Europe: The Grand Illusion


The European community was founded nearly forty years ago, with the stated object of promoting the “ever-closer” union of its members. It is a remarkable accomplishment, albeit not quite so remarkable as its advocates suggest. There are few who oppose its objectives in principle, and the practical benefits it affords its members, such as unrestricted trade, are obvious. That, after all, is why nearly everyone wants to join it. It is now engaging in negotiations among its member-states to construct a single European currency and mechanisms for common decision-taking and collective action, while simultaneously holding out to the countries of former Communist Europe the promise of membership in years to come.

The likelihood that the European Union can fulfill its own promises of ever-closer union, while remaining open to new members on the same terms, is slim indeed. In the first place, the unique historical circumstances of the years between 1945 and 1989 cannot be reproduced. Indeed, the disruptive effect of the events of 1989 has been at least as great in the West as in the East. The essence of the Franco-German condominium around which postwar Western Europe was built lay in a mutually convenient arrangement: the Germans would have the economic means and the French would retain the political initiative. In the early postwar years, of course, the Germans had not yet acquired their present wealth and French predominance was real. But from the mid-Fifties this was no longer true; thereafter France’s hegemony in West European affairs rested upon a nuclear weapon that the country could not use, an army that it could not deploy within the continent itself, and an international political standing derived largely from the self-interested magnanimity of the three victorious Powers at the end of the war.

This curious interlude is now at an end. One economic fact may illustrate the point. In 1990 a chart of French economic influence shows it to be limited to the “Europe of Nine”—that is to say, the original six (Germany, France, Italy, and the Benelux countries)—plus Britain, Eire, and Denmark. With these countries, France was a major importer and exporter of goods and services. But Germany, in contrast, already encompassed within its range of economic influence not only the present “Europe of Fifteen” but also most of the rest of the continent to the south and east. The significance of this is clear. France has become a regional power, confined to Europe’s western edge. Germany, even before unification, was once again the great power of Europe.

The impact of 1989 has also posed new difficulties for the Germans. For just as weakness and declining international power arouse difficult memories for France, so in Germany does an apparent excess of power. German politicians from Adenauer to Helmut Kohl have made a point of playing down German strength, deferring to French political initiatives and emphasizing their own wish for nothing more than a stable Germany in a prosperous Europe; they have thus fallen victim to their own rhetoric, bequeathing to post-1989 Europe a muscle-bound state with no sense of national purpose.

As a consequence, Germany’s national agenda today is a little too full. In addition to the economic and political problem of absorbing the eastern Länder, Germans must deal with the paradox of pre-unification Ostpolitik:that many German politicians, especially on the left, were well pleased with things the way they were and would have been quite content to see the Wall remain a little longer. Germans have also to reckon with embarrassments about their own capacities—now that they can and manifestly do lead Europe, where should they take it? And of what Europe are they the natural leaders—the West-leaning “Europe” forged by the French, or that traditional Europe of German interests, where Germany sits not on the eastern edge but squarely in the middle?

A Germany at the heart of Europe carries echoes and reminders that many people, Germans perhaps most of all, have sought since 1949 to set aside. But the image of a Germany resolutely turned away from troubling Eastern memories, clinging fervently to its postwar Western allies, as though they alone stood between the nation and its demons, is not very convincing.

Europe’s basic economic circumstances have also changed. For a generation following the announcement of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950, Western Europe experienced an unprecedented combination of high growth and near-full employment. From this was born the belief, reflected in a series of optimistic economic forecasts from the OECD, that the cycle of crises that had marked the European economy for the previous half-century had been broken for good. The great oil crisis of 1974 should have put an end to such illusions. In 1950 Western Europe depended upon oil for only 8.5 percent of its energy needs; most of the rest was still provided by coal, Europe’s indigenous and cheap fossil fuel. By 1970 oil accounted for 60 percent of European energy consumption. The quadruple increase in oil prices thus put an end to a quarter of a century of cheap energy, sharply and definitively raising the cost of manufacture, transport, and daily living. In the Federal Republic of Germany GNP actually fell by 0.5 percent in 1974 and again, by 1.6 percent, in 1975, unprecedented blips in the postwar Wirtschaftswunder that were confirmed in 1981 and 1982, when the West German economy declined again, by 0.2 percent and 1 percent respectively. In Italy GNP fell (by 3.7 percent) in 1976, for the first time since the end of the war. Neither the German nor any other Western European economy has ever been the same again.

