Conference 2016

'United Europe'

The annual Cambridge History Forum conference took place on Saturday 5th March at Selwyn College. The conference addressed the very topical issue of ‘United Europe?’ and the three lectures looked at ‘Reformation Diplomacy: Henry VIII and his Ambassadors’, ‘Napoleon and the destruction of Europe’ and ‘The European Union and the ‘Democratic Deficit’: is there one, how did it arise and can anything be done about it?’ The lectures were then followed by a forum discussion with all three speakers taking part.

Dr. Susan Brigden of Lincoln College, Oxford gave the first lecture on Reformation diplomacy and the role of ambassadors. Dr. Brigden began her lecture by observing that many people in the sixteenth century were still thinking in the same way as they had done before the Reformation. Previously the Ottoman Empire had been the major threat to Christendom and Charles V wanted to lead a crusade against them. As the Reformation progressed and religious divisions and dynastic rivalries developed, the question occupying Christendom was whether the threat was from the enemy without or the enemy within. Dr. Brigden also observed that there were rivalries between Catholic leaders such as the monarchs of France and Spain, each trying to prove that they were more committed to the Catholic cause than the other. Diplomacy was usually carried out by ambassadors rather than directly between the rulers and this was a cause of further divisions, as although the ambassadors were there to create friendships, they also spied on each other. Henry VIII’s split from the Catholic Church led to violence in England, but his rapprochement with the German Protestant princes in 1537-38 brings a real threat to the Papacy and the Pope summons the Catholic princes into a holy war against England in 1538. England faced the danger of invasion and the English ambassadors abroad were not safe. The key to England’s safety were the divisions that existed amongst the Catholic princes in Europe, thereby reducing the risk of an invasion. There was, however, an increased risk once France and Spain made peace. Henry VIII attempted to make alliances with Charles V, but Charles’ allegiance to the Pope remained the ‘stumbling block’ in their negotiations. Ambassadors had to follow Machiavellian principles and Henry VIII did not trust many of them fearing that they were secretly working for the Papacy, although when English Ambassadors were denied access to the papal nuncios they were denied their best sources of information making Reformation diplomacy harder still.

The second lecture was given by Professor Tim Blanning of Sidney Sussex College on Napoleon and the destruction of Europe. Professor Blanning divided his lecture into three sections examining Napoleon’s destruction of the Holy Roman Empire, his contribution to the rise of German nationalism and Napoleon’s invention of a new style of politics. Professor Blanning began by observing that the Holy Roman Empire had been a ‘benign political structure’ which was fragmented, but that it had brought considerable benefits in that it had kept the centre of Europe ‘soft’ for 1000 years. Napoleon destroyed this when he created the Confederation of the Rhine in 1812 and put members of his family in positions of power to control or make alliances with various states and regions. When Napoleon’s Empire did eventually collapse there was no way for the peacemakers to reconstruct the Holy Roman Empire, something that Professor Blanning described as ‘the greatest own goal in History’. Napoleon’s contribution to the rise of German nationalism came about as a result of the endless humiliation that he inflicted on his enemies and this led to the growth of a Francophobe nationalism. Napoleon looted the German states and the Prussians exerted themselves against France between 1813 and 1815. Long after Napoleon’s death this German nationalism continued to develop, being linked to the revolutionary movements which feared that the French would invade the Rhine in the 1840s.

Professor Blanning then turned to Napoleon’s invention of a new style of politics and he looked at Weber’s three types of legitimate rule: traditional, legal and charismatic. He looked at the propaganda that surrounded Napoleon’s regime through the various paintings that were produced during his rule, as well as afterwards and structures such as the Arc de Triomphe, the size of which reflects Napoleon’s own overinflated view of his regime. Professor Blanning’s informative and entertaining lecture left no room for doubt in the minds of his audience as to his view of Napoleon and his impact on Europe.

The final lecture was given by former President of the Cambridge History Forum, Professor Jonathan Steinberg on the European Union and the ‘Democratic Deficit’. Professor Steinberg began by recognising the reality that the European Union is a federation of states, but at the same time it has a huge amount of executive power. The origins of the union can be found in the early 1950s when the original institutions were set up, the memories of World War II were still strong and the European recovery was slow. There were two stages to the development. The first was the customs union that created the free trade zone of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg and, secondly, the project proposed by Robert Schuman to unite the coal and steel industries of France and Germany under one authority. It was then hoped by many that this would ultimately turn into a United States of Europe. The European Coal and Steel Community subsequently admitted Italy and the Benelux countries, creating a new coalition which was based on the idea of a supranational organisation. Professor Steinberg said that from the inception of the union the issue of what right the Commission had to make rules was present. He then went on to examine the different institutions of the European Union and looked at their role and their legitimacy. Professor Steinberg noted how the combination of the two original aims created a structure which has become the present European Union: it is both a common market and an international government. Professor Steinberg concluded by saying that the European Union is now facing its greatest crisis and noted that the European Union had grown out of the idea of preventing war and that Europeans would be safer in a larger group, but he questioned whether or not this is what Europeans actually want.

A panel discussion concluded another successful conference, with all three speakers taking questions reflecting on the Europe of the past, as well as the Europe of today. Once again a range of schools were represented at the conference and discussion about the lectures carried on over the buffet lunch which followed.