Make no mistake, the time has come to choose. Everyone in this hall knows in their hearts that England is, is simply the greatest country in the world. So why, why should the nation that produced Shakespeare, Dickens, Christopher Wren, Florence Nightingale – and those are just the people on our banknotes for Christ’s sake – kowtow to the continent that produced Hitler, Napoleon, the Mafia, and the the the, the the the, the the the Smurfs?! I, my friends, I have toiled in the bowels of Europe and I know what shit passes through – shit! And I won’t say, oh, pardon my French because I think it’s about time we had some bloody good old fashioned Anglo Saxon. Before me lies thousands of brave Britons. Whereas behind me cower the ranks of the gutless, the spineless, and the brainless. So are we, the victors of El Alamein, going to allow these, these, these faceless people to sell us into Euroblivion? Or are we going to stand up in this great British party and demand our country back?
—Alan Beresford B’Stard from The New Statesman
Although The New Statesman is a work of fiction, Alan Beresford B’Stard’s remarks reflect the sentiment of what has become increasingly significant opposition to the European experiment. Based on a recent trip to Europe, days after George Papandreou announced a referendum on the austerity measures that were a condition of aid, the best word I could use to describe the zeitgeist is probably “exasperation.” There seemed to be a feeling of fatigue with the constant headlines about Greek opposition to austerity measures. And there was also a cynical reaction to the International Swaps & Derivatives Association’s doublespeak used in their ruling on Greek credit default swaps.
It almost felt as if some people wanted Greece to vote for a return to the drachma just so that all the drama would, at last, be over. However, after being “summoned” to Cannes by Merkozy, Papandreou eventually relented, cancelled the referendum, and stepped down as Prime Minister. Nevertheless, there is a respected school of thought out there that believes all this did was to delay the inevitable.
Their predictions are seeming to pan out. Even with the departure of Papandreou, not all is well within the new unity government. There are reports today that Antonis Samaras, representing the conservative party in the new coalition, refused to “give a written commitment to the terms of a second bailout program.”
Nevertheless, to better handicap the odds, it’s important to look towards history to understand the motivations behind the will of the European power elite to save their experiment. For most of its history, Europe has been a continent of bickering nation states. Agincourt, Westphalia, Leuthen, Waterloo, Versailles…places all too familiar to European ears. Unfortunately, the rivalry between these nation states culminated in the 20th century abbatoirs of World War I and World War II. Going into World War I with the mentality of the Franco-Prussian War proved devastating. Casualties in Battle of Verdun and the Battle of the Somme exceeded the American casualties in all of World War I and World War II. The latter half of the 20th century provided no respite as, best phrased by Churchill, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent.”
It is this backdrop against which the European Union was conceived. On 9 November 1989, everything began to change. The Berlin Wall fell and, soon after, so did the rest of the Iron Curtain. In the aftermath, President Mikhail Gorbachev and President George H.W. Bush saw an opportunity – a New World Order in which the superpowers worked in concert, not in opposition. This era of good feeling was exemplified in United Nations Security Council Resolution 678, which authorized the use of force in the Persian Gulf. This was the first significant authorization of the use of force by the United Nations since the Soviet boycott prevented the exercise of a permanent veto during the Korean War.
It was believed that the rise of a transnational federalism would suppress the id of explosive nationalism that had been heretofore considered intrinsic to the human experience. After the success of the worldwide “police action” in the Persian Gulf, there was full momentum behind the increased role of multilateral organizations. By the time Bush’s successor, William J. Clinton, finished his first year, the Treaty of Maastricht was signed, creating the European Union.
Politically, there were romantic notions of a pan-European federalism that idealists would hope could keep the peace. Realists hoped Europe could become a viable geopolitical power in a world that was no-longer bipolar. But more needed to be done. The European Union participated in the Kosovo campaign under the umbrella of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but the most of the military force was provided by the Americans. Nevertheless, this provided a template in which regional entities would take actions when the United Nations could not or would not; the inaction in Rwanda had brought cries of “never again.” Some Europeans even called for a multinational European stability force that would take care of internal matters.
The idealists believed that with the end of the Cold War, armies were now free to be used for humanitarian activities instead of conflicts between nation states. It is this framework in which humanitarian action reconciles with Westphalian sovereignty. For realists, the “Concert of Reconciled Superpowers” could now focus on asymmetric threats, with their armies pointed at rogue states instead of each other. Europe, surely, would be one of those superpowers. However, in order to reach that level of power, was not a Continental federalism needed?
Nevertheless, the progression towards this state of affairs needed to be slow and steady. History had shown that an important precursor to political coalescence was economic unity. The development of the United States was blunted by the patchwork of de facto currencies, customs barriers, and inability of the central government to levy taxes under the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution changed that. Before the unification of modern Germany, there was the creation of the Zollverein, a customs union that enabled free trade between German states.
This seemed like the inevitable path for Europe if they needed to compete in the globalized world. Key to economic unity would be a common currency – hence, the creation of the Euro. But even that was phased in. For a few years, on your receipts, you would see the amount of your purchases in Euros, printed next to your Deutschemarks, francs, liras, pesetas, but you would still use the local currency in your wallet. Finally, in 2002, Euro banknotes entered circulation and the next phase of the European experiment began.
The political elites have seen the Euro as part of the progression towards a predestined teleology in which there exists a pan-European federal superpower. But even if pan-European federalism would not give rise to a superpower on the world stage, at the very least, it would prevent us from repeating the conflicts of the 20th century.
Countries with chronic deficits that should have never been allowed to join the Euro in first place; one monetary policy applied to a two-speed Europe; the lack of centralized fiscal mechanisms to deal with budget shortfalls; the opposition to austerity measures – none of these will appeal to European technocrats and politicians. The hope that the poppy fields of Europe will no longer see the blood of boys and men: it is for this reason that European elites believe the Euro must be saved.