Voices from sociology have been extremely muted in the public debate about Europe and Britain’s place in it. Commentaries are dominated by politics, economics and law. Important sociological contributions on the nature of European society have not been conspicuous in the arguments around Brexit. I maintain that the conversation about Europe needs the collective wisdom of sociology and we have to meet the challenge of explaining the development of integration in Europe as well as how Britain arrived at the impasse of March 2019.

Sociological writing has often traced the story of Britain and the EU in terms of the seeds of exceptionalism, separatism and distrust that were planted well before the UK’s accession to the EEC. While this narrative provides essential perspective, it is timely to look back at another historic turning point in the development of the EU (then EC) to see what sociologists were thinking and saying. In 1992, preparations were concluded for the Single European Market to allow the free movement of goods, services, capital and people from 1st January 1993. Germany was progressing with reunification. The dissolution of the USSR had occurred the previous year and the former satellite states in eastern Europe were participating in a framework for cooperation and eventual accession to the EU.

The organisers of the 1992 BSA Annual Conference[i], held at the University of Kent, seized the opportunity to focus on these changes and their implications for sociology. The question mark in the title ‘A New Europe?’ was intended to bring a dose of scepticism to the vision of a united, peaceful and prosperous continent. It proved to be justified. By the time the conference volumes were published[ii], war had spread throughout former Yugoslavia, the Maastricht Treaty was ratified but only after popular dissent, and Britain had crashed out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism. The key themes of the conference were framed by plenaries from sociologists Alain Touraine and Rainer Lepsius, from France and Germany respectively.

Touraine’s contribution seems very contemporary: for example, when he points out that to speak of Europe is an indirect way of speaking about something else – typically our nation states. His argument focused on the growing distance between the globalised economic system and the worlds of actors, their local roots and identities. Historically, nation states in Europe were the means to hold them together and to help reconcile economic, social and cultural claims. There was a degree of alignment between the roles of worker, citizen and member of society. In a post-national era, Touraine says, this cannot be and it is hopeless to aim for it. Pursuing this idea of divergence between system and actors, he posed alternative scenarios: Europe as a continent of decaying nation states and ‘desperado nationalism’, or an area of new institutional mediations between markets and identities. Rejecting a sole focus on economic integration, he suggested that increasing political integration is required, but not in a federal or confederal form.  The main task is to invent new forms of social and cultural integration to build a European decision-making capacity. It was a call to apply the sociological imagination to this enlarged economic and social space and consider how individual and collective actors might become more engaged.

Touraine’s warnings about the future are prescient and could have been written yesterday in the context of Brexit. He identifies the two most difficult problems for European integration. The first is ‘aggressive nationalistic rejection of processes of change that are interpreted as external threats’ (immigrants, loss of national identity, loss of control). The second is the crisis of representative democracy, of the capacity of political institutions and parties to represent social demands and to transform them into social programmes. It is striking how these problems still present themselves as the key issues.

In his plenary, Rainer Lepsius acknowledged the unprecedented success of inter-governmental cooperation and institution-building in the European Community. His account is based in a Weberian understanding of rationalization and he asks: what spheres of life do we want to become rationalized and under what criteria? Economic rationalization in the form of the Single Market builds on universal criteria of efficiency that transcend national differences and lead to an effective common system of regulation. Lepsius then asks how far rationalization can go, in other areas where the criteria do not converge for a variety of political, social and cultural reasons. For him, the European integration project is about regime-building and institutionalization of the criteria for rationality and he warns of the strains and conflicts this is likely to bring. Echoing Touraine, he says that the design of European institutions needs to provide for mediating capacities and mediating procedures in areas of social and cultural conflict – which will not be achieved by simply trying to replicate the parliamentary systems of the nation states.

The 1992 conference was inspired by the idea that a unique social experiment was taking place, especially in the transformation of eastern Europe. Sociology would need to expand its horizons. It would need to re-apply concepts of civil society, democracy, trust, social cohesion and political integration that had been developed mainly in the context of nation states. And it would need to work with partners across Europe. Since then, sociologists working in Britain and with colleagues elsewhere in Europe have made great contributions to critical understanding of European issues through social theory as well as empirical research. They have addressed fundamental questions with insight and skill. This retrospective glance suggests that we are guardians of important messages. But have we done enough to write, speak and communicate it beyond our ‘expert’ circles? We will soon know if we are condemned to be detached observers of the important ongoing work of international regime-building in continental Europe.

[i] The members of the organising committee were Chris Rootes, Phil Brown, Rosemary Crompton, Howard Davis and Christel Lane.

[ii] Rootes, Chris and Davis, Howard eds.  1994 A New Europe? Social Change and Transformation  London: UCL Press; Crompton, Rosemary and Brown, Phil eds. 1994 A New Europe? Economic Restructuring and Social Exclusion London: UCL Press