the early EP, the paper also addressed the disuniting impact of key events and developments in the first three decades of the EP’s existence, such as the formation of new party groups, the Community’s first enlargement, and the EP’s first direct elections. Moreover, the paper shed light on channels via which (former) MEPs exported conceptions shaped within the EP to other institutions and levels within the European multilevel-governance system. In so doing, the paper aimed at providing a concise overview not only of the shifting landscape of conceptions on ‘Europe’ and integration within the early EP, but also of their outreach and repercussions.

[1] It should be noted that the findings discussed in this paper are largely limited to those MEPs who took actively part in the EP’s, its party groups’ and committees’ work, for the simple reason that those who were inactive, who hardly ever travelled to Strasbourg, Luxembourg and Brussels or at best participated in plenary sessions left few, if any, traces in parliamentary documents. They did not (visibly) swim against the tide, e.g. in the sense of voting behaviour, but also produced no output confirming alignment with the conceptions outlined and discussed here. In absence of EP archival material, an individual biographical approach would be necessary to trace these less active MEPs’ conceptions of ‘Europe’ and of European integration, which goes beyond the scope of this paper.