An old French adage posits the more things change, the more they are the same. But that’s not always true, historiographers, those who invent how to write history, must figure out when transformational changes do occur. It’s [at least my version of] the string theory: yes, things do go along on a consistent pattern [genes, for example] until suddenly, something from the outside changes one knot, and then they pick up routinely again but along the now changed form.
That’s where we are at the moment with “the Europe project”, an attempt to create a peaceful, united, prosperous, democratic Europe. [Napoleon and Hitler tried other unfortunate solutions.]
In the late 40s, after all the horrors of World War II, European unification was generally considered necessary and unavoidable. Every “right-thinking person” understood two European “civil wars” had almost destroyed Western civilization. How to prevent another such conflict was at the center of thinking by enlightened European politicians, especially France’s Gen. Charles De Gaulle and Germany’s Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, and such technocrats as Frenchmen Jean Monet and René Mayer.
Common sense as well as idealism demanded embracing what would inevitably be a reemerging strong Germany in a bear hug by a weakened France and Britain. It should start with what in those economies was basic, the iron and steel industries, incidentally, located in contested border regions. The exquisitely detailed Treaty of Paris established the European Coal and Steel Community, signed April 18, 1951, by “the inner six“, France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands It laid the cornerstone of today’s European Community. The basic metals agreement turned into a customs union, a common labor market, capped by a common currency – at least for major Continental members.
Now that common currency is in deep trouble. The lack of central fiscal and monetary control has taken its toll. More prosperous northern European countries [especially Germany] used the Euro to boost Union exports and southern Europeans used its creditworthiness to buy goodies but alas! more than their productivity could afford. The Greek collapse and its attempted rescue has been seen widely as the ultimate test not only of the Euro but inflated to cover the whole idea of “Europe”. And as the crisis deepened — for the rest of the European Union is deeply burdened by welfare economies they find increasingly difficult to support — the Euro is said by some to be a test of the whole idea of “Europe”.
That’s a pity, especially since there is no consensus on where to go now. Some advocate dramatically moving to a centralized economic state. That would be put together — as the EU has been until now — by Brussels bureaucrats rather than any compromising legislative assembly. [That the difficult American constitutional convention came so close to failure is omitted in the self-congratulatory versions of US history nominated as a template.] Others see creating a two-tier Euro system. And some braver souls are ready to abandon the monetary project, with Greece, and other highly indebted partners, retreating into their own currencies to force readjustments difficult for populist governments
Again, this last option is seen by many as the end of the whole unification effort. Such an analysis is skewed. It relies on a mindset of at least a generation ago. The old bugaboos are gone, perhaps replaced by new ones, but they are gone. For the first time in 2,000 years, the German tribes are depopulating. True, Germany remains the strongest European economy but its overdependence on mostly older products exports, with subsidized credits is a longterm threat. For Europe, other problems – not the least the difficulty of integrating an immigrant labor force in a declining native population, primarily recruited among Muslims – takes precedent. War between the major European powers in a time of cultural amalgamation and Europe’s relatively declining world role, is unthinkable
Remodeling, at least, of the Euro is now inevitable. But it need not be seen as a failure of “Europe”. European unification now might take a leaf from the American book and go back to building more representative institutions. The growing regional nationalisms – from Scottish to Catalonian – which European federalization has encouraged might even be a basis for a new attempt at political integration. But what is certain is a new era demands new thinking and new solutions. The old rationales for a federal Europe are dead.