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Ronald Tiersky on Europe has saved the euro: now it needs to save its soul

6th August 2013

Ronald Tiersky is the Joseph B. Eastman Professor of Political Science at Amherst College. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the general editor of the Europe Today series. His editorials have appeared in Le Monde, Libération, Le Point, the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, Wall Street Journal and Foreign Affairs.

Asked by a former student at Amherst College to contribute to European Ideas, an American professor can perhaps say a few useful words about teaching Europe to young Americans today.  In particular, in this summer of continuing EU-doldrums and Euro-blues, what ought to be said about the famous “idea of Europe.” How to set the mood for that first day of class?


After several years of dismal economic results and rancorous member state negotiations, the European Union easily appears to Americans as a failure. Or at best it seems to be a noble, uncertain struggle for renewal of the Old Continent, at worst an historical geopolitical giant en route to becoming just another world region.   
American commentators wage never-ending onslaught about the eurozone crisis, which was yesterday, today and last week; and will continue tomorrow and next week and next year. Against this tyranny of the immediate, it’s necessary to imagine the longer term, to begin with the history of the rise and fall of enthusiasm for integration among Europeans themselves. Even rather provincial American students can be inspired to imagine that it wasn’t always only a hard slog, that there were some thrilling moments: the Schuman speech, the Treaty of Rome signature, de Gaulle and Adenauer at Reims Cathedral in 1963, Mitterrand and Kohl holding hands at the Battle of Verdun cemetery in 1984, celebrating German unification at the Brandenburg Gate in 1989  with the “Ode to Joy.” 
Postwar enthusiasm for the idea of Europe was not just a policy preference; it was a deeply-felt  idealism, an ideology of progress in a context that included other idealisms: Christian democracy, national-patriotism or Gaullism, socialism and the ominous specter of true believer Stalinism. 
Despite what was just said about young American students, nearly all begin with the thought that European integration is a kind of heroic idea, great if it can work. Aware of the current crisis and the ultimate issue of whether the euro will break apart and the EU collapse, their gut feeling is that in a globalized world why the Europeans won’t agree on their own good must be a mystery.   
So history and political psychology rather than theories of optimal integration areas is the place to begin with them.
In what the French call the “trente glorieuses, those postwar thirty years of almost uninterrupted economic growth,building Europe” was an exhilarating, mobilizing political cause. The differences between federalists and functionalists were strong, as were the arguments between Europeanists and Gaullists about which structure of a united Europe could endure. But the ideal itself, plus its strategic necessity against the Cold War menace of communist regimes, was incontrovertible. People voted and organized for parties and leaders offering “the idea of Europe.” These were the years of Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gasperi, Konrad Adenauer, Pierre Mendès-France.
But few people today remember the 1950s because collective memory of the postwar period is monopolized by what came after, nostalgia or disdain for the social and political rebellion of the ‘60s, and by the memory of vibrant mass mobilization and ugly terrorist groups that sprung up out of the anti-Vietnam war movements. The early excitement about integration in the 1950s must be conjured up and taught.
The 1970s-80s were tough times for the idea of Europe. Its prestige declined because practical results were meager. On the positive side, democratic revolutions in semi-fascist Greece, Spain and Portugal led to membership in the European Community. The main theme of ‘70s European integration however was economic and political stagnation.
Crushing increases in the international price of oil in 1974 and 1979 threw western economies into long recession, including the U.S. To be sure, achievement of the 1987 Single Market Treaty in retrospect was more significant than initially thought and then Commission President Jacques Delors’s high reputation as the Treaty’s godfather is well-deserved. Nevertheless enthusiasm for the EC and emotional attachment to the idea of Europe declined precipitously.  Years later, Delors put it in a nutshell:  “One doesn’t fall in love with a single market.”  
Then, unexpectedly, was resurrection. The years of communism’s collapse and German unification1989-1991 were the Indian summer of European integration. Overthrowing Communist regimes liberated the eastern part of the European continent; a new Europe was born ‘whole and free.’ A path forward toward European unification was opened, fraught with uncertainties but one: Not even decades of Stalinism had destroyed Eastern Europe’s energies. Furthermore, the fact that EU membership was in the offing stimulated surprising re-emergence of civil societies.
At the same time, 1989-91 also reinvigorated Western Europe. Implementation of the Single Market progressed not merely as an insular technical affair inside the EC but seemed to be part of a broad historical process that was once again simple, comprehensible and convincing. The idea-of-Europe narrative was once again, at least for a short time, thrilling. A unified Europe seemed a tangible, positive goal. The Maastricht Treaty negotiated under the guidance of Kohl and Mitterrand was a daring enterprise by two visionary leaders. But Maastricht would never have occurred without Berlin, Prague and Warsaw, meaning that historic Western Europe’s future needed historic Eastern Europe as its partner. The halves of the continent shared a common fate.
