The beautiful folly of the European experiment

November 18, 2011

We Europeans are in the mud of agony, but our hearts are among the stars of bliss. Our anthem is Beethoven’s setting – in the last movement of his 9th Symphony – of Schiller’s Ode to Joy, a work of transcendent romantic idealism, above all in its central claim – “All men will be brothers!” (“Alle menschen werden bruder”: in the fashion of the time, Schiller meant all humanity).

Adopted as Europe’s official anthem 40 years ago, it is supposed to be played rather than sung – one wouldn’t want to give the impression that Germans dominated the continent!  But it is sometimes voiced, as in 2004, when an orchestra was playing it on the German-Polish border on the occasion of Poland’s accession to the European Union, and the crowd sang Schiller’s words. Given Polish-German history, to sing that humanity will be united in love was a moving event.

The union of Europe was conceived and furthered in much that same vaulting romantic spirit. To be sure, it had its feet on the ground: a coal and steel community was the foundation of the Union. Among its most solid – and perhaps most lasting – achievements are in furthering common rules for trade, for investment and for services: the common market.

But the ideal behind it, the moving spirit of its founders, was to create structures which would make war impossible – to so bind the economies and the societies of the continent together that attempts at conquest of one over the other would be unthinkable. Thus it would work to bring Europeans together in amity, and have them explore their common European, rather than national, identity.

Later, from the seventies on, it became a democratic home for countries coming out of dictatorship – Greece, Portugal and Spain first, then the former Communist states of Central and Eastern Europe. The explicit promise was that a European framework would be a protection against domestic dictators and foreign tyrants – the shades of the Soviet Union/Russia lay darkly across the invocation of the latter.

For the more ardent spirits among the pro-Europeanists – and a few of these remain, though their voice is muted – Europe’s destiny was the achievement of statehood. It would of course have a federal structure to give substantial autonomy to the nations, but it would also have a centralized power which could and would express a unified political will, one capable of standing beside the current global hegemon, the USA and any future great power, like China.

But in these grand constructions and visions, two elements were forgotten – or at least ignored. One was the people of Europe; and the second was that the people of Europe thought of themselves as Europeans only sometimes: they otherwise stubbornly cleaved to their national identities.

The people of Europe had approved of much that was done. Especially in the years after the war, when Europe was reconstructing itself from ruins (leaning heavily on Marshall Plan aid from the U.S.), and the horror of war was fresh in the minds of all, the prospect of No More War was both a hope and an inspiration. For the political classes of the vanquished, in Germany and in Italy, the new Union was a means of national civic renewal: an implicit pledge to their neighbours that they were no longer militaristic in outlook, nor did they seek national glory through conquest.

National pride was taken, instead, in the renunciation of conquest. For Germany in particular, where war-guilt was by far the heaviest, a European destiny was a means of purging that guilt. And there was a largely uncontroversial acceptance on the part of the Germans, which lasted for decades, that they would show their pacific, good-European, side by paying the largest share of the bills.

For the nations on the winning side, Europe was both an insurance policy against war and a means of increasing national wealth through supranational agreement. France, the mostly undisputed political leader of Europe (the UK stayed on the sidelines, a late joiner, semi-detached after joining), saw the Union as a means of extending its power and its culture.

But in its growth, the Union became increasingly complex. Its centers of power proliferated, and these were led and administered by people of whom most Europeans knew little or nothing. Though most of the media (British newspapers were the major exception) were friendly to – indeed, dangerously uncritical of – the project, it became common journalistic parlance that stories with “Europe” in the headline were seen by readers or viewers as boring. Journalism, however large its democratic claims, is largely a for-profit business. It does not stick with boring for long.

Distance bred resentment; ignorance bred suspicion. As “Europe” dealt with issues that became increasingly arcane or high-flown or both, the concerns of the Europeans who thought of themselves as French, Dutch, Italian, or German took precedence. When, in 2005, the first two of these voted in separate referenda on the ratification of the treaty establishing a European Constitution, the proposal to ratify was defeated – decisively in France, resoundingly in the Netherlands.

Not all politics are local, but few are more than national. The ideals of Europe were and are fine: but the purchase its institutions have on the hearts and minds of Europeans was and is too slight. Beneath the current financial and banking crises, there lies a longer-lasting democratic one: a failure of identification with the human side of what seems an impersonal engine, created by elites and largely confined to them.

The Europeans see, in the governments, parties and  parliaments  of their countries, figures they know. They may dislike them for their beliefs and their actions; hold their politics in contempt; vote against them when they can. But popular movements have, through the centuries, fought to establish these institutions to express common wills – to both conduct national business and to confine the antagonisms of class and ethnicity to arenas in which compromises can be made. “Europe” was not built like that. It did not come through struggle, through agitation for reform, through popular campaigns. It was conceived for the best of reasons – for peace and unity; yet it has been built and administered in the worst of ways – from the top.

