(St. Petersburg, Russia) The French and Greek elections of May 6, 2012 signify the beginning of the end for the “Europe Project”. The competing visions of two remarkable Frenchmen- Jean Monnet and Charles De Gaulle- have been decisively resolved in favor of the latter.
Nearly seventy years ago in the wake of two catastrophic world wars, Monnet became known as the “Father of Europe” by advocating a unified destiny for his battered continent. Monnet dubbed his idea the “Europe Project” and diplomatically described it as a scheme of limited economic and political cooperation. Less cautious souls spoke of a “United States of Europe”.
The idea took its first serious form in 1957 as the “Common Market”, an economic linkage of six nations-France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg.
Just a year later however with the election of World War II hero Charles De Gaulle as President of France there emerged a powerful alternative vision to Monnet’s supra national “Europe Project”.
De Gaulle saw permanent reconciliation between France and Germany as the key to a peaceful European future. He also believed that mutually beneficial economic ties between the two ancient rivals were the best guarantee of that reconciliation. While De Gaulle’s vision allowed for carefully selected smaller nations to economically associate with the “Franco- German Core” he decisively rejected any arrangement that sacrificed the sovereignty of France.
De Gaulle dramatically underlined his dissent from Monnet’s “Europe’s Project”- by rejecting British membership in the Common Market, withdrawing from the NATO Alliance, and establishing France as an independent nuclear power.
De Gaulle and Monnet symbolized competing visions of Europe’s future and that debate between the ideas of nationalism and supra-nationalism has only grown sharper in the decades since the passing of both men.
In the last quarter of the twentieth century events seemed to favor the dream of Monnet. The six member Common Market steadily expanded and eventually morphed into the twenty-seven member European Union (EU) we know today. The free trade agreements at the heart of the Union fostered steady economic growth as such agreements usually do.
For the true believers in the “Europe Project,” however, economics was but a means to the end of political union. Though the bureaucrats who ran the E.U. from Brussels made steady progress insinuating their onerous regulations into the legal systems of member states, they were repeatedly frustrated by the inconvenience of democratic national elections where voters persistently rejected the centralizing impulse toward tighter political ties.
Following two such embarrassing defeats at the hands of French and Dutch voters the proponents of the “Europe Project” concluded that the cause of political union was best advanced through means of a common E.U. currency to be known as the “Euro”.
Thus was administered the “poison pill” that would bring about the ultimate ruin of the “Europe Project”.
In theory the common currency and monetary policy would be the “rising tide that lifts all boats” with the weaker economies of Southern Europe being boosted toward the higher performance of Northern powerhouses like Germany with the desired side effect of ever tighter political union.
From the beginning there was much Northern European skepticism with some E.U. members like Britain even refusing to adopt the common currency. When the world lurched into recession in 2008 that skepticism proved to be very well founded. Instead of the North lifting the South, the opposite happened i.e. the weak Southern economies (Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal) became an increasingly heavy dragging anchor on the North.
Ever deeper mutual recrimination abounded. As they were forced to funnel “bail-out” money to the seemingly bottomless pit in the South, E.U. leadership became increasingly strident in demanding harsh austerity measures which provoked protests, riots, and collapsing governments in Greece and elsewhere.
As pressures on the Euro ratcheted upward the key to sustaining the Europe Project was embodied by the strong personal partnership between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicholas Sarkozy. Both of them however faced growing political opposition questioning their leadership of E.U.
The vital partnership ended when Sarkozy lost the Presidential Election to Socialist Francoise Hollande, who won by making promises that were politically popular but economically impossible.
On the same day angry Greek voters revolted against the two major political parties who had agreed to the draconian budget cuts demanded by the E.U. leadership.
So, where does the “Europe Project” stand today?
There will be no stable Greek government in the foreseeable future. All political parties are demanding renegotiation of the terms of their “bail-out” which is simply a non-starter for the E.U. leadership. The departure of Greece from the Euro zone -once unthinkable- is now being discussed.
Sharp policy conflicts between France and Germany are already emerging. Chancellor Merkel has lost her principal ally and is increasingly isolated within her own party.
Reality is that Greece will never become Germany, and German voters will never tolerate permanent subsidies for what they understandably view as a “profligate” Southern Europe.
Today we see giant demonstrations in Madrid, Rome, and Athens against what people view as “E.U. tyranny”. As Le Monde editorialized “All the passion in Europe is anti-EU”.
Long ago Charles De Gaulle observed, “People do not take to the streets on behalf of an abstraction”.
Today the “Europe Project” has become an abstraction, and though their grasp of economic reality may be flawed, the people of Europe have made clear that they do not like it. ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________ William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post and Human Events.