Hegel and European Integration

Much of G.W.F. Hegel’s thought is arguably outdated, but his idea of historical development might have something to offer for our understanding of European integration. By James Bartholomeusz

Hegel was one of the great thinkers of the 19th Century and our primary philosopher of history.

Hegel was one of the great thinkers of the 19th Century and our primary philosopher of history.

Last week, I attempted to explain the goals of the PDU to a friend. After I’d finished my trawl through elected second chambers and joint defence capabilities, he paused for a moment and said, “So the EU is basically an incomplete version of itself?”

For student of philosophy this sent the Hegelian cogs whirring. G. W. F. Hegel is the West’s great philosopher of history; he helped inaugurate the 19th Century’s obsession with historical development, prompting Foucault, speaking in the 1960s, to describe modern Europeans as “les pieux descendants du temps“. This has obviously not been without its drawbacks – Hegel’s view, increasingly common in his time, that the West and particularly Europe was at the vanguard of linear history, and therefore that Africa and Asia were backward straits with little to offer, is clearly not one which transmits well to the present day. Yet there might be something that Hegel can teach us about Europe still today.

Simplifying immensely, Hegel’s view of development is one of dialectical progression, in which systems overcome and assimilate their contradictions and achieve a state of self-realisation or -actualisation. In the realm of human affairs, this is a move from ‘subjective’ existence (‘being in itself’) to full ‘objective’ existence (‘being in and for itself’). We cannot understand this process if we only consider a single ‘time-slice’ moment somewhere in the middle – a tendency, he claims, all too present in philosophical and non-philosophical analysis alike.

So what has all this have to do with Europe? The ‘European Union’, as it currently stands, is not an ahistorical bureaucracy arisen purely as a punch-bag for nationalists and libertarians. In a sense, it is not a single entity at all, but a particular stage in the development of a much broader idea, the European project. This is an idea which certainly goes back beyond the Maastricht Treaty, at least to the Hague Congress. To attempt to understand the EU independently is to miss the significance of its historical trajectory.

In Hegelian terms, today’s EU is in itself but not for itself; it enjoys solely subjective existence. We can see the manifestations of this incompleteness all around us. Monetary union has been achieved, administered by the ECB, and yet without fiscal centralisation this has precipitated a currency crisis. We have drained power away from national legislatures, and in their place installed an unaccountable Commission and a Parliament with only weak powers of oversight. Structural integration has proceeded ahead of a pan-European consciousness amongst citizens; we live under well-meaning but remote institutions, devoid of the democratic will which made the old nation-state the strength it was.

Almost everyone agrees that the EU cannot remain in its current state: we must either return to a set of nation-states connected by some loose agreements or press on towards greater integration. The good news Hegel has for Europhiles is that crises are productive as well as destructive events. For ahistorical analysts (like the vaguely postmodern liberal) a crisis is a serious problem, a breakdown of norms with no clear solution. For a Hegelian, they are vital – it is at moments such as these that the contradictions within a system are exposed and overcome. We can view the European project as an unsteady but encouraging move towards self-actualisation, towards a European federal state. Hegel reminds us that Europe is not just an entity, it is a process, one which has yet to achieve full realisation. Now is not the time to stop pushing – on the contrary, we should now be pushing even harder.

Image ”Hegel’s eyes” courtesy to Cher Amio via flickr.com, released under Creative Commons 2.0 share alike.

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