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The Birth of the European Institute at LSE: A Tale of Two Histories

By Professor Simon Glendinning

The EI has become the place to engage in research, study and public discussion about Europe in the world. As one of our students puts it in the EI’s 30th Anniversary video, it is so special because it is "alive" to "what is actually happening".


In the academic year 1991-92 the European Institute at LSE opened its doors to its first cohort of students. My colleagues Nick Barr and Kevin Featherstone tell the story of how the Institute was instituted, and about what it has done since, in the two companion pieces to this one. But there is another story to be told as well: about why what it has done matters – and will continue to do so. This other story is about what was happening in the European world into which the EI came to be. It is, as we shall see, a story of two stories, two histories that belong to Europe’s reconstruction out of the rubble of the Second World War, the second terrible world war of European origin.

The European Institute came into existence at the point of crossing of two extraordinary European histories, one marking an end, the other marking a beginning: the end of the Stalinist tyranny in the East, and the beginnings of the European Union in the West. What follows is a tale of two European histories as they came together in one city – in London, and at the LSE.


My first step back to the post-War period takes us into a Europe which the German philosopher Martin Heidegger had already described in the 1930s as “caught in the pincers” of the USA and USSR. Heidegger’s image of two great powers encroaching on Europe resonated only more strongly as the Cold War began to frame the geopolitics of the post-War world. Indeed, we tend still today to think of the Cold War as, fundamentally, a “superpower” conflict. Looked at in this way the Cold War is something that befell Europe in the struggle for domination by two rivalrous camps. And not just Europe of course. No doubt because it was both “cold” and “nuclear” it could become genuinely global. Literally every country on earth – and every man and woman on the planet – was caught up in it. And it was as distinctive in its temporal phase as it was in its spatial reach. It lasted at least forty years, four times as long as the two World Wars put together. Indeed, it would be naïve to think that it is not still lurking in the twenty-first century too. While there is some justification for saying that the Cold War came to an end in 1989, regarding a war that was in itself spectral, its historical ends are not like a wall going up when the Wall came down, marking a time before and time after. The phase of its conflict has other rhythms and survivals.

Yet despite its planetary reach, the Cold War was arguably more intense in Europe than anywhere else, being defined by circumstances, events and especially ideas of European origin. Two geographically non-European superpowers fought it, but geographical Europe was in some way its centre. Moreover, while the Cold War can look like a face-off between two independent and external powers, for Europe it was also a profoundly internal division. We tend to forget it, but Winston Churchill’s famous “iron curtain” speech in 1946 was not only about the “front” of two confronting powers but also, perhaps above all, a description of the division of old Europe:

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in some cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow. Athens alone – Greece with its immortal glories – is free to decide its future at an election under British, American and French observation. The Russian-dominated Polish Government has been encouraged to make enormous and wrongful inroads upon Germany, and mass expulsions of millions of Germans on a scale grievous and undreamed-of are now taking place. The Communist parties, which were very small in all these Eastern States of Europe, have been raised to pre-eminence and power far beyond their numbers and are seeking everywhere to obtain totalitarian control. Police governments are prevailing in nearly every case, and so far, except in Czechoslovakia, there is no true democracy. (Churchill, from his speech “The Sinews of Peace” given at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, March 5, 1946)

“True democracy” – by which he simply meant a regime in which the government is selected by an open electoral contest (“democracy” was famously “the worst” form of government for Churchill, “except for all the others”) – would not last long in Czechoslovakia either, and aspirations there to wrest independence from “control from Moscow” were altogether smashed in 1968. But Central and Eastern Europe had to wait until the collapse of the Soviet empire in the last years of the 1980s before we saw the lifting of the iron curtain and the fall-of-the-Berlin-Wall event that marked the end of Stalinist communism in Europe.


