The inconvenient voters of Europe
Sixty years ago, pondering the question of an unruly populace, the German playwright Bertolt Brecht mused, “Would it not be easier / In that case, for the government / To dissolve the people / And elect another?”
It was a rare piece of ironic criticism of East Germany’s communist regime for Brecht, since he usually supported it. But after the regime’s suppression of a workers’ revolt in 1953, he spoke out. It’s one of his most famed observations, trotted out whenever a populace is ungrateful enough to vote “against their own good.”
European Union politicians can sympathize. They’ve labored for six decades to fashion a union that was supposed to end wars and greatly expand economic markets, not to mention bring former communist states into freedom.
Yet the European people, instead of gratitude, now strain against an institution over which they have little direct say. In one of several recent books that express pessimism over the future of the euro currency, The Fall of the Euro, Jens Nordvig, the head of currency strategy at Nomura Securities, puts it bluntly: “The economic need for further integration is clashing with public sentiment, increasingly opposed to handing over additional functions to European officials.” Nordvig’s pessimism derives from the view that the politicians cannot ensure the EU’s political support, not that the authorities can’t manage the mechanics of the euro.
The British economist and commentator David Marsh is marginally less categorical in his new book, Europe’s Deadlock. He thinks the euro currency may survive, but shrink in footprint. He saw firsthand how skeptical the Germans had become when he took part in a debate in Hamburg in 2009. The audience believed that the euro was irreversible. But when faced with the question of who’d pay for it, the previous majority who had thought that the euro would last forever melted into a small minority.
The French are even less supportive, becoming “an increasingly unpredictable partner,” per the Economist. The Euro Zone’s most important intellectual defector hails from there: Francois Heisbourg’s “La fin du rêve européen” (“the end of the European dream”) claims the calm in Europe’s markets is a “cancer in remission,” and that continuing on the strategy of austerity will bring “serial crises ending in a nervous breakdown and an uncontrolled disintegration of the euro with all its consequences.”
Heisbourg, long an adviser on strategic issues to governments and corporations, is reluctant to let the common currency go. He sketches the possibility of a better-managed attempt at monetary union a decade down the road. But a group of less-prominent economists at the Observatoire de l’Europe think tank wrote last year that the currency was doomed, “sooner or later, to an uncontrollable explosion.”
The end-of-the-euro chorus is not the only song in town. The famed British sociologist Anthony Giddens, in his recent “Turbulent and Mighty Continent,” believes that “a federal solution, backed by greater legitimacy and capacity on an EU level, is the only feasible way forward.” The Dutch philosopher Luuk van Middelaar, a speech writer to Herman van Rompuy, the President of the European Council, writes in his “Passage to Europe” that the crisis will “force the circle of member states to politicize itself, to increase its capacity to act and take responsibility.” The veteran activist and German Green politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit calls for “Europeans (to) start voting not as French, German or Greek citizens — but as European ones.”
Cohn-Bendit comes closest to the ironic Brechtian warning to the political class. He wants to change the people’s allegiances, not the people themselves — to make those trapped in their national identities into Europeans, continentalists rather than nationalists. Yet the crisis has shown one stark fact before all others: “Europeans” think of themselves as Germans, French, Dutch, Spaniards and Italians first, and often despise other EU members.
They benefit from Europe and will assert European-ness when outside of the continent. But when they vote, the vote that counts is national. Even in the little-supported European elections, the choice reflects the support for and dissatisfactions with the national politicians.
The dream of a Europe whose manifest goodness and destiny was acclaimed by nearly all has gone by. What remains is the fact of the nation state, and, for those who would renew the European quest, the hard work of gaining the people’s support for the endeavor. When, next year, we mark the centenary of that “war to end all wars,” we should remember that it wasn’t. The EU was a noble attempt, after World War Two, to give that statement a real basis. But there is no easy exit from the nation state, which has for good and ill won and still keeps the allegiance of most of humankind.