The effect of this on the European Community (later Union) itself was severe. An important feature of the community had been its capacity to serve with equal success the varied needs of its member countries, needs deriving from interwar experiences and memories that differed quite markedly. The Belgians (like the British) feared unemployment more than anything else; the French sought above all to avoid the Malthusian stagnation of earlier decades; Germans lived in terror of an unstable, inflated currency. After 1974 the stalled economy of Europe threatened them all with increasing unemployment, slow growth, and sharply rising prices. There has thus been an unanticipated return to earlier woes. Far from being able to offer the advantages of its economic miracle to an ever expanding community of beneficiaries, “Europe” can no longer even be sure of being able to provide them to itself. The events of 1989 brought this problem into the open, but the source of the Union’s inability to address it can be found fifteen years earlier.

The memory of unemployment between the wars varies from country to country. It was never a great scourge in France, averaging just 3.3 percent per annum throughout the 1930s. But in Britain, where 7.5 percent of the labor force was already unemployed during the 1920s, the annual average of 11.5 percent in the Thirties was something that politicians and economists of every stripe swore should never happen again. In Belgium and Germany, where the unemployment rate was nearly 9 percent, similar sentiments prevailed. It was thus one of the glories of the postwar West European economy that it maintained close to full employment through much of the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1960s the annual average unemployment rate in Western Europe was just 1.6 percent. In the following decade it rose to an annual average of 4.2 percent. By the late 1980s it had doubled again, with annual average rates of unemployment in the EC at 9.2 percent; by 1993 the figure stood at 11 percent.

Within these depressing figures one could see patterns that were more truly disturbing. In 1993 registered unemployment among men and women under twenty-five exceeded 20 percent in six EU countries (Spain, Eire, France, Italy, Belgium, and Greece). The long-term unemployed accounted for more than one third the total of those without work in those six nations as well as the UK, the Netherlands, and the former West Germany. The redistributive impact of the inflation of the 1980s worsens the effect of these figures, widening the gap between people in work and the unemployed. What is more, upturns in the economy no longer have the effect, as they did during the boom years after 1950, of absorbing surplus labor and pulling up the worse-off. Who now remembers the fantasies of the 1960s, when it was blithely believed that production problems had been solved, and all that remained was to redistribute the benefits?

The combination of rapid urban growth and subsequent economic stagnation has brought to Western Europe not only a renewed threat of economic insecurity, something unknown to most Europeans since the late 1940s, but also greater social disruption and physical risk than at any time since the early Industrial Revolution. In Western Europe today one can now see desolate satellite towns, rotting suburbs, and hopeless city ghettos. Even the great capital cities—London, Paris, Rome—are neither as clean, as safe, nor as hopeful as they were just thirty years ago. They and dozens of provincial cities from Lyon to Lübeck are developing an urban underclass. If this has not had more explosive social and political consequences, the credit lies with the systems of social welfare with which Western Europeans furnished themselves after 1945.

The crisis of the welfare state is thus the third reason why the European Union cannot expect to project its achievements and promise into the indefinite future. The Western European population is aging. Ever since the mid-Sixties the general trend has been for fewer children per family, to the point that in some countries, notably Italy and Spain, the population is not even maintaining itself. In Spain the birth rate per thousand in 1993 was just 1.1, a historic low. Europeans must now support a large and growing population of older people on the backs of fewer and fewer younger people, many of whom are not employed. A generous system of social services designed for flourishing economies where a large number of employed young people supported the social needs of a relatively small population of the old and sick is now under serious pressure.

