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A Pocket History: Beethoven, Borders, and British Sitcoms
Joshua St. Clair, NYU Florence student
La Pietra Dialogues
October 3, 2014

Where is the European Union? Yes, it exists as a political entity whose headquarters can be found in Brussels, but where exactly is this organization? Where is it found in the everyday lives of its populace? Professor Davide Lombardo began his dialogue Wednesday night with an answer to this question. The answer: our pockets. “The euro is really a mirror of the uniqueness of the EU,” Lombardo explained, because it is perhaps the “first currency that doesn’t relate to a central [individual figure of authority].” “Any currency you can think of in Europe will have faces on it, will have people on it.” The euro is a currency without a face. Currency, Lombardo explained, is usually a “sign of conquest”; it is a “sign of power.” In the case of the European Union, currency becomes a very different sign—that of integration.

This observation may represent an unconventional method in approaching the night’s discussion topic, the history of the European Union, but for the audience, the euro would become the single most important symbol of that contentious history. Embedded within the currency´s monetary image is the very political “dialectic” of the European Union—its continuous struggle between national interest and supranational integration. It is here, in your pockets, where you find both the EU’s progressive history of integration and a stark reminder of the challenges behind this undertaking.

To underline this dichotomy, the professor recounted the euro design process and the difficulties in reaching European consensus. Choosing individuals such as famous artists, musicians, and philosophers proved heavily contentious and merely incited nationalism. This decision process, Lombardo explicated, epitomized the “pettiness of fighting among nationalities.” Even the seemingly-eclectic architectural drawings on the euro today were “problematic,” because they could be seen to embody just one nation. This process of choosing a unifying monetary symbol is, in many ways, emblematic not only of the EU’s continual march towards greater integration, but also the various nationalistic schisms that threaten to undermine this unity. The European Union—the “daring” experiment in integration—seeks to balance national interests. “We don’t allow [national interest]. We will go for the money!” proclaimed Lombardo, “but we won’t allow Beethoven on the five-hundred [euro bill].” The audience chuckled.

Lombardo then began to delve into the night’s topic. Before winding back the clock to the EU’s political inception in the 1950s, however, the professor said a word about his historical approach. Continuing his previous observations on the euro’s symbolic nature, the professor began: “This certain dynamic within the integration process and the ‘stepping back’ because of national interest is one of the basic, dialectic struggles [with which] I want you to learn to read European history,” he challenged the audience. This dialectic is a “key” tool for understanding European history.

One of the “dangers” in approaching EU history is to immediately adopt the many accounts which use only a “progressive” analysis, explained Lombardo. This kind of “narration” interprets EU history as a seemingly-linear march towards progress and integration. This progressive history of the EU “is not forged, but is clearly polished,” clarified Lombardo. “But there is another history,” he declared, one that includes both progress and regression, consensus and contention. This is the history the professor chose to analyze.

____________

The 1950’s witnessed an attempt by European countries to “make a leap forward in military cooperation that could lead [...] to political unification,” Lombardo began. This project, however, “failed,” thus beginning a long and complex history of foreign policy challenges for the European community. The idea of going “immediately towards political union was abandoned” and the community instead decided on an economic route. Economics became Europe’s tool for integration and the European Coal and Steel Community, created in the immediate post-war period, became its agent. “The real EU—when things start to move in the history of the EU—is 1979,” Lombardo explained. This was “a key year in the history of the EU,” because it marked the establishment of its first elected parliament. “It’s a breakthrough,” declared the professor, for it represented a growing alignment of European interests. “What is [now] good in one country needs to be able to be secured in the other countries.”

The 1980’s and 1990’s acted as the “great decades” of growth and progress for the European community. “Your experience of Europe is via Schengen,” Lombardo excitedly declared. The Schengen Treaty of the 1980’s sought to gradually abolish border checkpoints in the hope of precipitating free movement between European countries—a policy whose effects the student audience could clearly perceive. For Lombardo, the mere step of opening national borders acted as one of the first real indications of integration—a visible sign of progress whose psychological effects on the citizens’ sense of community could not be understated.

The real shift, however, occurred in the 1990’s. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 “mark[ed] the shift from the European Community and the project based on the common market” to a system that was much more politically integrated, Lombardo explained to the audience. This system would become the direct prefiguration of the modern European Union, incorporating both justice and foreign relations into the “three pillars” of its new institutional framework. With the introduction of the euro following the treaty, the European Union no longer acted as an occasional presence observable only when crossing the border. The euro “transform[ed] the European Union into [a daily presence] ” and allowed for direct “participation in this [process of] integration,” Lombard concluded.

__________

This account, however, is only the “progressive history” pointed out the professor. “By far, the most important event in European [Union] history is 1989, 1991—the demise of the Soviet Union,” when Europe began to face a changing geopolitical landscape. The ramifications of the collapse would become manifest in the sudden independence of former Soviet Bloc nations and successive immigration into western Europe. “What happens in 2005 is a shift,” noted Lombardo, when “the nation states strike back.” Due to economic and immigration concerns, European nations openly dissented and even rejected a proposed constitutional draft for the European Union.

An undeniable presence in the debates surrounding the euro, the “dialectic” of national interests vs. supranational goals—Lombardo’s “key” to understanding EU history—was now becoming manifest in new areas. The events of 2005 clearly demonstrated this point. “It’s not that [nation states] don’t want to integrate,” Lombardo clarified; “they want to maintain clear control, [ . . . ] to control the speed and steps of integration.” But how can true integration occur when national interests continue to dominate European imperatives? This is the same conflict of interest that Professor Nicoló Conti underlined the previous week when exploring the EU’s political organization.

To further emphasize this point, Lombardo showed the audience a clip from the 1980’s satirical British sitcom Yes, Minister. Pay attention to how “in the end, integration and nations again correlate,” Lombardo prefaced. This “correlation” indicates the antagonistic relationship between national interest and European integration, where in Yes, Minister both dynamics seem to meet at a fault line, the former forcing the latter into political subordination. As one of the characters humorously exclaimed: “I’m pro Europe just anti-Brussels.” Here, national interest becomes manifest in a resistance to EU authority, thus complicating European integration. The disregarding of the EU’s political legitimacy also presents challenges to unifying European identity. “You see, in the end, the game goes back to national importance and Brussels is [merely] an instrument” the professor concluded. The goal is for the EU to become an instrument for another end: unifying European identity and not simply balancing intergovernmental nationalism.

These issues were perhaps best addressed when one of the students asked for Professor Lombardo’s position on Scotland´s recent bid for independence. Something “I find very interesting in the history of the EU,” Lombardo answered, is that “we are at a moment in history where there is a crisis of the nation state and [of] national identities” caused by economic and technological globalization. At the same time, however, regional identity seems to be increasing. “This is interesting because this process of integration [in Europe] is proceeding without the process of [developing European nationalism].” As Europe moves towards greater political unity, it faces the challenge of forging a true supranational identity. We are not making a “new Europe” yet, the professor declared. “The European Union is providing this new framework, but without the construction of a new nationality,” a European nationality.

According to Lombardo, the EU has become both “an answer and an instrument” for the shift towards globalization. As Yes, Minister demonstrates, the EU has clearly been used historically as an instrument, but whether it can serve as the answer to Europe’s growing identity crisis today remains to be seen. For the time being, if you ever need a reminder as to the continual struggles facing EU integration—the complexity of reconciling national interests with supranational imperatives—and the hope of further success, simply look inside your pockets.

 
 
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