On Christmas Day, 1991, the Soviet Parliament passed a resolution abolishing itself and the Soviet Union. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, in his book Perestroika (1988), foresaw that the great Yalta deal at the end of WWII, i.e. the division of the continent, was coming to an end. Instead of revolutionizing Western Europe the USSR and communism were folding their cards. “Having conditioned myself for a new political outlook,” Gorbachev said revealingly, “I could no longer accept in the old way the multi-colored patchwork-quilt-like political map of Europe.” The Continent was in fact a “common European home” and the Soviet Union, later Russia, are going to embrace it. This was putting the best face on disintegration that Vladimir Putin later called “the greatest geopolitical collapse of the 20th century.”
At the time of German unification, former West German chancellor and Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt famously said, “Now what belongs together will grow together…”  He meant unification of the German people but given what was going on all around, it was easy to project the image onto Europe as a whole.
German unification was wrapped into the Maastricht Treaty and in the process, fatefully, the euro was created. For Germany, which had been the economic miracle country but now had to pay the costs of unification, the 1990s were bad times; for years it was a “sick man of Europe.” The euro system and monetary union, on the other hand, benefitted from positive international economic conditions, surviving in apparent health for most of a decade. In the 2000s Germany’s emergence from difficulties recreated the economic powerhouse of Europe. Then exploded the current financial crisis whose origins and consequences everyone knows.
This, basically, is where we are now. The idea of Europe seems a dead-end. At best the EU is a machine for muddling through. European energy and political will are largely exhausted. The entire continent, internally defeatist and internationally outcompeted, seems in historical decline.
So I return to my American students, incoming fall 2013.
Is there any life left in “the idea of Europe”? That’s the question to set the mood for the first day of class. Is there any compelling reason to be enthusiastic about things European or is Europe, in a world of advanced globalization in which the center of gravity of the international order is shifting to the Pacific from the Atlantic, now like every other world region. That is, has Europe become merely another “region,” another case in the study of comparative political economy?    
How to explain what has happened? One particular text always works: Vaclav Havel’s 1994 speech to the European parliament, from which I’ll quote at some length. Havel was making the case for enlargement—but there was much more.
1994 was still the post-Maastricht mood, an exciting, upbeat moment. The practical difficulties of post-communism were daunting but nevertheless widening and deepening the EU was on the agenda and even the small Czech Republic was, Havel said, of high importance historically: “The Czech Lands lie at the very center of Europe and sometimes even think of themselves as its very heart.”
But with poetic skepticism Havel also expressed concern about what sort of institution the Czech people were asking to join. The EU, he said,
is undoubtedly a respectable piece of work, (an unprecedented structure of) common rules of the game…agreement on an enormous number of concrete matters…a remarkable labor of the human spirit and its rational capacities. (Nevertheless) into my admiration, which initially verged on enthusiasm, there (intruded) a disturbing, less exuberant feeling. The large empires, complex supranational entities or confederations of states that we know from history, those which, in their time, contributed something of value to humanity, were remarkable not only because of how they were administered or organized, but also because they were always buoyed by a spirit, an idea an ethos—I would even say by a charismatic quality—out of which their structure ultimately grew…some key to emotional identification, an ideal that would speak to people or inspire…values (that make) it worthwhile for people to make sacrifices for the entity that embodies them.
Today, appeals for renewed emotional attachment of Europeans to the EU and to the work of European integration are commonplace; it’s part of ritual debates about the EU’s political legitimacy.  Such appeals are worthy but generally half-hearted or even less. The future of Europe seems not about making History but basic bread-and-butter struggles not to lose the euro and against recessions, debt and deficits. 
But what I emphasize to students is Havel’s thought that European integration today has completely lost its original “charismatic quality”. That is the problem. Charisma is an overused word but not the wrong word. Charisma is an ancient Greek word that translates a Biblical idea of divinely conferred “gift of grace” and special purpose. The question for today is whether European integration can ever again be a kind of divine mission of advancing world political development.
In other words, short term the euro is saved; the eurozone will survive. Long term, Europe needs to save its soul.
The Havel quotations are from David de Giustino, A Reader in European Integration, New York, Longman, 1996)



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