In Northern and Western Europe the population aged sixty-five and over has grown by between 12 percent and 17 percent (depending on the country) since the mid-1960s. Moreover, even those under sixty-five can no longer be counted automatically on the “productive” side of the national equation: in West Germany the percentage of men aged sixty to sixty-four who were in paid employment fell from 72 to 44 in the two decades after 1960; in the Netherlands the figures were 81 and 58 respectively. At the moment the underemployed elderly are merely an expensive burden. But once the baby boomers begin to retire (around 2010), the presence of a huge, frustrated, bored, unproductive, and ultimately unhealthy population of old people could become a major social crisis.

It is clear to most European politicians that the costs of maintaining the welfare state in its postwar form cannot be carried indefinitely. The difficulty lies in knowing whom to displease first—the shrinking number of contributors or the growing number of involuntary beneficiaries. Both parties can vote. So far a combination of habit and good intentions has favored retaining as many social benefits as possible. But during the past few years another factor in the “welfare” debate has threatened to distort national political judgment out of all proportion to its size. This is the so-called “immigrant question.”

As a result of immigration from former colonies and from its Mediterranean fringe, attracted by job prospects in an economy sucking in labor to fuel its rapid growth, Western Europe by the early 1960s had an excess of immigrants over emigrants for the first time this century. By 1973, the high point of the “foreign presence” in Western Europe, the EEC nations together with Austria, Switzerland, Norway, and Sweden had some 7.5 million foreign workers, of whom nearly five million were in France and Germany, comprising about 10 percent of the labor force in both countries. Despite a sharp fall-off in numbers since then, because governments have restricted immigration for both economic and political reasons, the “immigrant” presence has remained significant. According to data from 1990, about 6.1 percent of the German population, 6.4 percent of the French population, 4.3 percent of the Dutch and 3.3 percent of the British population are foreigners. These figures do not include naturalized immigrants, or locally born children of foreigners, though in some countries—notably Germany—these continue to be counted as foreigners and lack full citizens’ rights.

In recent years these immigrants and their children have become the target of resentment and fear on the part of the “native” population, sentiments fanned and exploited by extremist and mainstream politicians alike. Just how far this process has now gone may be seen in France. In May 1989, 28 percent of Jacques Chirac’s Gaullist supporters pronounced themselves “globally in agreement” with the ideas about immigrants expressed in the program of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front. In 1991 the figure was 50 percent. And if the Communist and Socialist voters were less sympathetic, that was only because a significant number of them had already switched their allegiance to Le Pen: in the presidential elections of 1995, he won 30 percent of the votes of the employed working class, the socialist candidate Lionel Jospin obtaining just 21 percent.

Thus by the end of the 1980s a large minority of mainstream voters in France saw nothing disreputable about expressing agreement with policies that twenty years before would have been regarded as unacceptably close to fascism (among the proposals in Le Pen’s November 1991 list of “Fifty measures to be taken on immigra-tion” was one to withdraw previously granted naturalizations, an act of retroactive injustice last practiced in France under the government of Philippe Pétain). In Austria Jörg Haider’s far-right Freedom Party got 22 percent of the vote in the December 1995 national elections. In Germany, too, increasing restrictions on “guest workers” and other would-be immigrants have been imposed “in their own interest.”

The politics of immigration will not soon subside, because cross-continental and intercontinental migrations are once again a feature of European society, and local fears and prejudices will ensure that they continue to be seen as disruptive and politically exploitable. Prejudice in earlier decades against Polish or Italian or Portuguese immigrants was eventually muted as their children, distinguished by neither religion nor language nor color, blended into the social landscape. These advantages of cultural and physical invisibility are not available to their successors from Turkey, Africa, India, or the Antilles. There is very little tradition in Europe of effective assimilation—or, alternatively, “multiculturalism”—when it comes to truly foreign communities. Immigrants and their children will join the ranks of the “losers” in the competition for Western Europe’s reduced resources.

