At the end of June, a Greek photographer accused a Bavarian politician and ex-minister in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, Peter Ramsauer, of blurting out during a high-level German delegation visit to Athens, “Fass mich nicht an, Du dreckiger Grieche.” Ramsauer and the photojournalist had apparently accidentally bumped into one another. The German guest is said even to have then repeated the phrase in English, “Don’t touch me, you filthy Greek.” Ramsauer, a member of the Bavarian Christian Social Union, says he was sharply elbowed rather than merely bumped. He calls the allegation absurd.
In an increasingly post-factual, internet-addled world, it is not easy to say who, if anyone, is telling the truth. But it doesn’t really matter, for the point is that in a post-Brexit Europe nerves are fraying—and for good reason. A recent report by the European Council on Foreign Relations counts 45 “insurgent” parties across the EU’s 28 countries. The parties differ in ideology: The collection ranges from far Right (Greece’s Golden Dawn) to serious Left (Germany’s Die Linke), with plenty of humdrum populist parties in between. Virtually all, however, share strong Euroskeptical views.
More potentially telegenic, the number of countries where movements are afoot calling for referenda on EU membership is growing. In Austria, the country’s highest court recently called for a new presidential election following irregularities in a May poll, in which right-wing populist candidate Norbert Hofer of the Euroskeptic Freedom Party lost by the slenderest of margins. In Germany, politicians like Ramsauer want countries like Greece kicked out of the euro.
The great supranational experiment known as the European Union looks to be dissolving. But why, how, and to what future? The only way to know the future is to understand the past, and even that is no guarantee of perspicacity. History tells us that, of course, the ascent and prospective demise of the European Union is a European story, largely a Continental one (everyone has heard of Paul-Henri Spaak and Jean Monnet, after all), but with a decidedly German imprint. It follows that, without savvy, self-aware German leadership, there’s no safe way out of the current mess.
True enough, but that is not enough truth. In point of fact, the idea of European integration began as a British idea, and gained traction only on account of whole-hearted U.S. support.
It all started straightforwardly enough when Winston Churchill himself spoke after World War II about the need for a “kind of United States of Europe” to help rescue the Continent from its “infinite misery.” Read the history carefully and you will know that Americans, including Harry Truman, George Marshall, Dean Acheson, Joseph Grew, and many others, offered a strong guiding hand in the critical early days, when Churchill was out of office (July 1945–October 1951).
During its first four decades, the European Community existed chiefly to foster intra-European cooperation as a means of warding off the nationalist demons of the past. Democracy helped; as did a strong and continuing American presence through NATO, formed in 1949. The alliance was designed, in the famously plain language of the organization’s first Secretary General, Lord Ismay, to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”
Put a bit more subtly, NATO’s purpose was not just to deter Russians but also to organize the West along certain self-sustaining lines. One of those lines was to keep the recently unknotted nationalisms of Europe liberal long enough for integration to eventually take up the task. Not all nationalisms are created equal, everyone had learned, and it was the disastrous consequences of mainly Germany’s particular brand that led to postwar Europe’s architecture and initial purpose.
As the Cold War ended, though, the idea behind the European Community began mutating. Germans had become fully pacified and mostly pacifist. Frenchmen and Poles—and even Margaret Thatcher’s Britain—made their peace with the idea of German unification. And among the structural changes taking place, it soon became clear, in the capitals of Western Europe in any case, that a post-Cold War Europe no longer divided would also be a continent no longer dependent on America for its security. The idea that Russia would revive to become an imperial recidivist, or that mortal danger could come from any other source if it were sterilized from within Europe itself, seemed not to occur. Indeed, the very idea of needing “security” in the classical sense all but evaporated in a froth of post-political amnesia.
It also had become increasingly obvious that dependency had bred restlessness and resentment. No one felt this more strongly than the Germans. Cold War France had retained its sovereignty, possessed nuclear weapons, and had pursued its own foreign policies. Not so with the divided Germans. East Germany had been a satellite of the Soviet Union; West Germany, a junior partner of the United States. As a result, in the early 1990s the ever-deepening integration of the European project had left the actual past behind in favor of a notional future.
The bellwether of that notion was symbolized by the Maastricht Treaty, which in 1993 established the European Union out of its precursor parade of names and acronyms, along with European citizenship. Led from Berlin and Paris—the French wanting leverage and a restraining hand on the shoulder of their newly unified neighbor; the Germans wanting, in plain language, “Europe” as cover to spread their wings and advance their national interests—the new EU was conceived essentially as method to consolidate power. With monetary and political union, an emerging European powerhouse would have its say in the world and be able to position itself to compete on the global stage with the likes of China and the United States.
