Germany recently marked the 20th anniversary of its unification. The anniversary recalls a time of heady optimism about European integration when far-sighted leaders like then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and then-French President Francois Mitterand spearheaded the creation of the European Union on the heels of German unity.
Today, the outlook for Europe's future is decidedly pessimistic. The crisis in the euro zone has laid bare a few disquieting facts: European leaders lack the ambitious vision that once propelled continental integration, states no longer see European interests as parallel to national interests and the EU's political and economic institutions are inadequate to the challenges of economic and monetary union. There is a paradox at the heart of Europe's conundrum: Even as the European appetite for integration reaches its nadir, the best solution to the crisis may be greater unity.
With the EU mired in crisis -- from demonstrations in French streets to Irish bank bailouts -- strong leadership from European capitals is more important than ever. Unfortunately, the EU suffers from a leadership void. Rather than stepping up to the plate on behalf of the union, however, national leaders are focused on appeasing domestic constituencies. In Brussels, no Jacques Delors promises to emerge.
This lack of high-level political direction reflects in part a generational shift. In the wake of World War II, Europeans embraced integration in the belief that national interests were best served by alignment with the European community. The euro crisis has caused many -- especially in the larger and more powerful member states -- to rethink this equation. Publics increasingly perceive the EU as more detrimental than beneficial to their domestic concerns. Younger European citizens, with no memory of the bloody conflagrations that engulfed Europe last century, view integration with greater skepticism than their parents did. As politics across the EU become renationalized, supranational visions focused on Brussels are giving way to greater inter-governmentalism, centered on relations among national capitals.
Germany, long the motor of European integration, has soured on the EU. As popular attitudes and elite priorities shift from their formerly pro-EU stance, Germany can no longer be counted on to subordinate its narrow national interests to broader EU concerns. It has begun to act, in short, like a normal country. The present rift in Franco-German relations -- and the fraught relationship between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicholas Sarkozy -- further complicates effective responses to the euro zone crisis.
Meanwhile, the EU's political and economic institutions have been exposed as woefully inadequate. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992, which created the EU, envisioned that economic and monetary union could proceed regardless of complementary development of strong European political institutions. The ultimate result was the emergence of a hybrid oddity, a monetary union without a political union, in which monetary and fiscal policy were effectively divorced. The euro zone crisis has unmasked the flaws in this model.
Crisis as Opportunity
Herein lies the silver lining of Europe's recent woes. Historically, the greatest advances in European integration -- from the European Coal and Steel Community to the Single European Act -- have been spurred by crises. The euro zone crisis similarly presents an opportunity -- if leaders are willing to seize it -- to overhaul the EU's institutions of political and economic governance.
If the needed reforms do not occur, the European project is more likely to stall than come apart. It is difficult to envision the rise of significant economic and political (much less strategic) competition within Europe. But absent a renewed sense of purpose, clearly defined goals, and a greater commitment from national leaders and publics, distrust for integrationist schemes will persist. Growing national divergences in economic models and performance increase the prospects for a multi-speed Europe, in which ad hoc subgroupings of EU member states pursue cooperative arrangements when convenient.
While not dire, such an outcome would be unfortunate, with global implications reaching far beyond Brussels. A united EU is a stronger and more capable global actor than individual European nations. The collective force of EU soft power on important global governance issues -- from climate change to foreign aid to nonproliferation -- is substantial. The world benefits from an EU that speaks with a unified voice, and that is capable of following through on its commitments.
As the world's most advanced project of regional integration, the EU is an important model for other regions. Its experience shows that neighbors with a long history of war can successfully unify and pool sovereignty within common institutions, delivering a substantial peace (as well as economic) dividend. As other regions embark on their own journeys toward integration, the EU is a crucial beacon -- guiding with both the inspiration of success and the wisdom of hard lessons learned.