All men have not become brothers, and are unlikely to be so soon. Men and women require a politics which resonates with their collective history and contains figures who are in some measures like them. “Europe” has not supplied these. If and when the immediate crisis is surmounted, the fundamental limits of democratic and civic engagement must be explicitly recognized. If a new house of Europe is to be attempted, its foundations must be laid, as is customary, from the bottom up.

A woman looks at a billboard showing a photo montage with France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy kissing German Chancellor Angela Merkel displayed on a Benetton store in Paris November 17, 2011. REUTERS/Charles Platiau (FRANCE – Tags: POLITICS MEDIA BUSINESS)


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With all that kissing there must be an increased chance of contagion!

Seriously, though – France and Germany already disagree on whether the ECB should buy up the bonds of troubled states. France is moving over the financial precipice into the danger zone. Germany is now, just starting this month, seeing its Bunds sold off by Asia as it sours on anything European.

The contagion is alive and growing stronger by the day.

Europe’s political paralysis is different from America’s. Here, it’s the widening left-right chasm. In Europe it’s the inability of leaders to get their heads out of the clouds of European socialistic/utopian idealism and back into reality. It will take a total collapse of the financial system and social order to wake them up – but then it will be too late.

America looks on aghast, and arrogantly sneers. It’s turn at the precipice is coming up quickly.

Posted by NukerDoggie | Report as abusive

Now it is time to put aside nationalistic ambitions, the appetite for economical discrimination and historical xenophobic tendencies and start “feeling” the European Union and not just adopt it just through its convenience. It is time to show the world that Europe is one of the oldest cradles of civilization for a reason and the thousands of years of history did lead to a mature european character and just to conglomerate of nationalistic self-importance. It is time to recognize the history but not bring it in the present, to build not FOR the future but to build The Future while recognizing the reality of our times.

Posted by 6678moshu | Report as abusive

Hi John. Your argument conflated a subjective analysis of European treaty voting patterns with the idea of disenchantment with the benefits accrued from the European Union.

Next time you lok at this topic, you might like to try an evidence-based approach.

The Eurobarometer is a pan-European statistical analysis of citizen satisfaction. rvey-series/standard-special-eb/study-pr ofiles/

QA7 (UK version) asked “Generally speaking, do you think that the United Kingdom’s membership of the European
Union is…?”

What were the results across the EU?
What correlations did you find?
Did you read any of the Eubarometer studies to inform your opinion?

Posted by scythe | Report as abusive

Let us be fair to John and not claim more han what he has written. And he has written well with compassion and justice to the European Project. There are lots of citizens who have come to similar conclusions. They’re dismayed and confused with out top-down EU management by politicians who are increasingly sounding like Wilder’s in Netherlands today – let’s reconsider Dutch Guilders!

But if you’ve spent professional time in Brussels with the fascilitating everf closer union and economic integration, you’re more than dismayed how current EU
leaders have handled the debt crisis.

I suppose it is difficult to understand concepts like sovereign debt, insolvency and debt contagion. However they’ll henceforth become the lingua-franca of EU – going forward. Beware!

The crisis is fundamentally not a Euro currency crisis.

It is essentially a state solvency problem of deficits larger than Stability & Growth Pact legally allowed under EMU.

Good things are happening in places like Athens and Rome, Lisabon, Madrid and Dublin. And, subject to Italian Parliament and its decision-making capacity, it will take Italy 2 or more years to become solvent again. The bond spreads will come down, as Monti’s regime takes action to bring down debt/GDP ratio.

Greece is a more difficult case of a sovereign default. But I doubt EU will allow Greece to sink alone without any external help to recover.

Remember *sweet are the uses of adversity*.

Posted by hariknaidu | Report as abusive

It’s only 150 years since Americans were shooting at each other to preserve/recreate a union of North and South… And the confederate South’s resentment about their losses required over a century of ideological indoctrination to overcome.

Europe is much closer together than America was back then, are we not? The removal of border restrictions, the free passage of trade… That alone has a tendency to create the kind of personal unity that we require, to build the political and fiscal union that must follow. Most Europeans already have close family members living in other European countries, and already conduct a significant amount of their personal business affairs with suppliers and clients abroad.

On the other hand, Europe has NOT been built on the principles of its inhabitants… Instead it has been assembled as a project of a coterie of insiders, who had a personal agenda, and were unduly influenced by various political and business lobby groups to give them unfair attention and disproportionate “rights” under European law. Focus-groups and committees have been convened to write laws that should have been written instead by inspired men, as the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights were. The resulting “rights” laws are a hodge-podge of self-contradicting nonsense, that often violates principles that are obvious to any common European man – allowing offenders to get off lightly because their “human rights” might be violated if the basic principles of justice should be served! Or in other cases, supporting the “equality” of certain minorities whose identities are specifically enshrined in the founding documents of Europe, to such an extent that the natural rights and freedoms of ordinary people are curtailed. Paradoxically, the purported cause of “equality” therefore serves some much better than others, the rights of one group of people not to have their personal sensibilities offended, overruling the rights of another group of people to be allowed to live according to their conscience in a manner that does actual harm to no-one…

This is not a Europe that its inhabitants can indefinitely support.