On November 4th 1989, half a million people marched in East Berlin to demand freedom of the press and freedom to travel. A plan was drawn up by the Communist Party leadership in the GDR for a new travel law that would allow free movement to all countries, with the State using passports and exit visas to control the flow. At 6pm on November 9th the daily press conference took place to announce the Party’s decisions. Journalist Daniel Johnson, at that time a very young reporter for The Daily Telegraph and who had flown in to Berlin the day before, remembers the occasion:

We all trooped into a dreary hall at the international press centre in the Motzstrasse. The central committee spokesman was Günter Schabowski, the East Berlin party boss, who spoke for nearly an hour on live television. Most of the questions came from tame East German journalists and the wait for a chance to get the microphone was almost unbearable. It seemed like a non-event.

However, in the last seven minutes questions started to be asked from foreign correspondents about the draft travel law. It was clear that passport and visa offices had already been told about the proposed changes, and that they would be implemented “without delay”. A flustered Schabowski accepted that this meant “immediately”. At 6.58pm “a painfully thin, anxious young man in a slightly fogeyish three-piece tweed suit rose to his feet, microphone in hand”, and Daniel Johnson asked what he took to be “the most obvious question that came to mind”:

Herr Schabowski, was wird mit der Berliner Mauer jetzt geschehen?” [“Mr Schabowski, what will happen to the Berlin Wall now?”] Hundreds of thousands of Germans on both sides of the Wall were watching: they wanted the answer, too. Schabowski looked nonplussed. He announced that this would be the last question. He repeated my question to himself, adding that “the permeability of the Wall from our side does not yet and exclusively resolve the question of the meaning of this fortified state border of the DDR”. It was somehow very German to ruminate at such a moment on the meaning of the Berlin Wall. But there was the rub. Now that I had used the fatal words “Berlin Wall”, Schabowski could have seized the opportunity to make it clear that there was no question of opening the Wall that night. He could have explained what its rationale would be, now that people would no longer be shot for attempting to cross it. Instead, he hesitated. He stumbled over his words. He waffled about peace and disarmament for two of the longest minutes of his life. But he did not answer the question, because he had no answer. A wall between two halves of a country could have no “meaning” if the people were allowed to travel freely. It was over.

Hundreds gathered at the Wall that evening, and began climbing it, dancing on it, and hacking great chunks out of it. They breached it from the eastern side – met with hugs and cheers from their fellow Germans on the western side. Shortly before midnight, somewhere in the chaos, a young East German, Angela Merkel, made it through the Bornholmer crossing. The division of Berlin, the division of Germany, the division of Europe, the divided world of the Cold War, it was all but over.


Now to the second European story. If we step back in time again to the immediately post-War European world, we can see another Europe-centred event beginning to unfold: not the looming divisions of the Cold War, but the possibility of Perpetual Peace promised by the idea of a united Europe. That idea was not new: it had been wandering around Europe since the 1700s, perhaps especially in the writings on cosmopolitan hope by the philosopher Immanuel Kant who predicted “a few centuries from now” the formation of a federation of free states in Europe, “a great political body of the future without precedence in the past”, a specifically pacific federation. In post-War Europe this cosmopolitan hope suddenly found a new lease of life.

At that time self-consciously “rational” and “modern” political thinking cleaved to the idea that world peace could be secured not through a Kantian federation of nations but only through the institution of a “world government”. A major step on the way to such an end was the ambition “to create a kind of United States of Europe”, as Winston Churchill put it in a speech at Zurich University, again in 1946. This was a “grouping” of nations which Churchill did not at that time think Britain would be part of.

