by Bruce S. Thornton
Traveling through Europe can obscure the looming crisis threatening the continent. Visiting the medieval villages of Alsace, the castles on the Rhine, or the magnificent cathedrals in Basel or Cologne, it’s easy to forget that Europe is on the brink of disaster. But these days even EUrophiles are sounding apocalyptic. The European Commission has said that the monetary union is in danger of “disintegration,” while the European Central Bank called it “unsustainable.” To some, the threat to the eurozone is a threat to the whole EU project. Joschka Fischer, Germany’s former vice-Chancellor, has said, “In a mere three years, the eurozone’s financial crisis has become an existential crisis for Europe.” As the Financial Times puts it, “The flames are licking closer to the eurozone’s combustible core.”
All that architecture and art, then, are the fragments of a glorious past, museum exhibits created by a once dynamic and powerful but now declining civilization. For Americans, Europe’s magnificent past is not as important as its current collapse, which should warn us against repeating its utopian delusions that ignore the hard realities of human nature and human limitations.
The EU and its common currency eurozone were founded on a shopworn idea and a simplistic understanding of history. The bad history is the reading of the state violence instigated by Germany for 70 years and culminating in the horrific slaughter of World War II. The exclusionary, if not racist, mystic nationalism of Germany was seen as the root cause of the war, and so it was concluded that diminishing the power of nationalism while promoting democracy and prosperity would prevent such violence in the future. In Europe, this meant reining in Germany by limiting its power with supranational institutions, and by fostering a pacifism that most Germans were all too eager to embrace. By integrating its own economic interests with those of Europe, Germany could prove it was no longer a threat to its neighbors. Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt recently evoked this argument in his plea to save the euro: “More than once we Germans have caused others to suffer because of our position of power,” he said, adding that “whoever doesn’t understand this original and still relevant reason for European integration is missing the indispensable requirement for solving today’s precarious crisis.”
What’s forgotten in this analysis is that the European vacation from tragic history was subsidized by the United States. Europe’s once powerful militaries, always the instruments for pursuing state interests with force, could shrink because the US military provided the security against the existential threat of the Soviet Union. Even with that threat gone, the globalized economy from which Europe profits is policed by American military power. Germany isn’t a threat not because of the EU, but because it hasn’t needed to build up its military due to the security dividend provided by American taxpayers.
The old idea is the two-centuries-long dream of a “parliament of nations,” the notion that supranational institutions and laws would replace the nation-state with its divisive particularities of custom, culture, religion, and language. Western civilization, it was thought, was evolving into a more universal identity created by science, technology, new knowledge about human nature and society, and the shrinking world created by global trade. These all were leading to a “harmony of interests” that increasingly rational people would realize could be served more by peace and prosperity than by conflict and war. This grand idea also lay behind the creation of the League of Nations and the United Nations, which both failed at creating a unified, transnational authority comprising sovereign nations with distinct and necessarily conflicting interests and cultures. The EU will not be any more successful than the other two, and for the same reason. EU member countries have never stopped being sovereign entities each with its own constitution that reflects national custom, law, and character.
The current fiscal crisis, then, has simply allowed the return of repressed nationalism and conflicting national interests. Most commentary on the crisis reflects this obvious fact. For example, The Telegraph’s Janet Daley writes, “As everyone has been saying, in order to be viable in the face of market pressures, a genuine currency (as opposed to a pretend one) must have a ‘lender of last resort’ – a true central bank like the US Federal Reserve System. But this is impossible within the EU because the constitutions of member states are not compatible with each other or with the principle of underwriting debt across national boundaries (as the states of the US are under their genuinely federal system).”
More broadly, difference of national attitudes to and cultures of work between the northern industrious ants and the southern “Club Med” grasshoppers have been expressed in the refusal of the citizens of the former to subsidize the spendthrift habits of the latter. Two headlines on the same page of a recent issue of the Financial Times say it all: “Germany talks tough on Spain” and “National interests likely to hobble EU banking reforms.” Or consider a recentWall Street Journal article on German reluctance to foot the bill for rescuing the euro: “Half the German population believes the common currency has been more of a negative than a positive for Germany, up from 43% in February, according to a poll released late last month by public broadcaster ZDF. Nearly 80% are opposed to proposals for euro nations to jointly sell and guarantee euro bonds. A solid majority believes Greece should leave the euro.”
As for the Greeks, they are playing chicken with Germany over the latter’s insistence on austerity programs to rein in government spending, and making arguments from the bad old history supposedly transcended by the new EU brotherhood, claiming that Germans still owe reparations from their occupation of Greece in World War II. Meanwhile over in Italy, ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, still the head of the biggest bloc of seats in parliament and thus capable of bringing down the government, has blustered, “If Europe refuses to listen to our demands, we should say ‘bye, bye’ and leave the euro. Or tell the Germans to leave the euro if they are not happy.” In response an ally of Angela Merkel scolds, “The states of Europe must for their part undertake every endeavor to contribute to solving those problems themselves.” The current crisis with its intra-national squabbling and rancor confirms the insight of the 18th-century conservative philosopher Joseph de Maistre: “A constitution that is made for all nations is made for none.”
Yet some in the EU are calling for more economic integration, not less, as the solution to the current crisis. “So,” Daley continues, “either the existing democratic institutions and historical principles of all EU countries must be forcibly reconciled in a Year Zero political reconstruction, or there can never be a monetary union (let alone fiscal union) that will be sustainable.” Obviously, such closer integration would make Germany more powerful in the long run, since he who pays the piper calls the tune — thus creating the possibility of the very threat the EU was supposed to prevent. And greater economic integration would make easier greater political integration at the cost of national sovereignty and individual freedom, worsening the EU’s already substantial “democracy deficit.” The beneficiaries would be the Eurocrats in Brussels, a techno-elite that has already shown an eagerness to limit personal freedom in order to achieve its utopian dreams of absolute equality, prosperity for all, and a cost-free dolce vita.
As we Americans watch the flames grow higher, we should take warning and fight against those like Obama who see the EU as a model to follow. The Europe that created the art and architecture we travel there to admire is gone. Instead, let’s return to our own traditions and political principles that made America the freest and most prosperous great power in history.
©2012 Bruce S. Thornton