“Africa begins at the Pyrenees”: the aphorism often attributed to Alexandre Dumas, which was more recently used in 1959 by Albert Camus, has always horrified the Spanish. If there is one continent with which they do not want to be associated, it is Africa.

In fact, as early as 1898, the year in which Cuba became independent, it was clear that Spain was no longer an empire. For many years thereafter, the Spanish still wondered if Spain could remain culturally dominant in Latin America. Under Franco, the political elite believed that Spain could still impose its authority as a major power, but with the death of Franco in 1975, the illusion of a Spanish world empire also passed away.

‘The last wagon in Europe’

In 1976, the opponents of Franco definitively opted for Europe. Distancing themselves from Spain’s imperial ambitions, they concluded that they ought to join the European Community. As they put it themselves, they preferred a Spain that was “the last wagon in Europe, rather than the locomotive of a Spanish America.”

Accession to Europe was accompanied by the democratisation and modernisation of Spain. The PSOE [Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party] was revived by the prospect of German capital, and the PCE [Spanish Communist Party], which in 1976 was by far the largest workers’ party in the country, succumbed to the charms of "Eurocommunism". The supporters of Franco founded the People’s Party (PP) [currently in power], which enthusiastically embraced liberal democracy.

Railways were built and modernised with the aid of European funds. Catalonia and the Basque country were allowed to develop culturally and economically. The Olympic Village in Barcelona (1992) and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (1997) became the proud symbols of spectacular socio-economic development in the autonomous regions.

Anyone who remembers Spain under Franco cannot fail to be astounded by the political and economic change that has taken place in the country over the last 30 years. The country has benefited from assistance from the EU, but most of its success has been fuelled by a reliance on its own strengths. Spain doubled its GDP in the first 10 years following its accession to the EU, and doubled it again in the decade that followed.

The Dutch alternative

In the same period, the Dutch economy grew considerably, though not as quickly as Spain’s. For the Netherlands too, Europe represented a geo-political alternative to imperial aspirations. Immediately after the World War II, the Netherlands had to contend with Indonesian nationalists’ struggle for independence. The Dutch empire, which extended across the globe, was soon whittled down to minuscule proportions. But astute political leaders had the foresight to see that European collaboration was an alternative for the Netherlands, which, until then, had considered itself to be a “small major power”.

The same is true of Italy, which, after its failed conquest of Ethiopia, was forced to abandon its imperial ambitions, and join “the back of the European train”. Thirty years ago, the country’s political system was dominated by two totally corrupt parties, the Christian Democrats led by Giulio Andreotti and the socialists under Bettino Craxi. Ten years later, in 1994, both of these parties had been deserted by voters. In 1991, the Italian Communist Party (PCI) was transformed into the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), while the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI) became the democratic Alleanza Nazionale [national alliance] in 1995. Thereafter the political landscape was marked by the dramatic rise of the Northern League and Berlusconi's Forza Italia. Miraculously the Italian parliamentary system, which had been imposed by the allies, proved to be stable. And much of its stability along with a considerable proportion of the country’s economic growth can be attributed to European cooperation.

Less corrupt than Andreotti

Berlusconi may well have been corrupt, but in terms of his mafia links, he was nothing on Andreotti and Craxi. The legislation that has served to prosecute Berlusconi was originally adopted to fight corruption in the ranks of the socialist and Christian democratic parties. In short, it should be acknowledged that not only for Spain, but also for the Netherlands and Italy, European accession has amounted to a great success, both geo-politically and economically.

The enlargement of the EU to include central Europe took place in a very different context. One of the immediate consequences of the dismantling of the Soviet Union, for the countries that had been subjected to communist rule, EU accession was perceived as a liberation, and, to a certain extent, as a return to the fold.

Certainly, we may have different opinions about, for example, the introduction of the euro, but the idea that European project has failed is, from a historical point of view, absurd. The opponents of the European project are national-anarchists, what the Germans used to call Kleinstaaterei.