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 …

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Letters

It’s Luxembourg! October 3, 1996