The inconvenient voters of Europe

November 19, 2013

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.


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Didn’t Hitler have delusions of a 1,000 year Reich as well….look where that ended up? No dictatorship has ever lasted – dress it up how you will but that’s what the The Greater European Empire is – a dictatorship.

Posted by umkomazi | Report as abusive

… And like all dictatorships the regime crushes dissent. It was always clear that EMU would hurt wealth creation -they wanted to do it anyway to build their regime.

Europe is long overdue a period of democratic scrutiny.

Posted by Alisdair | Report as abusive

One bright spot: Almost without exception, when there is a broad consensus of doom among pundits, they eventually find themselves proved wrong by the actual outcome.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

Excellent article, well said.

One must keep in mind that almost all great historical movements have come from the upper parts of society.

In grade school American kids are taught about the English Magna Carta as though it was something to protect the common man. But it was not. The Magna Carta was brought about forcibly by the great English feudal barons, mandating that the King should henceforth be limited in his powers against the barons.

This in essence is the path of all history, with only a very few exceptions, one being the Bolshevik Revolution.

Today the greatest movement on Earth is globalization, where longstanding tariffs are being dropped, causing the closing of factories all over Europe and America. All of it is being done not because the masses want it, but because the feudal barons of today, the wealthy of Europe and America, profit immensely by it.

It is the same with immigration. The common citizen of most European countries are greatly harmed by the massive tsunami of immigration now occurring. Immigration drives down wage rates of the common citizens and drives of rent rates of the common citizen. That is very clear and obvious. Yet the immigration continues to pour in. Why? Because it makes the barons, the wealthy class, even wealthier by forcing down wage rates and increasing rents.

The European Union was not created to stop wars, nor was the impetus the common citizens. The European Union came about only because the great wealthy families of Europe could see, from their heights, that the profits to them would be immense. The fact that the European middle class would be destroyed was also clear, but to the barons, the bankers, that is an acceptable cost to get at the vast fortunes to be made by globalization.

The same thing is happening in America. American factories have been closing by the thousands, immigration, illegal or legal is greatly encouraged, and the American middle class is quickly being destroyed.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

It was Churchill who called for a United States of Europe and it was the US Marshall Plan that gave the United Europe Movement a purpose.

Mr Lloyd is correct, Spain & Germany have less in common than California and Connecticut, most notably a common language. Yet Europeans do appreciate the peace we’ve enjoyed over the past 60 years.

The real problem is rooted in giving up any semblance of control to an only quasi-democratic institution such as the EU has become. This is exacerbated by the fact that we were not given a yes/not vote on any of the treaties Brussels professional bureaucrats write. I suppose it would be like asking the American public to vote on every bill before it becomes law.

Fear of the foreigner is an easy scaremongering headline for tabloid journalism (and online commenters who are trying to tie this article to their US political opinions), yet it is the democratic deficit that is at the root of the problem.

Posted by euro-yank | Report as abusive

It was flawed from the start by not have elected officials and not having any powerful elected officials chosen by Europe wide elections. It also lacks courts and laws to settle problems between members; like the bankruptcy of Greece and others. Instead the most powerful Germany tells the others what to do at emergency meetings.

Also no long therm plan to merge the those languages which similar and simplify grammar of all to get easier communications and migrations.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive