Europe's Missing Foundations

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Goodbye to Europe as a high-ranking power, says Richard Haass in a column in the FT. The European project is failing, he writes. The euro could break apart. Greece is the immediate problem, but the sickness has spread much wider.

Even before this economic crisis, Europe was weakened by a political crisis. Many Europeans have been preoccupied with revising European institutions, but repeated rejections of the Lisbon treaty demonstrate that a united Europe no longer captures the imagination of many of its residents. Lacklustre leadership of European organizations is both a cause and a result of this loss of momentum.

Lackluster leadership? I'd say Europe got into this mess because its leadership was far too lustrous for much too long.

When did a united Europe ever capture the imagination of many of its residents? The European project was an elite-driven, top-down affair from the outset. Its leaders took the view, often explicitly, that Europe's voters did not know what was good for them and would have to be led to enlightenment. There was never any willingness to let public indifference or outright hostility moderate the pace. For the most part, voters were not consulted. When they were, and voted No in the occasional referendum on further transfer of power to Brussels, governments resolved to keep on asking until voters got it right. Germany adopted the euro despite a sustained majority opposed to monetary union. (Surely this helps to explain German anger over the bail-outs. "We were against this in the first place. Now see what's happened.")

The political foundations for union were never laid. Governments kept building higher and higher regardless. Political crisis did not weaken this structure, as Haass says. Coming earlier than the architects would have wished - that is, before voters got with the program - political and economic crisis showed how weak the structure was to begin with.

History and ordinary prudence dictated that the union might be broad and shallow (a free-trade area, with embellishments, capable of taking in all-comers) or else narrow and deep (an evolving political union, confined to countries willing to be led there). Of the two, I always believed that the first was better. But the architects did not even have the brains to choose the second. They recognized no limits to their ambitions. They set about creating a union that was both broad and deep. A federal constitution, a parliament, a powerful central executive, one central bank, one currency - all with no binding sense of European identity.  As for scale, well, the bigger the better. Today Greece, tomorrow Turkey. And why stop there? Madness.

Gideon Rachman makes an interesting point.

I used to think Europe had got it right. Let the US be a military superpower; let China be an economic superpower - Europe would be the lifestyle superpower. The days when European empires dominated the globe had gone. But that was just fine. Europe could still be the place with the most beautiful cities, the best food and wine, the richest cultural history, the longest holidays, the best football teams. Life for most ordinary Europeans has never been more comfortable.

It was a great strategy. But there was one big flaw in it. Europe cannot afford its comfortable retirement.

Yes - but may I fine-tune the observation? First, Europe is not alone in enjoying an unaffordable lifestyle. The United States cannot afford its lifestyle either, and its own reckoning on this score cannot be indefinitely delayed. Also, what Gideon says may be true of ordinary Europeans' ambitions, but not of their leaders'. This is the disconnect I'm emphasizing.

Military and economic supremacy are collectivist aspirations - you need a strong sense of nationhood to give them meaning. Europe could have the most beautiful cities, the best food and wine, the richest cultural history, and the longest holidays without having to turn its peoples into "Europeans". The admirable goal of leading the world in quality of life, rather than dominating it in military or economic terms,  requires no political union, least of all if you value cultural diversity.

But Europe's architects did want the union to be militarily powerful; they did want to create an economic superpower; unlike ordinary Europeans, they were not content with lifestyle success. That is why they pressed on as they did. And see how far they got: if this was timid leadership, show me the bold kind. They were ambitious to a fault. What they never bothered to secure was the underpinning popular commitment, and that is partly why the union is now in such trouble. 

Previously, Europe's governments have responded to stress on the union by trying to accelerate the pace of integration. Don't rule out the possibility that this will happen again. In fact you could argue it already has. The bail-out plan is a huge development in its own right, and the innovation cannot stop there. Now there is talk of stronger central control of national budgets.

Voters won't like that. But what do voters know? It's not as though they'll take to the streets...

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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