Hitherto, the “losers” in Europe’s postwar history have been sustained by complicated, expensive systems of regional aid that the European Union put in place within and between countries. These amount to a form of institutionalized relief—constantly correcting for market deformations that have concentrated wealth and opportunity in the rich northwestern core without doing much to alter the causes of the disparity. Southern Europe, the peripheries (Eire, Portugal, Greece), the economic underclass, and the “immigrants” thus constitute a community of the disadvantaged for whom the EU is the only source of relief on the one hand—for without succor from Brussels much of Western Europe, from depressed mining communities to unprofitable peasant villages, would be in even worse trouble than it is—and envy and resentment on the other. For where there are losers there are also winners.

To see “Europe” at work for the winners one has only to spend a few days in the triangle made up by the towns of Saarbrücken (Germany), Metz (France), and Luxembourg. Here prosperous citizens of three countries travel freely across all-but- vanished frontiers. People, employment, commodities, and entertainment move easily back and forth among languages and states, seemingly unconscious of the historic tensions and enmities that marked this very region in the quite recent past. Local children continue to grow up in France, Germany, or Luxembourg, and learn their histories according to national instructional rites, but what they learn no longer corresponds very well with what they see. All in all, that is to the good. The natural logic of the union of the Saarland with Lorraine has been achieved, not under the auspices of the German high command or of a French army of occupation, but following the benign designs of the European Commission. C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas l’Europe. Or, to be fair, it is indeed “Europe,” but from a very distinctive angle. For of what does this Europe consist, geographically speaking? What are its capitals, and where are its institutions? The Commission and its civil service sit in Brussels. The Parliament and its committees meet in Strasbourg and Luxembourg. The European Court is in The Hague. Crucial decisions regarding further unification are taken at Maastricht, while an agreement to pool frontier regulations and police aliens was signed in the Luxembourg town of Schengen. All six towns, within easy reach of one another, lie athwart the line running from the North Sea to the Alps that formed the centerpiece and primary communications route of the ninth-century Carolingian monarchy. Here, one might say, lies the heart (and, some would add, the soul) of today’s European Union. But the instinctive, atavistic (and politically calculated) location of these modern capitals of “Europe” should serve as a cautionary reminder that what is true about today’s Europe may not be very new, and what is proclaimed as new perhaps not wholly true.

There is another curious feature of Europe today. Its winners, those people and places which have done well in the Union and associate their prosperity with an emphatically European identity, are best described by reference not to nation-states but to regions. The great success stories of contemporary Europe are Baden-Württemberg, in southwestern Germany; the Rhône-Alpes region of France; Lombardy; and Catalonia. Three of these “super-regions” (none of which contains the national capital of its country) are grouped around Switzerland, as though wishing they could somehow clamber out of the constraints of their association with poorer regions of Italy, Germany, and France and become, by proximity and affinity, prosperous little Alpine republics themselves. Their disproportionate prosperity and economic power is striking. The Rhône-Alpes region, together with Greater Paris, accounts for about a third of French gross domestic product. Catalonia, in 1993, was responsible for 19 percent of Spain’s GDP, 23 percent of Spanish exports, and one quarter of all foreign investment; its per capita income was some 20 percent higher than the average for Spain as a whole.

The wealthy regions of Western Europe have discovered a strong interest in associating with one another, directly or through the institutions of Europe. And in the nature of things, it is an interest that puts them ever more at odds with the older nation-state of which they are still constituent parts. This is not a new source of disagreement. In Italy the resentment of northerners at sharing the country with a “parasitic” south is a theme as old as the state itself. Flemish national separatism in Belgium, which flourished under the Nazis and for that very reason was somewhat quiescent after the war, has benefited in recent years from the economic decline of industrial Wallonia; we Flemings, the argument now runs, claim not just linguistic equality and separate administration but our own (non-Belgian) identity—and state.

The common claim of separatists, in Spain, Italy, and Belgium, but also in Slovenia and the Czech lands before the “velvet divorce,” is this: “we”—the hard-working, tax-paying, better-educated, linguistically and/or culturally distinct northerners—are “European”; while “they”—the rural, backward, lazy, subsidized (Mediterranean) “south”—are less so. The logical imperative of a “European” identity that distinguishes itself from undesirable neighbors with whom it shares a state is to seek an alternative center of authority, choosing “Brussels” over Rome or Madrid. The appeal of “European Union” under these circumstances is that of cosmopolitan modern development against old-fashioned, restrictive, and “artificial” national constraints.

