Towards a Cultural-Historical Theory of European Integration


When we speak of European integration, we usually refer to the European Union (Wiener, 2019). Yet, cultural-historically, this is only half the story. As Kiran Klaus Patel has emphasised (Patel 2013, 2018), the EU (and its predecessors) has been one organisation of European integration among many, such as the European Free Trade Area (EFTA), the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Patel’s narrative of ‘provincialising European union’ (Patel 2013) provides a new perspective as it describes the EU as a contested entity in a pluralistic spectrum of historically varying forms of European cooperation.

Avoiding an EU-centric and teleological explanation of European integration history is also useful for understanding the most recent history of the idea of Europe. According to Schmale (2018), the EU can be seen as an institutionalisation of core aspects of the modern idea of Europe, namely the rule of law, human rights, democracy, and human dignity. However, the EU has also to be interpreted in the broader history of Europe since 1945 (Judt 2005).

This shift in perspective has been discussed widely in European integration research (Patel 2013, 2018; Schmale 2008, 2018; Thiemeyer and Tölle 2011; Delanty 2013, 2018; Pasture 2015; Wintle 2009). Indeed, many scholars have worked on a more balanced theory of European integration history (Pichler 2016, 2018). Arguably, this new perspective requires a cultural-historical theory of European (Union) integration because the fundamental aspects in question (a deconstruction of EU-centrism; a more nuanced view of crisis; the balancing of aspects of disintegration and integration; and a re-evaluation of the EU’s alleged sui-generis character) are issues of cultural sense-making. Seen from this point of view, how has the EU shaped European identity (Schmale 2008, 2018)? Did it do so at all (Delanty 2018)? Does the crisis of European integration mean a crisis of European identity, too (Patel 2018)? Is the EU a cultural community of a sui-generis character (Thiemeyer and Tölle 2011; Patel 2013; Pichler 2018)?

These questions have to be seen against the background of the ‘Cultural Turn’ (Bachmann-Medick 2016) and stand in contrast to older, essentialist cultural histories of Europe (Schmale 2016: 29-60). Scholars are now developing essential elements of such a cultural-historical theory. In the following, we will offer a concise introduction to these elements. We will conclude by summarising the state of the discussion and hope to identify open research questions.

Three Essential Elements of a Cultural-Historical Theory of European Integration

Explaining the European Union as a Cultural System

A cultural-historical theory must first explain the EU’s structure as a cultural system. The mentioned shift in perspective, perhaps even leading to a paradigm shift in integration theories (Wiener, Börzel and Risse, 2019), implies a re-evaluation of older EU theories. Assuming that the EU is not an ‘ever closer union’ or ‘community’, scholarship has to provide different interpretations. In this respect, Patel (2013: 663-670, 2018) speaks of a ‘synecdochic’ quality of the EU. In his view, it has managed to portray itself as the ‘gold standard’ of European integration in discourse – despite different realities (ibid.). This is an important finding because it deconstructs the sui-generis thesis. However, it does not offer an alternative description of the EU’s ‘nature’ and structure as a cultural system (Pichler 2018).

Schmale’s work on the cultural history of Europe rests partly on an interpretation of the EU as a cultural ‘network’ whose dense discursive system of cooperation produces a ‘hypertext’ of European sense-making and identity (Schmale 2000, 2008, 2018). In a similar way, most recent research attempts to grasp the EU as a distinct system of cultural sense-making and identity building (Pichler 2018). The EU is seen as having developed a ‘cultural constitution’ of its own, which sets it apart from other forms of European cooperation (ibid.: 4-9).

Defining the EU’s Mode of Sense-Making

A second essential element is an accurate definition of the EU’s specific mode of the production of meaning, coherence, and identity. Despite the EU crisis, Delanty has made a strong case for seeing the EU’s defining mode of sense-making in the cultural production of unity (Delanty 2013, 2018). Further developing his conception of European heritage and the idea of Europe, Delanty concludes that the opposition to war is a key mode how the EU has produced unity (ibid.). It has shaped the way in which Europeans have constructed a shared identity (ibid.).

Another attempt at culturally describing the EU has been Patrick Pasture’s analysis of the ‘European quest for peace’ and the search for ‘European unity’ (Pasture 2015: 1-11, 196-205). Other scholars have similarly pointed to the close relationship between EU identity building and decolonisation (Hansen and Jonsson 2015). More recently, Pichler introduced the notion of ‘paradoxical coherence’, which sees the EU’s specific mode of sense production as the result of the permanent, paradoxical conflict between national and supranational discourse in the EU system (Pichler 2018: 8). At this point, there is an implicit theoretical consensus that the EU did in fact produce coherence, unity, and/or identity in its own way (Mechi 2010).

Putting the ‘Ever Closer Union’ in its Cultural-Historical Place

The third important point refers to the topos of ‘ever closer union’, which needs to be put into a broader cultural-historical perspective. A non-teleological, non-biased and less EU-centric theory of European integration should consider the EU a distinct entity within the spectrum of Europeanisation and globalisation processes since 1945. EU-centric narratives cannot explain the EU as a cultural network that arose out of this global context (Patel 2013, 2018; Pasture 2015; Wintle 2016; Delanty 2018; Schmale 2018). More appropriate theorizing would have to contextualise the EU’s supposed modes of cultural sense-making within this broad context. When we compare the EU to other forms of European cooperation, such as the ones mentioned above, this question is the most pressing one (ibid.; Pichler 2018). Current scholarship does not analyse the imagined community of the EU against the backdrop of global cultural tendencies, such as the rise of nationalism or the crisis of liberal democracy.


The shift of perspective in European integration studies has led to discussions about a cultural-historical theory of European integration. However, there is no established consensus on such a theory. Arguably, it would have to include three pivotal elements: first, a structural explanation of the EU as a cultural system; second, a definition of this system’s distinct mode of sense-making and identity building; and third, an overall interpretation of the EU as a cultural community in the broader context of globalisation and Europeanisation. Several authors have tackled the first two dimensions (Pichler 2018; Schmale 2018; Patel 2018; Delanty 2018), thus offering important steps towards a fuller analysis and understanding of the European Union in cultural-historical terms. There are, however, still significant lacunae as regards the question how the EU has created identity, solidarity, and meaning in the context Europeanisation and globalisation.


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Key words European Union, Theory, Cultural History, Identity, Perspective


Peter Pichler, Graz