ou cannot herd people of different traditions and backgrounds into a happy playpen and give them a likable common name without eventually noticing differences in their table manners. So it is with the Europeans, a creation, at least in part, of French economic intellectuals eager to create continental harmony following two savage world wars. The Jean Monnet-driven European Economic Community, founded in 1957, was intended to revive postwar Europe and serve as a marketplace counterweight to communism. From this, over decades, came the engineering of a European identity that optimists believed could put aside nationalistic spasms in favor of freedom, justice — and purchase power — for all. Such an idea seemed all the more plausible after the collapse of the bogeyman Soviet Union, and with it the ideology that had once given the original EEC its raison d’être.
What European Union founding fathers didn’t fully consider during the giddy and expansive post-Berlin Wall 1990s was the extent to which the desire for European wholeness might be part of a festive adrenalin surge, fierce but not binding. Triumphant anti-Communists eager to preside over definitive creation of a Greater Europe preferred not to acknowledge that opposition to communism, and not just selfless continentalism, gave the European project some of its heft.
The idea of an affluent, resplendent Europe tied together through peaceful cooperation and a joint currency was developed during an “us vs. them” time that depended on enmity and division to make a case for its opposite. In the early years, East put you on one side, the incorrect one, and out, while West placed you on the correct one, and in. National idiosyncrasies were downplayed.
Though today’s Europe continues to describe the now-edgy European Union project in post-ideological terms, the advertising misstates its origins. European affluence gradually made possible through shared markets and massive investment (and borrowing) emerged from an often-reckless post-1989 dive into unrestricted capitalism (much as its American counterpart arose from wildfire deregulation).
“Conceptual” Europeans didn’t worry about future dissonance or disenchantment. Emergency exit announcements went unheard. The paradox built into the EU motto, “United through diversity,” sounded quaint. Capital gain was the common denominator as a new middle class took root. Europe boomed and expanded, making a capital in Brussels and sprinkling its already wealthy primary states with greater riches and bolstering poorer one with annual funding and loans.
The opening of new markets, framed by the buzzwords “accession” and “integration,” superseded lockstep reform. Europe put its own name in U.S. President Calvin Coolidge’s famous 1920s quip, “The chief business of the American people is business.”
Europe badly wanted to be that person, or people. Except that it isn’t, a detail all dispensed with during the gold rush.
Now, with inner chamber walls squeezing hard, the European “person” has vanished. Table manners are front and center. Those down on their luck, jobless and bewildered, are resentful. The ruinous sacrifices they’re being forced to endure weren’t written into the post-totalitarian, joint currency dream. The south is upset at the north’s penny-pinching values and its seemingly exaggerated emphasis on accountability. The east worries about the continuation of share-the-wealth subsidies that were largely responsible for its eagerness to join the club.
Some Europeans now see membership as conscription and seek alternatives to the world of hurt to which they feel unjustly subjected. In ideology’s absence, voter response is predictably national. I am Greek. I am French. I am German. I am Italian. Don’t make me pay for anyone else’s outstanding bills. Don’t charge me when I can’t pay.
The European Economic Community, now the pseudo-political European Union, is no longer able to live up to its billing; nor does it have a wicked adversary on which to fob off portions of public anger.
Some nations were prudent while others overindulged; but all were seemingly cheerful residents of the same house. Unpaid rent (a commonplace in parts of European whole) was tolerated as a growing pain. Now, with the arrears choking everyone, those who disdain tardiness issue cultural lectures to those embarrassed by outstanding payments they forgot about years ago.
Election results in France and Greece, more than ushering in a socialist leader in one case and proto-nationalists in the other, are a triumph of wheezing. They represent the first if timid wave of second thoughts regarding a project that was good when the going was good, but which, examined naked, still lacks both anchoring will and executive logic. Extended Europe cannot govern. It cannot fix. It cannot police manners without stirring resistance from those trained differently. It continues to depend, as it did in pre-Union days, on the priorities of its stronger members, making pre-Soviet bogeyman Germany, once divided between bad east and good west, re-eligible for villain status. All of which re-introduces aspects of the 19th century into the 21st, and this is just the start.