Stop Pretending: Europe is Not Like America

Americans should stop comparing European integration with their own process of nationbuilding.

A European Union flag is seen on Crete, Greece, January 28
A European Union flag is seen on Crete, Greece, January 28 (Theophilos Papadopoulos)

It should be obvious that Europe’s attempts to forge a union out of dozens of nations that have existed for centuries is different from America’s, where a nation was created in a new land from scratch. Yet some American commentators insist on comparing Europe’s process of integration with their own.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former director of policy planning in the United States State Department and a prominent foreign policy analyst, reminisces about the federalist ambitions of the European Union’s founders and argues that the continent’s ongoing debt crisis, especially in Greece, is similar to America’s Civil War — “though one that, fortunately, is free of physical violence.”

Without statesmen and stateswomen able to articulate a vision of a shared future worth working and even sacrificing for, the side of unity may not win. Europe’s national anthem, a circle of stars and talk of fiscal rectitude and structural reforms cannot compete with the potent messages of the EU’s opponents.

Slaughter unfortunately dismisses Euroskepticism as something that appeals only to “those who feel threatened by migrants and those who are suffering as a result of austerity.”

This underestimates what Andrew Sullivan, a British blogger, has called Europe’s “blue-red culture war over modernity.”

“Blue Europe,” according to Sullivan, is “internationalist, globalized, metrosexual, secular, modern, multicultural” — the sort of place Slaughter would probably feel comfortable in. (As would this author.)

“Red Europe is noninterventionist, patriotic, more traditional, more sympathetic to faith, more comfortable in a homogeneous society.” It is a place European federalists can hardly understand.

“Blue” Europeans tend to be higher educated so they can compete globally. They are also comfortable traveling or moving for a job whereas the “reds” are less mobile and increasingly struggling to find work that matches their skills.

This is not simply the result of austerity; America has its own unemployed or underemployed working class in Rust Belt states like Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia where the mines and steel mills disappeared long ago and no new economy has taken their place.

“Mass immigration or migration across Europe,” writes Sullivan, has “only made things worse, leading to resentment and racism when it has occurred in already beleaguered working-class Europe. The emergence of an unassimilated Muslim population didn’t help things either.”

In the face of these challenges, European officials and politicians have done a poor job at defending such policies as the free movement of labor and goods across borders. Protectionist parties on the left and the right unfairly blame “Europe” for depressing employment in rich Western countries. Slaughter’s laments about their lack of “vision” ring true in this regard.

But maybe that’s also because the vision has become a reality?

The European Union exists. A lot of policy is made at the European level. Nineteen European countries share the same currency. If Slaughter, and those like her, want a Europe “which pools sovereignty sufficiently to benefit from being a powerful regional entity in a world of almost 200 countries while maintaining its members’ distinct languages and cultures” — they have it.

Most Europeans aren’t starry-eyed about it, though. They look to European politics with the same level of skepticism as they do to their national politics, as they should. Some leaders, like European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, readily admit they sometimes fool the public in the name of the European ideal. The European Parliament is filled with fanatics who, given the chance, would erase Europe’s distinct cultures and languages tomorrow to create “one Europe”. Little wonder the average European is mistrustful of their big ideas.

Of course, improvements can be made. The single market should be expanded to fully cover services, for example. Education standards should be harmonized so a medical graduate from Bulgaria really can work in a Belgian hospital. This would involve the sort of pragmatic, results-oriented progress Slaughter finds uninspiring. But it would have a real and positive impact on Europeans’ lives.

What is unlikely to happen is a United States of Europe. Centuries of state formation and nationbuilding are not swept away by sixty years of economic and political cooperation. There may be a sense of European belonging. But a sense of European nationhood is generations away, if it ever develops.

European integration should be a goal in itself. If the European ideal is peace and prosperity, ever-closer union does not seem to be bringing about the latter and may, at some point, even start to undermine the former. There is a limit to European solidarity and that limit is about to be reached in the case of Greece. If Americans want a Europe whole and free, they should stop telling their allies to be more like them and let Europe be Europe.

Leave a reply