Good riddance to a bad idea.
by Bruce S. Thornton
The champions of the European Union once touted it as a “bold new experiment in living” and “the best hope in an insecure age.” But these days “fear is coursing through the corridors of Brussels,” as the BBC reported in September. Such fear is justified, for the nations of Europe are struggling with fiscal problems that challenge the integrity of the whole EU-topian ideal. Greece teetering on the brink of default on its debts, EU nations squabbling about how to deal with the crisis, debt levels approaching 100 percent of GDP even in economic-powerhouse countries like Germany and France, and European banks exposed to depreciating government bonds are some of the signposts on the road to decline.
A monetary union comprising independent states, each with its own peculiar economic and political interests, histories, cultural norms, laws, and fiscal systems, was bound to end up in the current crisis. All that borrowed money, however, was necessary for funding the lavish social welfare entitlements and employment benefits that once impressed champions of the “European Dream.” Yet, despite the greater fiscal integration created by the EU, sluggish, over-regulated, over-taxed economies could not generate enough money to pay for such amenities. Now, the president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, admits, “We can’t finance our social model.”
This financial crisis means the government-financed dolce vita lifestyle once brandished as a reproach to work-obsessed America is facing cutbacks and austerity programs immensely unpopular among Europeans otherwise used to amenities like France’s 35-hour work week, or Greece’s two extra months of pay, or England’s generous housing subsidies that cost $34.4 billion a year. No surprise, then, that from Athens’ Syntagma Square to Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, austerity measures attempting to scale back government spending have been met with strikes, demonstrations, boycotts, and protests, some violent, on the part of citizens for whom such government entitlements have become human rights. In fact, such transfers of wealth have been formalized as rights in Articles 34 and 35 of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Human Rights.
Meanwhile, the solutions to the debt crisis all involve solvent Eurozone countries agreeing not just to finance some form of a bailout fund, but to institute even closer fiscal and political integration. This is something the citizens of those nations are loath to do, and sure to punish their politicians for attempting. Just look at Germany, where polls show that two-thirds of Germans oppose further aid for bailouts. The ruling party there has lost six state elections in a row. Or Slovakia, where the average worker earns $1,000 a month, and is in no mood to guarantee the debt of richer nations like Greece or Portugal.
Economically sounder Eurozone countries may approve stopgap measures such as increasing the European Financial Stability Facility by $600 billion, as happened recently. But they will find it politically difficult to cede even more national sovereignty and control over their economies to Brussels in order to find a long-term solution to the structural problems bedeviling the Eurozone economies. As economist Robert Samuelson says of this crisis, “Political paralysis meets economic drift.”
The reason for this paralysis exposes the fundamental flaw underlying the EU — the notion that nationalist loyalties and identities could be subordinated to a transnational institution run by elites unaccountable to the citizens. Long before Nazism demonstrated the destructive excesses of nationalism, the idea arose that a “federation of free states,” as Immanuel Kant imagined in his 1795 essay “Perpetual Peace,” could create global peace and order by transcending the zero-sum interests of different states and peoples.
In the nineteenth-century, communication and transport technologies like the telegraph, railroad, and steamship facilitated a global trade and exchange of ideas that seemingly brought people together into a “solidarity which unites the members of the society of civilized nations,” as the Preamble to the First Hague Convention put it in 1899. For many, what Kant called the “progress of the human mind” meant creating a global community of shared values and aims that could be codified in international laws and institutions presumably superior to the parochial cultures, irrational customs, and retrograde values of any individual country or people.
Unfortunately for the idealistic internationalists, the mass of humanity refused to go along with this project. Most people lived and found their identities in the local and particular cultures that they were now supposed to progress beyond. Indeed, from 1914-1918, millions of Europeans slaughtered each other on behalf of those national loyalties. In 1918, G. K. Chesterton explained why:
Nobody has any such ecstatic regard for the mere relations of different people to each other, as one would gather from the rhetoric of idealistic internationalism. It is, indeed, desirable that men should love each other; but always with the recognition of the identity of other peoples and other men. Now, too much cosmopolitan culture is mere praise of machinery. It turns ultimately upon the point that a telegram can be sent from one end of the earth to the other, irrespective of what is in the telegram.
In the end, Chesterton says, “Men care more for the rag that is called a flag than for the rag that is called a newspaper. Men care more for Rome, Paris, Prague, Warsaw than for the international railways connecting these towns.”
Our collective identities and loyalties are necessarily local and distinguished from those of other peoples, an existential fact that no amount of technological advances can change. This means that we want to be ruled by people like us whom we can hold politically accountable. And it means our nation’s interests and aims will necessarily be different from those of other states, and sometimes those different interests will lead to conflict.
After World War I, advocates of transnational integration did recognize the power of national and ethnic self-determination. At the same time, the Versailles Treaty created the supranational League of Nations as an instrument of global peace and order designed to avoid a reprise of the nationalist-driven carnage of the Great War. It enshrined the notion of what Woodrow Wilson called “national aspirations.” The two ideals were contradictory, since sovereign nations were loath to surrender their sovereignty to a body that would at times have to pursue aims contrary to those nations’ interests.
The dismal history of the League in the two decades between the wars, when it failed to stop the escalating state violence that paved the way for World War II, illustrates the truth expressed by George Washington: “It is a maxim founded on the universal experience of mankind, that no nation can be trusted farther than it is bounded by its interests.”
Given this contradiction, then, between national sovereignty and transnational idealism, it is not surprising that the first Kantian “federation of free states,” the League of Nations, and its progeny, the United Nations, both failed at enforcing a global consensus of interests. Each instead degenerated into a forum for states to pursue their own interests. Yet these failures did not inhibit the creation of the EU, yet another “federation of free states” whose purpose is to subordinate national interests to loftier goals. The current crisis in the monetary union has not led many European leaders to question the flawed assumptions behind greater integration, which limits each state’s own interests and authority, at the same time that those states retain their sovereignty and thus an ultimate veto power over EU policy.
Many leaders do understand that the fiscal crisis has put at risk the whole EU project. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel recently warned her parliament, “The euro is much, much more than a currency. The euro is the guarantee of a united Europe. If the euro fails, then Europe fails.” Yet rather than question the assumptions behind “a united Europe,” leaders are proposing even more economic and political integration, and short-term fiscal fixes, such as the $600 billion European Financial Stability Facility, which require significant transfers of wealth from successful economies to those near bankruptcy. But as the New York Times writes, both the short-term and long-term solutions “require a sacrifice of sovereignty that seems to exceed the political appetites of European leaders.”
These solutions will not work because what historian Walter Russell Mead calls “national egoism” has not disappeared among the peoples of Europe: “Europeans are debating in European forums today with the same nationalist selfishness that their predecessors did 150 years ago.” Different customs, different values, and different attitudes towards work, leisure, and the good life all derive from the particular histories, geographies, and cultures that define a people and a nation. These differences will not disappear because states share a currency.
Just as dirigiste economics, extravagant state-funded social welfare subsidies, and idealistic internationalism are ideas that were bound to fail, so too is the EU — it cannot be fixed. Rather, it is an idea whose time has gone.
©2011 Bruce S. Thornton