But as the EU pushed forward with deeper integration, gaps between elites and publics widened. The old raison d’être of pursing integration to secure peace in Europe had faded in the minds of ordinary Europeans and elites alike. The ambition to turn the EU into a post-geopolitical 21st-century superpower never managed to capture the hearts and souls of the common man.
Meanwhile, the functional growth of the EU stammered whenever it approached a threshold where sovereignty really mattered to elites and citizens alike—money, borders, and guns mainly—and the result in economic, political, and security domains was a set of structurally defective halfway houses that could not withstand foul weather. That has become painfully obvious in the derangement between fiscal and monetary policy, with a single currency but multiple treasury authorities, and no central bank coherent enough to even to issue bonds. But it exists in other spheres as well, as for example a migrant/asylum “policy” with no effective enforcement mechanism, either on external or internal borders, anywhere in sight. It has been a classical case of willing the ends but not the means, and the result has been the insolvency that must eventually issue from the abyss.
While all this shabby architecture was beginning to cry out for refurbishment, many Europeans began to focus on their stagnant economies, consequent bitter arguments over bailouts, and, most recently, the inability of the EU to manage large-scale flows of refugees rationally or effectively (a crisis clumsily and naively precipitated by a well-intentioned German Chancellor who wanted to show the world the “welcome culture” of the good Germans). By the time of the UK referendum on June 23, it wasn’t just in British circles that Brussels had become an object of derision. As one German commentator put it after the Brexit vote, it’s time for the EU to worry less about harmonizing regulations on toasters and vacuum cleaners and more about the big issues people care about.
Indeed. If the EU is to survive in some form, it must start to tackle serious problems convincingly in the eyes of larger numbers of Europeans. Migration is a doozy. Cutting red tape and lifting EU-wide regulatory burdens so that economies can grow is a related and close second. Don’t expect the continent to embrace Anglo-Saxon economics. The French and Germans who continue to shape key conversations in Brussels about these matters will never stand for that. Yet sticking to the old precepts of the “social market” economy while birth rates across Europe continue to tumble is like signing a death warrant for any version of a “united” Europe in the 21st century.
In addition, developments in artificial intelligence and robotics are likely to pose immense challenges in the next couple of decades, both in the United States and in Europe, as large parts of traditional workforces find themselves unemployed and in need of retooling in relatively short periods. Flexibility and agility have not been up to now the EU’s strongest hand.
Having said this, it would be a mistake to see a way out of the current crisis solely in economic, transactional, and technological terms. All the trade statistics and GDP figures in the world were never going to persuade Brexiters that ceding British sovereignty to supranational institutions had turned out to be a good for British interests.
Which brings us to the nub of the matter, and back to the role of Germany as protagonist in this story. There’s something distinctly tribal about this moment in Europe’s history. European elites have overreached and lost touch with their citizens (we Americans in the age of Donald Trump’s would-be ascendency know something about this, too). An increasing number of Europeans chafe at being attacked or dismissed as “anti-European” simply because they voice questions about democratic accountability, sovereignty, and national identity. The vexing paradox that Germans, above all, are loath to confront is precisely this: A project originally designed to bury the malign nationalisms of the past is now having exactly the opposite effect.
Make no mistake, the anti-EU backlash comprises some extraordinarily vile elements, including in Germany itself. In June, a deputy for the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD)—a party founded just three years ago and today represented in the legislatures of half of Germany’s 16 states—called a star player from the country’s national team soccer team, Jerome Boateng, an “alien,” who no one would want as a neighbor. (Boateng was born in Berlin to a German mother and father from Ghana.) In another controversy this summer, Wolfgang Gedeon, a medical doctor turned lawmaker for the AfD in Baden-Wuerttemberg, attacked Judaism as the “domestic enemy” of the “Christian West.” (Gedeon labeled Islam as the “external enemy,” and so qualifies as an equal-opportunity bigot.) Just as there will be more refugees—and Islamic terrorism—in Europe, there will surely be more of this bile as well.
So what to do, if you’re the EU?
The crucial problem now for EU leaders, especially and above all for national leaders in Germany and France, is no longer how to keep the European Union together. The EU’s days are almost certainly numbered in its current form. The challenge now is how to navigate to a soft landing so that liberal, democratic nation-states can settle into new forms of association, allowing trade and cooperation in areas of ranging from diplomacy to defense.
