European integration began in 1951. Ilyin died only three years later. Like the Russian thinkers and leaders who revived him a half century later, he never took European integration seriously. He preserved his Manichean view of politics until the end: Russian empire meant salvation, and all other regimes marked various points on the slippery slope to Satanism. When Ilyin looked at postwar Europe he saw Spain and Portugal, maritime empires governed by right-wing dictators. He believed that Francisco Franco and António de Oliveira Salazar had preserved the fascist legacy and would reconstitute the European fascist norm. In postwar Britain and France, Ilyin saw empires rather than a constitutional monarchy and a republic, and presumed that the imperial element was the durable one.
If European states were empires, wrote Ilyin, it was natural that Russia was one and should remain one. Empire was the natural state of affairs; fascist empires would be most successful; Russia would be the perfect fascist empire.
In the half century between Ilyin’s death and his rehabilitation, a Europe of integration replaced the Europe of empire. Germany began the pattern. Defeated in war and divided thereafter, Germans accepted a proposition from neighboring France, and along with Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Italy established a European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. West Germany’s leaders, Konrad Adenauer in particular, saw that the path to national sovereignty and unification led through European integration. As other European empires also lost their colonial wars and their colonial markets, this project broadened. Even Great Britain, the imperial superpower, joined the undertaking (along with Denmark and Ireland) in 1973. Portugal and Spain set a new pattern of losing colonies, replacing authoritarianism with parliamentary democracy, and then joining the European project (both in 1986). Europe was a soft landing after empire.
By the 1980s, democracy through integration had become the norm in much of Europe. All of the members of what was then called the European Community were democracies, most of them markedly more prosperous than the communist regimes to their east. In the 1970s and 1980s, the gap in living standards between western and eastern Europe grew, as changes in communications made it harder to hide. As Mikhail Gorbachev tried to repair a Soviet state to rescue the Soviet economy, west European states were building a new political framework around economic cooperation. In 1992, a few months after the Soviet Union ceased to exist, the European Community was transformed into the European Union (EU). This EU was the practice of the coordination of law, the acceptance of a shared high court, and an area of free trade and movement. It later became, for most of its members, a zone with a common border and a common currency.
For most of the communist states of eastern Europe, the European Union also proved to be a secure destination after empire, though in a different way. In the 1930s and 1940s, the east European states established after the First World War fell prey to German empire, or to Soviet empire, or to both. After the revolutions of 1989, newly elected leaders of the east European states that emerged from Soviet domination expressed their aspiration to join the European project. This “return to Europe” was a reaction to the lesson of 1918 and 1945: that without some larger structure, the nation-state is untenable. In 1993 the EU began to sign association agreements with east European states, beginning a legal relationship. Three principles of membership were established in the 1990s: market economies able to handle competition; democracy and human rights; and the administrative capacity to implement European laws and regulations.
In 2004 and 2007, seven post-communist states (Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia) and three former Soviet republics (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) joined the European Union. In 2013, Croatia also joined the EU. The kind of small political unit that had failed after 1918 and after 1945 could now endure, because there was a European order to support sovereignty. As of 2013, the EU included the metropoles of the old maritime empires that had disintegrated after the Second World War, as well as the former peripheries of the land empires that had disintegrated during or after the First.
What the EU had not done by 2013 was extend to territory that had been within the original borders of the Soviet Union as established in 1922. In 2013, twenty years after its western neighbors, Ukraine was negotiating an association agreement with the EU. At some later point, Ukrainian membership in the European Union might overcome this final barrier. Ukraine was the axis between the new Europe of integration and the old Europe of empire. Russians who wished to restore empire in the name of Eurasia would begin with Ukraine.
The politics of integration were fundamentally different from the politics of empire. The EU was like an empire in that it was a large economic space. It was unlike an empire in that its organizing principle was equality rather than inequality.
An imperial power does not recognize the political entities that it encounters in what it regards as colonial territories, and so it destroys or subverts them while claiming that they never existed. Europeans in Africa could claim that African political units did not exist, and were not therefore subject to international law. Americans expanding westward could sign treaties with native nations, and then disregard them on the logic that those nations were not sovereign. Germans invading Poland in 1939 argued that the Polish state did not exist; Soviets meeting them in the middle of the country made the exact same argument. Moscow denied the sovereign status of its neighbors when it occupied and annexed Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in 1940, even going so far as to claim that prior service to those states was a crime. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, it denied that it was invading a state, treating the peoples of the Soviet Union as colonial subjects.
Throughout the history of European imperialism, European powers assumed that international law applied to their dealings with European peers—though not to their colonial domains where they accumulated power and wealth. In the Second World War, Europeans applied colonial principles to one another. Postwar integration was a return to the idea that law governed dealings among Europeans, as Europeans lost their colonies in Europe and then around the world. In the EU, treaties were meant to change economics, after which economics would alter politics. Recognition of sovereignty was the condition of the entire enterprise. European integration proceeded from the assumption that state borders were fixed, and that change must proceed within and between states rather than by one invading another. Each member of the EU was supposed to be a rule-of-law state, with integration among them governed by law.
The result by 2013 was a formidable if vulnerable creation. The EU’s economy was larger than that of the United States, larger than that of China, and about eight times larger than that of Russia. With its democratic procedures, welfare states, and environmental protection, the EU offered an alternative model to American, Russian, and Chinese inequality. It included most of the states regarded as the world’s least corrupt. Lacking unified armed forces and convincing institutions of foreign policy, the EU depended upon law and economics for diplomacy as well as internal functioning. Its implicit foreign policy was to persuade leaders and societies who wished for access to European markets to embrace the rule of law and democracy. Citizens of non-member states who wanted European markets or values would pressure governments to negotiate with the EU, and vote out leaders who failed to do so. This seemed to work in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.