EU in Crisis: A Nightmare for the European Dream

A commentary by Christoph Schwennicke

Political unity, a common currency, border-free travel and lasting peace. The European Union was to have become a kind of eternal utopia. Instead, no one has dared to further develop Europe since the days of Helmut Kohl. Now, the EU is looking decidedly mortal.

Europe is not in good shape these days. Zoom
AP

Europe is not in good shape these days.

Making Europe immortal is a very old idea. After being struck by one of Eros's arrows, Zeus, the father of all Greek gods, fell madly in love with Europa, the daughter of the Phoenician king. When he later realized that his beloved was doomed to pursue the path of an ordinary mortal, he named a continent after her and proclaimed: "You shall be immortal, Europa, because the continent that has accepted your body shall bear your name for all time."

You shall be immortal, Europa? The current euro crisis reveals that it isn't quite as easy as Zeus implied.

"Oh, Europe," Hans Magnus Enzensberger sighed in the title of his book, published years ago, in which he summarized "perceptions," or fictitious reports, from seven different countries. Today, "Oh, Europe" are the words any true Europhile must be exclaiming with a sigh.

I am one of those people. I am one of those idealists who have always believed in the European idea and will continue to do so. It was and still is incredible how this continent has bundled together its economic, political and military forces, and that there is more that unites its countries than divides them.

Is it even possible to experience Europe? The absence of war for more than half a century, Europe's greatest achievement, is not an experience at all. As a result, those who were born after World War II take it for granted to a far greater extent than they should.

Finally, the Euro!

Indeed, I have experienced Europe. I experienced Europe when I spent a year studying in Metz, where I got to know French students in the university's German studies program. We searched for common ground and differences, and found both, and we talked and talked. And we understood each other. That's Europe.

Later on, I suffered in Great Britain, an island I love, but whose euro-phobia I cannot understand. Tony Blair's biggest political miscalculation wasn't the Iraq war. Instead, it was his campaign to finally and irreversibly lead Great Britain to Europe. I was furious when, years ago, I read a book by Bill Emmott, the former editor-in-chief of the Economist, whose vision for 2021 included a weak future for the EU and who declared the euro to be a temporary phenomenon.

My outraged comments are still written in the margins of my copy of the book, which is now seven years old. "What nonsense!" "We'll see about that!" "Outrageous!" I was sure that Emmott would soon regret what he had written, and I was firmly convinced that Great Britain, after witnessing years of the common currency's success, would eventually join the euro -- for utilitarian reasons, not out of passion.

I was relieved when the euro was physically introduced nine years ago and the "deutschmark patriotism" Jürgen Habermas had once observed did not turn into hatred of the new currency. Although people were deceived by all the talk of how nice it would now be to go on vacation without having to exchange money, a laughable, superficial argument for the fact that 11 pioneering countries within the European Union at the time were not only giving up their national currencies, but also a significant portion of their national sovereignty. Leading up to the introduction of the physical euro on Jan. 1, 2002, editorial staffs at every publication were preparing for major revolts. But they never materialized.

Bigger and Bigger

Since then, that is, since Helmut Kohl, no one has dared to develop Europe any further and to give up significant aspects of their sovereignty at the European level. After the common currency was introduced, the next logical step would have been to announce the goal of forming a joint military -- not as a utopia, a desire or a vision, but as a solid goal.

Instead, Europe has been disintegrating since Maastricht. The house grew bigger and bigger, while becoming more and more warped and wobbly at the same time. More and more additions were built, even though the foundation wasn't really designed to handle those additions.

As a result, politicians, in their desperation, resorted to declaring a two-speed Europe. Or, like Wolfgang Schäuble and Karl Lamers in 1994, creating an ambitious core Europe and assuming that the slower nations would eventually catch up.

It was a pathetic display, and it has long since become reality. The lack of borders represented by the name of a small Luxembourg wine-growing village, Schengen, only became reality in eight countries at first, with the euro dividing the EU into participants and non-participants. Europe, a potentially strong entity, has become a bureaucratic monster and a bad design. The new common foreign policy does nothing to change this. It doesn't give Europe the single telephone number Kissinger once wished it could have, but instead adds even more extensions to an already long list.

Downhill Ever Since

Exactly 10 years ago Joschka Fischer, probably the most ardent pro-European politician in Germany next to Helmut Kohl, tried to correct the situation in a speech on Europe's finality. The speech, which included multiple rhetorical twists and turns, is still worth reading today -- and is also a sad document of European history.

Fischer described a new treaty among nations, "the nuclear of a constitution for the federation," as an interim step prior to the completion of political union. On the basis of this underlying agreement, the federation could "create its own institutions, a government that should speak with one voice for the members of the group on as many issues as possible within the EU, a strong parliament and a directly elected president. This center of gravity would have to be the avant-garde, the locomotive for the completion of political integration, and already encompass all elements of the eventual federation."

As we know, this attempt -- the constitution -- failed. Things have been going downhill for Europe since then. Instead of creating a joint military, Europe must now be worried about keeping its common currency. Europe could end where it began: in Greece. Today, Bill Emmott's book reads like an early prophecy. Either Europe sees this existential crisis as a chance to correct the mistakes that were made for years, or this potential world power will go down in the history of empires as the first to fail before it even became one.

There are reasons to be very worried about Europe. It is as mortal as a Phoenician princess.

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