The Corner

Whose Europe Indeed?

Walter Russell Mead has an interesting piece, called “The Culture War Over Europe’s Money,” in today’s WSJ. The title is not apparently ironic, but he does come to a very salient point which almost, but not quite, describes the current state of EU maneuvering:

Whose Europe will it be? In the past, nations have gone to war over exactly this kind of balance-of-power dispute. This time the issue happens to be currency. The EU is an attempt to develop a post-historical structure that can accommodate these controversies without bloodshed, but the hidden assumption has always been that there are no truly irreconcilable gaps between the interests of France and Germany.

There weren’t, until the euro included both countries in a single currency zone that ultimately would have to be run by one set of rules. The question now is whether France will give the laws to Germany, as it did in the Napoleonic period and 1918, or whether Germany will dictate to France as it did in 1870 and 1940. The Germans are richer and more stubborn; the French are flashier and faster on their feet.

But only in reverse. As much as I admire Walter Russell Mead, the issue is only notionally about the currency. The real issue is the ancient preoccupation with the question Mead raises: “Whose Europe will it be?” We’re about 1,200 years, more or less, into trying to decide the answer to that one. At the moment, the obvious answer is Germany.

As for France, for two centuries, there’s not been much serious debate about whether or not France could or should rule Europe. Indeed, during that time, France often has been unable to rule itself. Instead, the French emphasis since Napoleon has been on surviving — never mind winning — the inevitable conflicts with Germany that seem to be a reliable result of the “truly irreconcilable gaps between the interests” of the two nations. Those gaps, even today, are not imaginary, but a “balance of power” is.

Real money is German money. Created by industry and enterprise, it is, as always during much of the post-war period, what makes Europe run. Whether or not German taxpayers want to pay the pensions of Portuguese postmen remains to be seen, but if so, it won’t come without demands. The real trick for the U.S. will be to avoid splitting the bill. (For Britain, it will be to avoid the whole enterprise.)

Is the EU a “post-historical structure”? Maybe. But “post-historical” is one of those empty phrases that pretends what’s behind us has nothing to do with what’s ahead, which is like pretending your first wife’s alimony has nothing to do with bankrolling your second marriage. I think it’s more likely that the EU is just the latest iteration of an old ambition, one previewed with frightening accuracy most recently during World War II by Germany and Vichy France. In any case, a fascination with European unions of one kind or another can fill a library (my favorite books are by a sadly neglected historian named W. Alison Phillips, whose two volumes on this topic, The Confederation of Europe and Modern Europe, 1815-1899, I have discussed elsewhere). All of these solutions spiral around a German center of gravity. They have always led to chaos and often to violence. Now the chaos is upon us. I suppose whether violence follows is anybody’s guess.

Denis Boyles — Dennis Boyles is a writer, editor, former university lecturer, and the author/editor of several books of poetry, travel, history, criticism, and practical advice, including Superior, Nebraska (2008), Design Poetics (1975), ...

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