The nation-state – and the nationalism and xenophobia it cultivated – was increasingly regarded as an inherently pathological and irrational formation, tailor-made for war and international rivalry. A rationally designed federal government in Europe, a kind of European super-state, would be able to achieve a more politically advanced and pacific alternative: replacing the particularistic and typically antagonistic politics of national self-interest with a more promisingly peaceful politics formed around the objective interest of the whole. Fusion of national interests into a single European interest would replace national rivalry in Europe once and for all. It is in that context, and in those terms, that the ambition to achieve “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe” most often made its way among those closest to the institutions of its practical development. It was the fervent conviction of the founders of “the project” that the cosmopolitan aim of cultivating conditions of mutual understanding and respect between the peoples of Europe ultimately required developing the institutional architecture of a European political body with the state-like power of a federal government, and not just, as Kant had proposed, a pacific federation of states. It was the developing design of that supranational state-like institution that was often to the fore in discussing European developments.

While it was not an organization that served as a building block of the future European Union, Churchill’s call for the formation of “a Council of Europe”, which was inaugurated in 1949, was one of its spiritual ancestors. The Council of Europe was an initiative that Britain supported and participated in, and the characteristic hope “to achieve a greater unity” among the peoples of Europe was already clear, even if the institutional means to that end remained open:

Article 1a. The aim of the Council of Europe is to achieve a greater unity between its Members for the purpose of safeguarding and realizing the ideals and principles which are their common heritage and facilitating their economic and social progress. (Statute of the Council of Europe, London, 5th May 1949)

Under the guidance of the French diplomat Jean Monnet it was, however, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), inaugurated in 1951, and not the Council of Europe that took up the creative effort “to achieve a greater unity” through what was initially expected to be a rapid institutional development towards “a kind of United States of Europe”. The preamble of the treaty that forged the ECSC gives clear expression to that effort, and to a distinctively political sense of the unity it aimed to realise. Britain did not take part in the initiative.

CONSIDERING that world peace may be safeguarded only by creative efforts equal to the dangers which menace it; CONVINCED that the contribution which an organized and vital Europe can bring to civilization is indispensable to the maintenance of peaceful relations; CONSCIOUS of the fact that Europe can be built only by concrete actions which create a real solidarity and by the establishment of common bases for economic development; DESIROUS of assisting through the expansion of their basic production in raising the standard of living and in furthering the works of peace; RESOLVED to substitute for historic rivalries a fusion of their essential interests; to establish, by creating an economic community, the foundation of a broad and independent community among peoples long divided by bloody conflicts; and to lay the bases of institutions capable of giving direction to their future common destiny. (The Treaty of Paris, 1951)

The “High Authority” that would become the “Commission” under the Treaty of Rome in 1957, formed the first and, frankly, most frank institutional expression of the ambitions of this treaty: a supranational high authority intended to lead the construction of an economic union as a transitional phase on the road to a new political union. Indeed, the Commission was a supranational body aiming to create economic and political union. The words of the preamble of the Treaty of Paris show very clearly that the creation of an economic community had always been conceived as a stage on the way to substituting  government in the national interest with “institutions capable of giving direction” to the European peoples conceived as a community whose interests had fused into one.

The beautiful vague words on “ever closer union” were first introduced in the Treaty of Rome in 1957, officially the Treaty establishing the European Economic Community (EEC), stressing the cosmopolitical objectives of economic integration. The supranational, institutional conditions thought necessary to the attainment of those objectives were understood as likely to develop in a step-by-step “neo-functionalist” way, where integration in specific sectors would lead more or less inevitably to further such developments in other sectors, the historical role of nation-states in those sectors being successively taken up by the supranational body in that process.


An economically flat-lining UK began to turn to Europe at the start of the 1960s, but was twice thwarted in its bid to join by a French veto. President Charles de Gaulle’s concern that a Britain too closely aligned to the United States was ill-suited to a pan-European project proved to be the major stumbling block. However, on the basis of its second application, which had not been formally withdrawn, Britain finally joined the EEC in 1973, following de Gaulle’s departure from office in 1969, joining at that time along with Denmark and Ireland.