An interesting BBC article on the latest developments on the financial side of things… 385

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

@NukerDoggie, hariknaidu, matthewslyman: Great remarks and thanks for that. I just want to add that the expansion in 2007 was way beyond any EU can manage.

Posted by FBreughel1 | Report as abusive

Hi hariknaidu, travelling through-out Central Europe and South East Europe, have had a majority positive responses to the EU. and membership of the community. But this means nothing vis a vis evidence.

It is not persuasive to argue at the grand level that “we, the people of Europe”, collectively find the European Union to be …. x, y, z. You need more substance than intermittent democracy in action, a la referendum results.

Nor is it persuasive to grandly dismiss the EU mode of governance and policy as a hegemony of elites or top down. Those criticisms are neither extraordinary nor useful and are common to many democracies.

The EU manages very complex relationships at the national, regional and individual level. It is extraordinary how it actually does this.

For example, track the pathway of how a Directive originates, to its implementation in national law and the role of the European Court of Justice to enforce it (e.g. promotion of renewable energy and ECJ rulings to ensure alternative suppliers have fair access to the main grid).

It was argued that John needed to consider more evidence to strike a balance and exercise caution when using unsubstantiated claims to support his argument.

Posted by scythe | Report as abusive

The European Union is a social, economic, and political scheme envisioned by plutocratic globalist international banksters, created as a means of control and extraction of national wealth from the sovereign nations across Europe. This has been a vision of these plutocratic globalist for decades. Through the power and influence of their massive wealth they have been successful in deceiving the continent of Europe that they would be better off under this system of social, economic, and political control. As this author said it so perfectly true, this was a scheme driven from the top down instead of from the bottom up. Whenever something like this happens, it only benefits the plutocracy. The European Union claims to be a deomcratic system, but the real truth is, it is a plutocracy, i.e. a continent controlled by wealthy families who control the continents central banking system, thus they control all of Europe through their money. Sadly, Europe is under the same plutocracy that the United States is under. This plutocracy, from their greed, will cause the economic collapse of the entire globe. It will require a further and intensified global awakening of the common man to realize the great jeopardy that faces him, his future, and his posterity in order for necessary political change to come about to avoid this doom that awaits the world.

Posted by DanielCrickett | Report as abusive

Outstanding article, and I rarely give that accolade. Wisdom…in hindsight. Why in hindsight? It is so clear and well understood by anyone with common sense.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

In the aftermath of the impending Eurozone breakup, when analysts and historians write their reports explaining the failure to future generations, the answer is here in these comments on this article – many people just don’t get it…a profound lack of common sense / wisdom. Common sense / wisdom isn’t necessarily correlated positively with intelligence. A peasant farmer in Italy (anywhere) could probably have told the “academic elites” exactly why it wouldn’t work if they would have just asked him.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

I am passionately pro Europe but equally as adamant that the Euro zone is a mess, badly constructed and needs radical overhaul. Likewise the EU has turned into a wasteful, un democratic, top down authority instead of the free trade union it was founded upon. The people of Europe want to be close and yet still retain their individual identity and control of the administration of their day to day affairs. Fiscal and legal integration will happen – but slowly and by common consent not by diktat. The Euro / EU experiment has failed because it is too much, too soon and without the support of the populous. Time to start again.

Posted by pavlaki | Report as abusive


Your point is well taken. There is nothing to argue….

Krugman is today writing about *European Romantics….* and more and calling his tribal (MIT) technocrats (Bernake, Draghi) sort of incompetent. That’s what I find objectionable…because they’ve to make decisions in difficult crisis which Krugman (in his Princeton) chair finds difficult to accept. Even my comments on his blog was blocked!

John was honestly giving his rendition of Euro Project history because he has studied it and cares about it.

Bottonm line, Euro Project is not a romantic idea; it is fundamentally a political concept to consign nation-state wars to dustbin of history – *No More Wars* that’s what de Gaulle and Adenauer tried to establish when they signed The Rome Treaty (1957).

Posted by hariknaidu | Report as abusive

Hariknaidu and friends: we don’t need an EU superstate to ‘prevent wars’. We are already so grown together that there will be no war. There will be however a dictatorship against the will of all populations of the member states. This toxic EU monstrosity is vehemently anti-democratic (look at the outrage when Papandreou uttered the word referendum!). It needs to go and replaced with the loose trade block everybody originally signed up for.

You find Krugman objectionable? I find people who casually hand over the sovereignty of their country objectionable.

Posted by aristidis500 | Report as abusive