This in turn may account for the special attraction of “Europe” to the younger intelligentsia in these lands. The Soviet Union once appealed to many Western intellectuals as a promising combination of philosophical ambition and administrative power, and “Europe” has some of the same allure. For its admirers, the “Union” is the latest heir to the enlightened despotism of the eighteenth century. For what is “Brussels,” after all, if not a renewed attempt to achieve the ideal of efficient, universal administration, shorn of particularism and driven by reason and the rule of law, which the reforming monarchs—Catherine the Great, Frederick the Great, Maria Theresa, and Joseph II—strove to install in their ramshackle lands? It is the very rationality of the European Union ideal that commends it to an educated professional class which, in east and west alike, sees in “Brussels” an escape from hidebound practices and provincial backwardness—much as eighteenth-century lawyers, traders, and writers appealed to modernizing royals over the heads of reactionary parliaments and Diets.

But there is a price to be paid for all this. If “Europe” stands for the winners, who shall speak for the losers—the “south,” the poor, the linguistically, educationally, or culturally disadvantaged, underprivileged, or despised Europeans who don’t live in golden triangles along vanished frontiers? The risk is that what remains to these Europeans is “the nation,” or, more precisely, nationalism; not the national separatism of Catalans or the regional self-advancement of Lombards but the preservation of the nineteenth-century state as a bulwark against change. For this reason, and because an ever-closer bonding of the nations of Europe is in practice unlikely, it is perhaps imprudent to insist upon it. In arguing for a more modest assessment of Euro-prospects I don’t wish to suggest that there is something inherently superior about national institutions over supranational ones. But we should recognize the reality of nations and states, and note the risk that, when neglected, they become an electoral resource of nationalists.


Should the European Union take in the countries of Eastern Europe? In the former East Germany an optimistic belief that economic prosperity would bring the divided country together and wash away unhappy memories—an attempt, in short, to reproduce the “economic miracle” of the Federal Republic and its attendant benefits—has foundered not so much on the presence of those memories as upon the absence of any economic transformation comparable to that which West Germany enjoyed in the early Fifties. The same difficulty would apply to any attempt to absorb into the Union the lands to its east.

In economic terms alone such an expansion would make for onerous and unpopular burdens. In the 1992 EU budget, only four countries were net contributors: Germany, Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands (in descending order of per capita contribution). The beneficiaries, in the same order per capita, were Luxembourg, Eire, Greece, Belgium, Portugal, Denmark, Spain, and Italy. True, the subsequent newcomers—Sweden, Finland, and Austria—are all potential contributors, but their economies are small and their share will not amount to much. Conversely all conceivable future members of the Union (Switzerland apart) fall unambiguously into the category of beneficiaries. It has been estimated (in a 1994 study by the Bertelsmann Foundation) that the four “Visegrad Group” countries—Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary—alone would cost the European Union DM20 billion per year in direct payments. Clearly, it would cost the Union a lot of money—more than it can presently afford—to bring in such future members on the same terms as present ones.

For reasons I have suggested, the European Union cannot realistically promise even its existing members a future as secure and as prosperous as its past. Subterfuges like “inner core,” “fast track,” “variable geometry,” or “Partnership for Peace” are all devices to postpone or avoid the impossible choice of either saying no to newcomers or else expanding the Union on equal terms. For the foreseeable future it would be an expensive act of charity, economically speaking, for the EU to absorb the countries to its east on any acceptable terms. But would it not, perhaps, be in Western Europe’s self-interest to make the sacrifice notwithstanding (always supposing it can afford to do so)?

