Europe’s Shifting Lines

Europe’s current financial turmoil is leading to the realignment of several long-standing dividing lines in the EU culture wars. The standard typology of the “euro-optimists” (those who want more Europe), the “euro-realists” (those thought to want less Europe), and the “euro-sceptics” (those suspected of harboring dreams of doing away with the continent altogether), no longer seems to fit the picture, if it ever did.

A number of eurozone outsiders, including some with British accents, acknowledge the urgent need for more integrated economic governance, of the euro states in particular and of Europe in general, if a disaster is to be avoided. The same people often stress the importance of preserving the 27-member format and the institutions at the core of the European integration, the common market first and foremost.

On the other hand, some stalwarts of Europe “one and whole” hint darkly at the emergence of several Europes—the variable-speed Europe, the core Europe, and the peripheral Europe; the true Europe and the rest. They also repeatedly warn that even a partial breakup of the euro will mean the end of Europe as a whole. Their rallying cry is that the euro must be preserved at all costs and under all circumstances. Although it is easy to understand and empathize with their motives, subordinating the destiny of Europe to that of the euro will hardly strengthen the cohesion of the European project. After all, the EU predates the euro, as do most of the European institutions and the common market. Even the Schengen Agreement, providing for borderless travel between most of the EU member countries, preceded the Maastricht Treaty, which gave rise to the common currency.

Certainly the euro needs to be saved if at all possible because its breakup, let alone collapse, would have severe negative effects on the economies of euro and non-euro EU members alike. But arguably it is the EU, rather than the euro, which has ensured the stability, prosperity, and relative harmony in Europe so far and which thus needs to be preserved at all costs. A monetary union of the strongest economies in Europe separated from the rest of the EU members would be an economic powerhouse and would exert major influence on European affairs, but politically it would be a big step back from the current European arrangements.

Fortunately it seems that at least some European leaders are aware of this and are trying to find ways how to buttress the political underpinnings of the EU building rather than just guard its purse. For example, the idea of a directly elected EU president (and implicitly, of the emergence of a true pan-European political process) broached last week at the CDU/CSU conference by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (apparently with the tacit approval of Chancellor Merkel) addresses the long-term euro-sceptics’ criticism of a democratic gap in the center of the project.

Certainly, if people had their say in who their European leaders and ministers were, they would find it much easier to discover their common European identity, show some European solidarity and accept a measure of European authority over their common destinies. And it might then turn out that some of the eurocrats had not been such euro-optimists after all, just as some of the eurocritics were not really euro-sceptics.

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