Central to this task is to marginalize the rise of illiberal forms of nationalism by demonstrating, bewilderingly enough perhaps for some, far more tolerance and providing greater space for the kind of liberal nationalism that has been up to now anathema to EU architects. To this end, it’s important that West European elites in particular stop conflating things. All of Europe’s extremists and unsavory populists are Euroskeptics, but not all Euroskeptics are demagogues and right-wing radicals bent on destroying human rights and the rule of law.
None of this will be easy. Ideologically, psychologically, and strategically most of the continent’s political class remain invested in the current version of Europe. One problem for Germany to parse and lead on all this is rooted in history; there’s not much success to point to when it comes to positive experience with nationalism of the liberal sort. Weimar didn’t turn out well, nor did the fate of German liberal nationalists in the middle of the 19th century. During four decades of the Federal Republic, elites force-fed docile Germans the chimera of a post-national identity. They tried to persuade people that the EU was never intended to become just another state, only larger, but something entirely different, better, and above all safer. They had a whole lot of people persuaded, too—until reality lately intruded.
The Germans have witnessed the emergence of what one might call “soccer patriotism” in recent years. Convincing Germans that such a thing as benign nationalism can and should exist as an acceptable and necessary expression of political life and foreign policy, however, is a little like telling Americans raised on the Second Amendment, Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty or give me death,” and a national anthem that celebrates “bombs bursting in air,” that pacifism is the path to real peace. Supranationalism has been an article of faith for the German political establishment, Left to Right. It’s hard not to keep clinging.
Meanwhile, European elites have so long been squirreled away in nicely decorated rooms playing glass bead games with organizational charts that they seem to have lost the ability to speak, and perhaps think, in plain language. Here is a passage from the post-Brexit paper issued in the name of the German and French Foreign Ministers, intended to reassure EU voters.
…citizens rightly expect to regain control via supranational institutions accountable to them. In the short term a full time president of the Eurogroup should be accountable to a Eurozone subcommittee in the European Parliament. In the longer term, the Eurogroup and its president should be accountable to a parliamentary body comprising members of the European Parliament with the participation of members of national parliaments.
Come again? Who is responsible exactly for what? How do national interests actually figure in this equation? For German taxpayers, for example, expected to fund bailouts of fiscally deficient countries like Greece—no, not xenophobes, but ordinary, respectable German citizens—this is the sort of muddling and misdirection that fuels frustration and anger. Once the persiflage is penetrated, it becomes clear that, instead of looking for sensible ways to walk back some of the centralization and supranationalism, the current idea from Berlin and Paris is essentially to double down. “The British case is unique,” the German-French paper declares. “We will move therefore forward towards political union.”
Conspicuously absent as coauthor of the German-French memorandum, incidentally, are the Poles—Poland having been envisaged by the Germans until recently as the their Central European anchor for the European project. The trouble is, Poland’s government is now led by Euroskeptics, with a dubious commitment in some instance to rule of law. Much like the government of Viktor Órban in Hungary.
Is there any mistaking the bigger picture? Central and Eastern Europe are fragmenting and drifting toward illiberal forms of nationalism in a number of ways (Russia is doing everything it can to help). Czech President Milos Zeman wants now a referendum on EU and NATO membership. Hungary has scheduled a referendum on migrants for October. All this while the south of Europe remains exceptionally fragile and weak, and in Western Europe the Dutch, the Danes, and the Swedes may well follow the British example. The price of keeping this EU together, both economic and social, is going to continue to rise. Doubling down on a vision failing on so many different levels is surely unwise, and will only hasten collapse.
The only way to save the situation from a relatively hard landing would be a new exertion of Anglo-American leadership—precisely the formula that got the whole thing started to begin with. But that clearly is not going to happen after two consecutive U.S. Presidents have relegated Europe to a sans-strategic afterthought. In the short term, more nationalism is coming to Europe. Either Europeans find ways to get ahead of it and channel it, which will require a fairly quick and agile rethink of the EU’s current concept and foundation. Or they risk a rapid disintegration of current structures and, possibly, a continent in considerable disarray. We could in time even witness what had become the unthinkable: the renationalization of European defense policies, albeit in threadbare and likely dysfunctional forms for several years. If that happens, sharp elbows and name-calling will be the least of our worries.