Let us set aside the issue of cultural affinity—whether, that is, Western Europe is lacking a vital part of itself if it is in any way separated from Central or Eastern Europe. The perceived self-interest of Western Europe today lies in securing itself against demographic and economic threats to its east and south. As for threats of a more conventional sort, it is an unspoken assumption of all European defense planners that Russia remains the only significant military threat to the rest of Europe. That the major states of Western and Central Europe have the same interest they have always had in maintaining “buffer states” to separate them from Russia is clear. But whether these perform their geo-strategic role better in or out of a formal Union remains an open question.

In any case, West European debate is now focused upon the workings of the European Union itself. Should collective European undertakings be decided by unanimous agreement (as now) or by majority voting? And in the latter case, how should majorities be construed, and how binding are their decisions to be? Helmut Kohl, the late François Mitterrand, and their political advisers favored the introduction of a system of majority voting, to eliminate the risk of deadlock that would arise from any attempt to meet the needs and demands of so many member-states. The British, supported by some of the smaller member states, favor retention of the veto (the same veto wielded by Charles de Gaulle to keep the British out in January 1963!) precisely to prevent decisions being taken against their interests—and indeed, to prevent the taking of too many decisions of any sort at all. It is not by chance that these conflicts have come to the fore. In the “Europe of Fifteen” it is going to be near-impossible to find strong majorities, much less unanimity, for decisions requiring hard choices.

This will be especially true in defense and foreign policy, matters in which Europe has hitherto been inactive. The option of military quiescence is no longer open to Europe; the US cannot be counted on to involve itself in European affairs whenever its services are required. The European Union has utterly failed to bring its members together for any common policy or action in military or foreign affairs. And what has proven difficult for fifteen members would be out of the question for a larger number still. Where the European Union and its forebears once resembled the UN—taking unanimous decisions on areas of common interest and agreeing to disagree, or just not make a decision, on difficult or divisive topics—it will now begin to look like the League of Nations, with members simply opting out of decisions from which they dissent. The moral and political damage that can be done when a single member forces unanimous indecision upon the whole—vide the Greek refusal to recognize Macedonia, or Italy’s insistence that Slovenia be excluded from consideration for EU membership until longstanding but trivial legal disputes between the two countries had been addressed—would be nothing compared to a refusal by Britain or France, for example, to accept the foreign policy of a majority composed of Germany and her smaller supporters.

What, then, of Western Europe’s general interest in stability, in guaranteeing countries like Hungary or Slovakia against their own internal demons? This is in fact the strongest argument Central Europeans can offer in support of their candidacy for admission to the EU—protect us against ourselves, against the domestic consequences of a failed “post-Communist transition”—and it is particularly persuasive for their neighbors immediately to the west, notably Germany. But it is a purely prudential argument, which is why the EU has tried to meet it with the offer of partial membership, interim affiliation, and so on, and it raises a hypothetical future problem at a time when the West is preoccupied with real and immediate difficulties. Even if concerns about Eastern European stability succeed in prizing open the European door, these will only do so at the cost of a significant dilution of the meaning and practices of union. And the protective arm of “Europe” will surely not extend beyond the old Habsburg center (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Poland), making of it a sort of depressed Euro-suburb beyond which “Byzantine” Europe (from Latvia to Bulgaria) will be left to fend for itself, too close to Russia and Russian interests for it to be prudent for the West to make an aggressive show of absorption and engagement.

Meanwhile, Europe will be dominated by Germany. Since 1990 a united Germany has been seeking partners for its strategy of expansion into Central Europe. If it can act in concert with fellow-members of a European “fast track,” Bonn will not seem quite so obviously to be striding out ahead. Thus investments in Eastern Europe made by German firms using Austrian subsidiaries or “fronts,” for example, raise fewer local hackles than those coming directly from the Federal Republic. Just as West German foreign policy before 1989 might be characterized as a triple balancing act, neither favoring nor displeasing the US, Moscow, or Paris, so post-unification German policy is seeking to follow the logic of Germany’s power, and its historical place in Central and Eastern Europe, without frightening its West European allies or arousing Germans’ own fears of revived national ambition.

