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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 U.S. 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.
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