It was only two years later that the incoming Labour government offered Britain its first ever referendum on the question of continued membership. The Government’s own information pamphlet recommended that voters support “staying in the Community”. The pamphlet was explicit that the aims of integration went beyond the promise of national economic advantages, and included the cosmopolitical virtues of a pacific union. The ongoing transfer of competences to the supranational level which those closest to “the project” hoped to see was not, however, on the list of aims (

The aims of the Common Market are:

  • To bring together the peoples of Europe.

  • To raise living standards and improve working conditions.

  • To promote growth and boost world trade.

  • To help the poorest regions of Europe and the rest of the world.

  • To help maintain peace and freedom.

The “Yes” campaign was strongly supported by Prime Minister Harold Wilson, but without the backing of his own party, which had roundly rejected continuing membership in a special conference vote before the 1975 referendum. It was also supported by the new Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher, and the Liberal leader Jeremey Thorpe. Both the Labour and Conservative parties were already split on the question, the former far more so than the latter at that time. Labour “No” campaigners were largely from the left of the party (represented most notably by Tony Benn), Tory “No” campaigners largely from the right (represented most notably by Enoch Powell). But the majority of the leading parliamentary figures in both parties supported continuing membership, as did the large circulation national newspapers and Britain’s business leaders. The referendum went decisively in favour of remaining. Britain stayed in, at least for a while.


The first institutions of European union emerged in the wake of two terrible world wars of European origin. As we have seen, however, this was also the period of European division that marked the Cold War. In Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s most strikingly pro-European speech, “The Bruges Speech”, delivered in 1988, it was the latter that was to the fore. Anticipating surprise among some of her audience, she insistently affirmed that “our [Britain’s] destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community”, but she went on even more strongly to recall that still only part of Europe was part of that Community:

The European Community is one manifestation of that European identity, but it is not the only one. We must never forget that east of the Iron Curtain, people who once enjoyed a full share of European culture, freedom and identity have been cut off from their roots. We shall always look on Warsaw, Prague, Budapest as great European cities. (Thatcher, speech to the College of Europe, “The Bruges Speech”, September 20, 1988)

Thatcher, like Churchill in his call for “a kind of United States of Europe” in 1946, emphasised the geopolitical significance of the (by then) European Community (EC), and its role in ensuring “prosperity and security” for Europeans “in a world in which there are many other powerful nations and groups of nations”. For Thatcher in the 1980s, such a project was more clearly framed by the contemporary circumstances of the Cold War rather than, as it had been for Churchill, the memory of World Wars. Seventeen years later, Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking to the European Parliament in 2005, not only distanced himself from Thatcher’s “market philosophy”, he also framed the historic opportunity for those European countries that had suffered under Soviet domination and totalitarian conditions differently than Thatcher. Like Thatcher he argued that “enlargement” of the (by then) European Union (EU) to include the (by then) post-communist Central and Eastern European countries was an issue for the EU’s “economy” and “security”. However, the political significance of this geopolitical development had shifted again. European integration was no longer a post-War or even Cold War security project, but a politically progressive one: the “extraordinary historic opportunity” offered by enlargement belonged, Blair said, to a politics forged “in the traditions of European idealism”, standing squarely against “outdated nationalism and xenophobia” (Blair, speech to the European Parliament, June 23, 2005).

Coming from a European country whose semi-detached position seems to have been its only European constant, it is perhaps ironic that leading British politicians of this period – Churchill, Thatcher, Blair – all argued that the major problems facing Europe in their time were not about institutional “principles or conceptions” (Churchill), or questions calling for “arcane institutional debates” (Thatcher), or constitutional “subtleties and complexities” (Blair). In a time of “ruin” and “despair” (Churchill), “a time of change and uncertainty” (Thatcher), a time of “profound upheaval” (Blair), the question of Europe’s heading was, they all argued, not only economic or institutional, but first of all political and geopolitical. Moreover, for them, advancing the project of European co-operation was not about making use of difficult political circumstances to announce the necessity of further neo-functionalist developments, but, in the face of such circumstances, to make the case for a political choice in favour of Europe – thus requiring from Europe’s national representatives, above all, “moral leadership” (Churchill), “political courage” (Thatcher, twice), “political leadership” (Blair).

