The Myth of Europe

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The euro crisis isn’t really about money. It’s about the fiction that Europeans ever existed at all.

Also Read: The Myth of Japan’s Failure

en the euro officially entered circulation at the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 2002, fireworks lit up the night sky across Europe to celebrate the scrapping of the French franc, German deutsche mark, Greek drachma, and a clutch of other ancient currencies. Brussels hosted an extravagant sound-and-light show, while Frankfurt unveiled a five-story statue of the freshly minted euro as a pop band belted out “With Open Arms (Euro World Song).” “I am convinced,” European Central Bank President Wim Duisenberg declared, that the launch of euro coins and banknotes “will appear in the history books in all our countries and beyond as the start of a new era in Europe.”

The early 2000s did feel like the European moment. Enlightened policy wonks on both sides of the Atlantic gushed about the glamorous new arrival on the global stage. In this magazine in 2004, Parag Khanna described the “stylish” European Union as a “metrosexual superpower” strutting past the testosterone-fueled, boorish United States on the catwalk of global diplomacy. Later that year, economist Jeremy Rifkin penned a book-length encomium, The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream, which was followed by Washington Post reporter T.R. Reid’s unlikely bestseller, The United States of Europe: The New Superpower and the End of American Supremacy. In 2005, foreign-policy expert Mark Leonard explained Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century.

One wonders how well these books are selling today, now that the European dream has become a nightmare for many, with the euro teetering on the brink of collapse and the union that produced it mired in a triple crisis that will take years, if not decades, to resolve.

First, there’s the economic catastrophe. Like the United States, Europe is living through its fiercest financial crisis since the 1930s. Unemployment is high — more than 20 percent in formerly go-go Spain — while growth is almost nonexistent, banks are collapsing, and indebted governments are running out of money. Some countries, among them Britain, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, face the prospect of a generation of hardship.

Second, the economic crisis comes on top of the deepest political crisis the European Union has faced. Its most ambitious project, the creation of a single currency, is in danger of collapse. The principle of the free movement of people, another cornerstone of EU integration, is being challenged as some states reintroduce border controls. Visionary leadership is in short supply. And a disgruntled electorate is turning in droves toward anti-immigrant populism. In his annual address last September, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso admitted, “We are facing the biggest challenge in the history of our union.” A month later, German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the threat to the euro as Europe’s “worst crisis since the end of World War II.” For the first time in my 20 years in Brussels, the splintering of the European Union is no longer science fiction but a real, if still somewhat unlikely, possibility.

The European Union was built on the myth that we are one people with one common destiny — an “ever closer union,” in the words of the 1957 Treaty of Rome that founded what was then called the European Economic Community. We are now discovering that regional and national differences are not dissolving and that Europeans think and act very differently from one another. The British view of the state’s role is very different from the French view. The Greek or Italian concept of law is very different from that of Sweden or Denmark. Latvians have a very different view of Russia from Germans. What an Irishman is prepared to pay in taxes is very different from what a Dane or Belgian will allow.

This lack of unity is Europe’s third and most profound crisis, one that underlies the continent’s economic and political woes. Most Europeans have little idea what the EU stands for in the world, what binds its people together, where it has come from in the past, and where it is going in the future. After more than 60 years of EU integration, 200,000 pages of legislation, and a hefty (and still growing) stack of treaties, we have succeeded in building a European Union without Europeans.

“Yes, but what is a European?”

The question from one of my students should have been easy enough for me to answer. After all, I was born in Wales and have lived in continental Europe — Oslo, Prague, and Brussels — for most of the last 25 years. I’ve traveled to every EU country except Malta. I speak a handful of European languages and studied European history and politics at university. I have worked in the European Commission and European Parliament. My best friends are Dutch, German, Slovak, and Swedish. My partner is French, and my children are bilingual. Unlike some recent U.S. presidents, I know the difference between Slovenia and Slovakia. If anyone should be European, or at least know what constitutes one, I should.

Yet I found myself stuttering and stammering as I searched for an answer. I waffled for a bit about European values — freedom, democracy, human rights, the rule of law — but didn’t convince myself, let alone the class.

“European fundamental values are sacred,” Jan Peter Balkenende, then Dutch prime minister, said in 2004. When it came to actually defining those values, however, he was fuzzier, admitting, “We have been discussing the idea of Europe for the last 1,200 years, but we cannot grasp what it means.” That’s the problem: Values matter because they are the glue that binds countries and peoples together. They help define what a society stands for and against.

American values are clearly and succinctly defined in the Bill of Rights and U.S. Constitution, which most American schoolchildren have to study and some senators carry in their back pockets. The European Union, on the other hand, has no constitution, and its Charter of Fundamental Rightsonly became legally binding in 2009. The nearest thing the EU has to a founding document is an almost impenetrable legalistic treaty that has been amended six times since the 1957 signing of the Treaty of Rome. The latest incarnation of the EU’s rule book, the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon, commits the union to values such as free speech, democracy, and sustainable development. No wonder it is hard to disagree with American journalist Christopher Caldwell, who wrote in his provocative 2009 book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, “There is no consensus, not even the beginning of a consensus, about what European values are.”

How did we get here? In the decades after World War II, it was clear what Europe stood for: prosperity for a war-torn continent, freedom from tyranny — at least for those living in the Western half — and peace among nations after centuries of bloodletting. (From time to time one catches a whiff of the lingering fear that these conditions are not permanent, such as in the distinctlyHobbesian observation that ran on the International Herald Tribune‘s op-ed page ahead of the euro-crisis summit in late October: “What’s Saving Europe from Hell? The E.U.”) It is difficult to argue with peace, prosperity, and freedom — but what else is there? British essayist Timothy Garton Ash made a stab at defining European values in a 2007 essay in Prospect, adding law, diversity, and solidarity to the list. These are hardly unique to Europe, however. They also camouflage a host of differences among the EU states.

Rule of law, for instance, may be a precondition for joining the European Union, but some states, such as Belgium and France, are much better at calling for new legislation than adhering to laws that have already been passed. In other countries, such as Bulgaria and Romania, corruption is rampant, while in Italy the mafia makes a mockery of justice in the country’s south.

It is on the matters of diversity and solidarity, however, that the pan-European narrative falters most. The EU prides itself on its differences, even as it tries to legislate them out of existence. Its motto is “united in diversity,” and few places on Earth have such a glorious mishmash of cultures, languages, landscapes, and peoples coexisting in such a small area. Diversity doesn’t equal tolerance, however, and the existence of differences doesn’t mean acceptance of them — a fact that has come glaringly to the fore as Europe has slipped deeper into crisis and relationships have strained among its members.

When Dutch populist politician Geert Wilders suggested a fusion of Flanders and the Netherlands in 2008, one reader of a Flemish newspaper posted this outraged comment online: “If Flanders joins up with that people of busybodies, violent hooligans, murdering youths, and nuts, then I’m joining an armed rebellion! It’s bad enough being with the Dutch at the same campsite!” Another wrote: “A union with Morocco or Mongolia would be better. There they don’t pee against church walls, and they don’t eat fried croquettes from snack vending machines.” Particularly agitated responses, perhaps, but symptomatic ones: Despite 60 years of ever closer integration and interaction among Europeans, stereotypes are clearly alive and well, prejudices are as deep-seated as ever, and political parties advocating less diversity and more intolerance are gaining ground. In recent elections in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Hungary, and even progressive Sweden and Finland, voters have exhibited the sort of fears and phobias that can only be described as the flip side of Rifkin’s European dream.

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