There was always something postmodern about the European Union.
Postmodernists believe that important features of identity, like one’s sex and race, are “socially constructed” – that is, invented. At the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, the Euro-elites tried to reverse engineer the principle. They invented something called Europe and imposed it on disparate nations with very different ways of life.
Chief prop of this illusion was the common currency, the euro, agreed to at Maastricht and implemented in 2002. It could be sustained so long as times were good and wealthy countries like Germany agreed to pick up the tab for the weaker economies. With the financial crisis and Greek debt crack-up, that moment is over.
The euro allowed a generation of Greeks to live like Germans while producing like Mexicans. They believed wealth was socially constructed, and mandated increasing leisure on themselves to enjoy it. Now the bill is due, and they have turned to the harder working, more productive Germans to do their duty and pay it on behalf of Europe.
To the Greeks, the debt crisis is another arbitrary social construction. They consider themselves victims of financial speculators, heartless people, probably Anglo-Saxon at heart if not in blood – and they are not alone in this belief, which is often expressed by the French articulate classes.
But to the Germans, the crisis is about shiftless Mediterranean types living beyond their means. They have no stomach to pass a massive debt incurred by others to the next generation of Germans – demographically, a dwindling remnant of today’s population.
The conflict is only superficially about economics. Like the baby dinosaurs emerging from their eggshells in Jurassic Park, the old nationalities have burst through the veneer of Europe with their animosities and mutual stereotypes intact. Germans think the Greeks are lazy. Greeks think the Germans are Nazis. Meanwhile Maastricht’s benevolent inventions are allowed to drown in a torrent of ugly historical memories.
The real debt here is one of falsehood, and it will be paid for in lost illusions and unconstructed reality.
Of course, most Europeans are far too cynical to believe in Europe; the point was to pretend to do so. Among the few believers, Timothy Garton Ash has over the years displayed the sunniest optimism. While willing to look reality in the eye, he has found, for every past disaster, a best-of-all-possible-worlds interpretation. Thus he clearly perceived Europe’s decline relative to the US and China, then told himself, with a determined smile, that after all a gentle decline can be a very pleasant existence.
No more. As he contemplates the EU’s boulevard of broken dreams, Garton Ash sounds anguished almost to the point of clinical depression.
Can anyone save me from Europessimism? I feel more depressed about the state of the European project than I have for decades. The eurozone is in mortal danger. European foreign policy is advancing at the pace of a drunken snail. Power shifts to Asia. The historical motors of European integration are either lost or spluttering. European leaders rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic while lecturing the rest of the world on ocean navigation.
. . . The tensions within European societies will rise, but so will those between European states. In particular, resentments within and towards Germany, the continent’s central power, are bound to increase either way: if Germany imposes tough terms for a fiscal union while at the same time underwriting other governments’ risk, or if it lets a Greece or Portugal go to the wall, resulting in further capital flight to Germany. In the very best case, if the old “challenge and response” pattern of integration through crisis works once again, Europe will be preoccupied with resolving its internal economic and financial problems for years to come.
The current and emerging great powers of the 21st century, from the United States and China to Brazil and Russia, already treat European pretensions to be a major single player on the world stage with something close to contempt. . .
The original reasons driving the nations of Europe to unification are no longer operative, Garton Ash observes. These were rooted in fear and ambition, anyway, and the continent’s current elites are too smug and inert to feel such basic urges. They prefer postmodern poses to real-world achievement. Searching for a reason for the EU’s existence, Garton Ash actually proposes “global warming”: one social construction to justify another.
Whether the unmaking of Europe is good or bad depends on where one stands. My take is that the loss of the Europe that might have been is a tragedy. But that particular construct – welding the demonic energies of Europe’s past to the peaceableness of its present – was never in the cards.
In the end, it is preferable to wrestle with reality, no matter how painful, than to dwell within a comfortable and well-constructed lie.