In what will never be an affectively forceful expression, Blair emphasised that the decisive political leadership needed in Europe should be from “moderate people”. He meant this to contrast with the politics of Nazi, fascist, and socialist totalitarianisms which had cast such a shadow over Europe during the twentieth century. The Europe of nations had created circumstances in which “extremes gain traction”. Blair saw the European Union as a union of “values” and “solidarity between nations”, a “common political space” and “not just a common market”; a union in which a “social Europe” and an “economic Europe” would mutually sustain each other, and prevent a descent back into political chaos.


It is sometimes suggested that Britain only ever wanted to belong to an economic community, and that perception is not wholly unwarranted. However, with Churchill, Thatcher and Blair one can also see an underlying commitment to a (variously understood) political and geopolitical project. One could, of course, follow Hitler in thinking that the British approach to Europe is merely a (what might now be called) neoliberal attempt to further what he called “the so-called peaceful conquest of the world by commercial means”, an attempt that aims in reality only “at the consolidation of British world hegemony”. But if Churchill’s call in 1946 for a united Europe that could overcome “that series of frightful nationalistic quarrels”, if his hope that Europeans “in so many ancient states and nations” might be spared the tragedy of “tearing each other to pieces”, if his dream of building a political body in Europe “under which it can dwell in peace”, if all that was a call for British world hegemony (or even just “the happiness of England” to use Friedrich Nietzsche’s expression), and not an attempt to rescue Europe from its own bloody history, one has to take one’s leave of the conversation. The vision of what Thatcher called the “willing and active cooperation between independent sovereign states” striving “to speak with a single voice”, to pool or share sovereignty where things can be done “better together than alone”, the vision of what Blair called “a union of values, of solidarity between nations and people”, may be the typically British view of what is good for Europe, but it is also, I believe, in good part good.


The speeches by this British trio of politicians – Churchill, Thatcher, Blair – gives a fair sense of the shifting geopolitical sands across the immediately-post-War, Cold War, and then post-Cold War contexts. However, that simplified timeline overlooks another political trio: Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who prepared the ground for joining in the 1960s, Prime Minister Edward Heath who took the UK into the EEC in 1973, and Prime Minister John Major who achieved a hard-won parliamentary majority for the Treaty of Maastricht, which brought the EU into being, in 1992. All three were just as keen as Churchill, Thatcher and Blair to stress the political virtues of European integration, and not just for its economic benefits. Wilson, speaking to the House of Commons in the run up to the second (at that time rejected) application to join the EEC in 1967, insisted that

whatever the economic arguments, the House will realise that, as I have repeatedly made clear, the Government's purpose derives, above all, from our recognition that Europe is now faced with the opportunity of a great move forward in political unity and that we can – and indeed must – play our full part in it. We do not see European unity as something narrow or inward-looking…Together we can ensure that Europe plays in world affairs the part which the Europe of today is not at present playing. (Wilson, House of Commons Speech, 1967).

Heath too saw in the EEC the possibility of “an end to divisions which have stricken Europe for centuries” (Edward Heath, “Brussels Speech”, 1972), and still in the time of the Cold War stressed, like Thatcher after him, that this division was not over: “’Europe’ is more than Western Europe alone. There lies also to the east another part of our continent: countries whose history has been closely linked with our own”. Twenty years later, in 1992, as he fought for a parliamentary majority to support the signing of the Treaty of Maastricht, John Major welcomed the possibility of “embracing the new democracies of the East”, emphasising above all that “the most far-reaching, the most profound reason for working together in Europe…is peace” (John Major, Conservative Party Conference Speech, 1992).

