Book Review of The Europe Illusion: Britain, France, Germany and the Long History of European Integration (2019) by Stuart Sweeney.

Written by Inge Erdal. Stuart Sweeney takes a broad and ambitious approach to European integration in his 2019 work, but how does this fit into European historiography? And how does it call us to go further with European history?

There is much celebrate and much to frustrate in The Europe Illusion. As someone who bought it on something of a whim, thinking what I held in my hands would be a discussion on the issues of Europeanism, I was initially a bit disappointed. In actuality, the book is an exploration of European integration in a far longer view than what has been the historiographical norm, trailing off gradually from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. This account is centred around the historical regions of Britain, France and Germany, with Sweeney viewing them as the three (late) great powers of the European Union, and the main drivers, historically, of integration in various competing forms and systems of the political, economic, diplomatic and intellectual kind. Sweeney’s work certainly makes up for the somewhat deceptive title. Its commitment to historicising Brexit, as part of a long tradition of British semi-detachment from Europe, one which should not act under false illusions that the continent can be ignored, is laudable and a mildly reassuring perspective for the insular state’s uncertain future.

That said, it is difficult to escape the sense that this long durée is a bit overdone, at the risk of over-historicising more recent trajectories into quasi-eternal truths, all the while appearing too narrow and presentist. Sweeney traces the origins of the history of European integration back to the Holy Roman Empire as a structure consisting of varying regions. This is something of a Europeanist trope, one which certain historians think little of, see for example Peter H. Wilson’s Heart of Europe. Sweeney’s career as a modernist economic historian shines through clearly in his stimulating discussion of the expansion of customs unions like the German Zollverein or the gold standard as forces of economic, and hence political, integration. However, the tell of his modernist stance is made detrimental in his rather uncritical use of the term Feudalism (the F word), reduced here to its vulgar use as a synonym for the European Middle Ages. As a result, it is difficult to ignore the impression that Sweeney would have been better off by starting his project in 1648, where the account properly starts. Despite this, his inspiring call to historicise our understanding of the labyrinthian processes that Brexit unleashed, and certainly will maintain, is a good one, even as he drags such a process farther into the past than necessary, into territory he seems too unfamiliar with to make judgements of comparable weight.

A similar critique could be made about the integrity of the three regions framework. Those three are under the gaze due to their contemporary status and importance, which is only an issue in that it implies the inevitability of this relationship in the past. Sweeney seems to be aware of this tension, but unable to deal with it adequately. He remarks that Russia at times took on the status as the fourth power yet was left out of the limelight. Comparable concerns could be raised regarding his lack of discussion on the recent rise of Atlanticism as a region of historical gravity and study. A teleology takes form as a result, where competing European integration by the big three appears as an eternal historical current, which is something of a shame. It seems at a certain stage historicism degenerates into determinism.

Moreover, the question of the United Kingdom as an historical entity is also conspicuously little discussed, the author’s careful analysis of unionism in Europe being almost entirely absent for the insular case. For a discussion that is intended to shine a light on the United Kingdom’s future, it seems rather disinterested in the actual kingdom in question. This is most evident from Sweeney’s depiction of a rather seamless continuity from England to Britain following the Act of Union of 1707. While enlightenment Scotland is given its due praise for its contributions to political economy and philosophy, the country is hardly given consideration as an agent of its own – with its last mention being when discussing the resemblance between the British union and German reunification, where the larger party incorporated the smaller. This section is perhaps the most striking example of the author’s reaching historicism, not to mention teleological implication. The prominent argument that arises from this is the idea that the European Union will remain durable under its remaining great powers for the foreseeable future. As a result, message of the work loses some of its impact. Whether a potentially independent Scotland, or Wales for that matter, re-joins the EU or not, it fails to ask if Britain is not also an illusion.

Lastly, both of the aforementioned problems appear more luminous in comparison with recent other work, in this case, Perry Anderson’s most recent contribution to the New Left Review, ‘Ukania Perpetua’ (2020) serves as a useful, if tangential, companion. Anderson, using a discussion of the journal’s writing on ‘Ukania’, Tom Nairn’s term for the entity that was never quite a nation-state and no longer an empire, as means to reflect on its current position, reaches quite a similar viewpoint. He also finds that the state’s role in Europe will remain essentially the same, though in a more precarious and uncertain position in its role as the increasingly redundant bridge between a centralising European Union and the United States. This analysis is also distinctly historicist, in the strongly Marxist tradition of radical historicism, but it is strikingly much more focused on the contemporary. He argues that ‘Ukania’’s early industrialisation and early revolutionary experiments formed a challenging situation of economic decline for the leadership for much of the post-war era, in which Thatcherism eventually emerged as one possible, albeit drastic, shock out of the stalemate. The Scottish problem is also discussed thoroughly, as regional nationalism emerging out of neglect and the end of imperial glory and revenue – even if Anderson remains sceptical of the extent it managed to break out in the end. On the whole, it is certainly a less ambitious analysis, but it treads on a sounder ground and is perhaps more useful to the reader for navigating the future of the Isles.   

This is not to demean The Europe Illusion. It is a book whose scale and ambition, a global analysis of complicated and interlocking phenomena, makes a stimulating read. Indeed, even its faults call one to go beyond it, layering on its rich foundation, or tearing it down, now with a clearer eye of what should be in its place. As a piece on Europeanism, in the end, it certainly does not disappoint. It unflinchingly presents an entity with a long history that must not be ignored but instead approached and confronted.

Written by Inge Erdal


Anderson, Perry, ‘Ukania Perpetua’, New Left Review 125 (2020), 35-107.

Sweeney, Stuart, The Europe Illusion: Britain, France, Germany and the Long History of European Integration (London: Reaktion Books, 2019).

Wilson, Peter H., The Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).

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