The difficulty, as some German writers have noted, is that Germany cannot help destabilizing Europe, its own best intentions notwithstanding. The Europe that Adenauer and his contemporaries helped to make, and that in turn allowed the Federal Republic to forge its post-Hitler identity, is now in question, the postwar settlement having come to a close. The more dramatic historical analogies are misleading—a de facto alliance of Germany with Austria inside the EU is not the Anschluss of 1938, and a revival of German expansionism, much less militarism, is not likely, at least for the foreseeable future. But it remains true, as it has since 1871, that a powerful Germany in the middle of Europe, with interests of its own, is an unsettling presence for its neighbors.

Yet a Europe dominated by Germany, in striking contrast to the past, may be characterized above all by its unwillingness to intervene actively in international affairs. Whether this will always be so is another matter—the legacy of Nazism cannot continue to weigh upon the German public conscience indefinitely, and there must come a point when German politicians and their electors will be less inhibited about behaving like any other power: sending soldiers abroad, using force or the threat of force to achieve national goals, and so forth. But in the meantime the chief difficulty posed to its members by a German-dominated Europe is a sort of inertia, forcing the European community to restrict its collective international interventions to uncontentious issues of an environmental or humanitarian nature.

This is the first lesson of the Yugoslav tragedy, illustrating as it does the weakness of European initiatives, the compulsion to avoid engagement, and the absence of any agreed collective strategic interest beyond maintaining the status quo. The war in Yugoslavia since 1991 is also a timely reminder that Germans are not the only people for whom German hegemony in Europe is unwelcome. One of the strongest points in Serbian propaganda, first against Slovenian and Croatian independence and then against external “interference” in Bosnia, has been its claim that Germany and Austria are seeking to restore a “German-Catholic” Mitteleuropa and that the whole enterprise of dismantling Yugoslavia is a sort of Teutono-Habsburg plot. Fear of giving hostages to this argument prevented Europe’s most powerful state from intervening actively in the war until four years had passed, and even then the decision to send a small German military contingent—confined to strictly non-combat duties—was only taken against much opposition from intellectual and political circles in Germany.

This is not to say that the behavior of France or Great Britain has been exemplary. But the French and the British have been constrained to do something, however inadequate and even perfidious—hence the dispatch of a small “Rapid Reaction Force” to Sarajevo in 1995, after it became embarrassingly clear just how ineffectual the UN presence there had become.* But just because this force was a Franco-British one, and not operating under any sort of “European” aegis, it confirmed another lesson taught by events in the Balkans, that the “European” edifice is fundamentally hollow, selfishly obsessed with fiscal rectitude and commercial advantage. Just as there is no effective international community, so there is, for these purposes, no European one either. There are merely powers, great and not so great; and for the moment at least, a German-led Europe is not among them.

How France and Britain will use the limited international initiative this gives them will depend on what lesson, if any, their governments choose to learn from the humiliations of their Bosnian adventure. But forty years after the Anglo-French disgrace at Suez they are about to rediscover the charms, and burdens, of relative diplomatic autonomy. The United States is no longer looking over their shoulder, and “Europe” is no longer a credible bolt hole. The years 1945-1989 are coming to seem more and more like a parenthesis. As we move further away from World War II the reasons why it was so important to build something different will seem less pressing. That is why we must remind ourselves not just that real gains have been made, but that the European community which helped to make them was a means, not an end.

For if we look to European Union as a catchall solution, chanting “Europe” like a mantra, and waving the banner of “Europe” in the face of recalcitrant “nationalist” heretics, we may wake up one day to find that far from solving the problems of our continent, the myth of “Europe” has become an impediment to recognizing them. We shall discover that it has become little more than the politically correct way to paper over local difficulties, as though the mere invocation of the promise of a united Europe could substitute for solving problems and crises in the present. To be sure, there is a certain self-fulfilling advantage in speaking of Europe as though it already existed in some stronger, collective sense. But there are some things it cannot do, some problems it does not address. “Europe” is more than a geographical notion but less than an answer.

June 13, 1996


It’s Luxembourg! October 3, 1996

  1. *

    It did not go unremarked in Bosnia, however, that the main objective of this force was to protect other foreign troops (French and British especially) operating under UN authority.