As the Soviet empire collapsed, as the Wall came down and the Curtain was raised, Europe was for the first time in a generation, seeking to reunite. President of the French Republic, François Mitterrand, will have spoken for many Europeans when he saw “Europe returning to its history and its geography like one who was returning home [chez soi]”.

In this extraordinary time, as this history of two histories was flowing through Europe in an increasingly single channel, what was happening in this new old European home? What was appearing again on the world stage, this stage of geopolitics as never before? What was happening in Europe – in its political economy, as the Central and Eastern countries began a process of transition? What was happening in Europe – in its politics, as new and unprecedented European institutions began to appear on its horizon? What was happening in Europe – in its identity, as the Europe of nations was becoming, increasingly, the Europe of Member States of their own pacific union? Where, when so much was happening as we reached the closing decade of the twentieth century that so intimately affected a Europe that Britain was now so intimately part of, where might we turn for answers?


It was then, in the academic year 1991/2, that the old “MSc in European Studies” degree offered by the Government Department at the LSE was taken over by a new academic unit: the European Institute was born. And as the EU has taken shape over the last thirty years, so has the LSE’s European Institute; tracking Europe’s economic developments, exploring its major political events, and investigating its historic and still-transforming cultural identity, following, at every stage, the sometimes bumpy ride of what Jürgen Habermas has called “Europe’s faltering project”.

Faltering – but not altogether failing in its efforts to realise the great cosmopolitan hopes that had inspired its history. In 2012, as many citizens and nations in the European Union struggled in conditions of economic insecurity and austerity, the European Union itself received a Nobel Peace Prize for a result that at least recognised its past achievements, even if it seemed at the time at odds with its precarious present: awarded for “the successful struggle for peace and reconciliation and for democracy and human rights”. And yet, the central institutional expressions of this success – the European Parliament (established in 1951 but only becoming a directly-elected body in 1979), European Citizenship (established with the Union name in 1993) and a European Single Currency, the Euro, (established in 2002) – are not only still experiencing problems today, but belong to a trajectory in which “peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights” have not been finally won, or even nearly so. Europe today can sometimes seem threatened by the very developments which would mark its success, its great political project without precedence in the past often lurching from crisis to crisis.

The referendum on EU membership in the UK in 2016 even led some to think that “Brexit” would be the beginning of the end of the project: that the EU would fall off a cliff, with other exit-variants to follow Britain’s leap into the dark. Such a collapse is not on the cards. The history of the post-War European political institutions is short, but the history of the promise of European unity is long, and far more resilient than the (sometimes surprisingly resilient) institutions that belong to its current formation. There will be no going back to the fraught environment of a Europe of hostile national rivalries. But if Kant was right, and I think he was, then a United Europe of Nations and not a United States of Europe still remains the most likely long-term future for this old place, the homeland of the homelands of “we, the Europeans” – perhaps with the old nations of the United Kingdom (whether or not they are, by then, still united or not) in one way or another, one day, re-joining the fold it had such a distinctive if – especially for those dreaming of the federalist end – often disruptive hand in creating. And in the European Institute at LSE, we will still be studying it; from Brexit and COVID-19 and beyond, seeking to understand its culture, its politics, and its economics. Like a department of “European PPE”, the EI has become the place to engage in research, study and public discussion about Europe in the world. As one of our students puts it in the EI’s 30th Anniversary video, it is so special because it is “alive” to “what is actually happening”. It was born from what was actually happening in Europe, and from its beginnings that ambition to understand our time and, in this way, to inform our future has been its constant and central mission. Today, exploring Europe and the EU in London, from our unique position of semi-detached “insider outsiders”, it is still the place to be. Happy Anniversary EI.

About the author:


Professor Simon Glendinning is the Head of the European Institute and Professor in European Philosophy.

His researches focus on investigating European Identities. There are different approaches to the question of "European identity", but he is attracted to a conception which denies that there is anything that we can simply call "Europe as such" or "Europe in general" at all. 

Read more about Professor Simon Glendinning at this link.