March 24, 2005

Europe in the Breach

AS AN AMERICAN and a student of history, we have long had mixed feelings about the European Union. On its face, the closer integration of the Continent makes perfect political and economic sense; but when one looks into New Europe's eyes, one finds only stagnation and decay staring back. It has been nearly 50 years since the European Economic Community was established, and even after all the expansion of the EU's size and scope, the Continent still deals with double-digit unemployment, a rigid bureaucracy, industry-choking regulation, social-safety nets coming apart at the seams, and a foreign policy that is both schizoid and ineffective.

Therefore, we don't exactly see how giving the EU superstate even more power to meddle in the affairs of its member states will do anyone any good. Yet such skepticism does not matter to Timothy Garton Ash, the noted Oxford historian. No. Where we see chaos and ruin, Dr Ash sees the birth of ... something wonderful:

Over the last fortnight, I have been in six European cities: Oxford, Madrid, Paris, Hamburg, Gdansk and Warsaw. In all of them, I have been reading Jacques le Goff's wonderful new history of The Birth of Europe, a book that every sentient European should know. Through a sequence of rich but small courses, as in a gourmet meal, Le Goff explores the formation of Europe from the ruins of the Roman empire to Christopher Columbus's "discovery" of America at the end of the 15th century. Turning from the book to the streets, and the streets back to the book, I have been thinking about the great adventure on which this continent is now engaged. Shall we call it the second birth of Europe?

So Dr Ash begins his rather dreamy essay in The Guardian, which gives it both an odd title (merely "The Birth of Europe") and a Provocative Subheading ("Our challenge to the anti-Europeans is: where's your story of the future?"). Sadly, Dr Ash does not present such a story himself, as we shall soon see. The germ of it, of course, is there -- apparently, United Europe will mellow out and be happy together and want to buy the world a Coke. Except it wouldn't buy Coke, because that's American, and it couldn't have that. So it will buy Mentos instead. Mmmmm. The Freshmaker.

But we digress. Anyway, Dr Ash seems to believe that this Continent-wide Feeling of Grooviness shall sunder all of Europe's problems. We daresay he is wrong from the get-go. Let us consider his next point regarding "the birth of Europe:"

The birth of Europe, that is, no longer just as a self-conscious cultural, historical and religious unity, the heir to Christendom evoked against the encroaching Muslim Turks in Pope Pius II's magnificent essay of 1458, but as a European Union, soon to include Turkey, which is a single commonwealth, with a set of shared laws and political institutions of which medieval Europeans could only dream. And, increasingly, as an actor on the world stage.

Oh, yes, we can imagine what our ancestors would think of the EU's shared laws and political institutions. Let's channel, for the moment, the spirit of Johannes Koeppel, our non-medieval but still distant ancestor, who in the 17th century ran an inn not far from the EU's parliament building in Strasbourg. We present it with apologies to George Orwell, who had better and gloomier thoughts about such things:

CUSTOMER: Hi! I'd like a pint of beer. The good stuff, please.
JOHANNES: That's one penny. Just a second while I get a mug.
EU REGULATOR: Excuse me, sir!
JOHANNES: Who the devil are you?
EU REGULATOR: I'm with the Metrication Regulation Commission. You offered to sell this gentleman, I believe, a "pint" of beer.
JOHANNES: Well, what else would I call it?
EU REGULATOR: You can't sell pints anymore. Sell him a half-liter.
CUSTOMER: But I don't want a half-liter. I want a pint.
EU REGULATOR: Or a liter. We don't care. But you can't sell pints anymore.
JOHANNES: Why not?
EU REGULATOR: You know, because of ... um ... standardization. Yeah, that's it. Standardization! Anyway, if you wish to make a complaint, just show up at the office in Brussels between 10 and 3 during the week to apply for an appeals appointment. But the point is you can't sell pints anymore. You can sell a 500 milliliter mug of beer, though.
JOHANNES: I don't have any 500 milliliter mugs. What am I supposed to do, go buy 40 more mugs?
EU REGULATOR: That's a good start. Also, is that a wood burning stove in the back? We'll have to make sure it meets safety guidelines. I'll have Fritz on that next week. Oh, and that reminds me -- you charged a penny for that beer.
JOHANNES: Yes, that's what I've always charged.
EU REGULATOR: Clearly you haven't been collecting the minimum 15 percent VAT for each sale. Charge one penny and a third-farthing.
JOHANNES: How'd you like to get charged flat on your ass?

Of course, we kid -- as we understand it, drinking establishments are momentarily exempt from the metrification regulations. Still, it's one thing to harmonize laws for things such as crossing the border and another thing entirely to send forth swarms of officers, armed with yards meters of regulatory red tape, to harass the people and eat out their substance. The EU has done very well at the latter -- and there are oodles of news reports which stand as testament to that. As for being an actor on the world stage -- well, the less said the better.

Dr Ash continues:

The connections between that old Europe and this new one are complicated. History, unlike geometry, has few straight lines. Le Goff has little time for the simplistic, mythopoeic narrative much loved by cultural Eurocrats: "from Charlemagne to the euro". Bad history is not a good foundation for anything. But the connections, the foundations, are there - and you see them clearly on a whistlestop tour through six European cities.

For a start, there is the simple physical presence of this past in architecture, streetscape and art. Those familiar shapes of gothic, renaissance and baroque, from Oxford to Gdansk, make us feel that we are at home even when we are abroad. This is so obvious that we forget just how unusual it is. There's no other continent on which this is so.

Of course, the fact that it's so obvious makes it entirely meaningless. As any American who has moved around a bit can tell you, it's not the architecture which makes you feel at home, it's the people. We don't know about you, but if we were living in London all our lives and suddenly had to decamp to Berlin, we don't think we'd feel some sort of immediate camaraderie because of the architecture. Yet that is what Dr Ash is suggesting. But he keeps on:

Then there are the gaps between the old houses; the gaps where the bombs fell. Most of them have now been filled with more recent buildings, often 1950s drab or 1960s brutalist. They stand out like false teeth. I drove through Hamburg with a friend, looking at the old and new facades. There, we exclaimed, the bombs must have fallen; and there; and there. Sixty years on, the memories of war, Holocaust, gulag and occupation are still everywhere - not just in stone and concrete, but on television, in the newspapers, in conversation.

"You know the story of your hotel?" another friend asked me in Paris, as we walked down the Boulevard Raspail. I knew. During the German occupation, the elegant Hotel Lutetia was the Gestapo headquarters. And here in Warsaw, it's impossible to forget. I turn on Polish television, and there's the Polish president at a ceremony to mark the opening of a new Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.

Near the entrance to this higgledy-piggledy common European home that we are building, low down in the wall, you can see the inscription on the original foundation stone. It's covered with moss now, since it was laid more than 50 years ago, and many younger Europeans don't even know it is there. But if you look closely, you can still discern it. It reads: "Never again!"

We admit that it's possible for nations which were at each other's throats for centuries to forget about those old wounds and national differences. We just don't think it's very probable. Once things hit the fan, all the old grievances will bubble back up to the surface -- as they already do. Poland supports the Iraq war and France tells them to shut up. France and Germany beat up on Greece for its finances while they themselves fail to live up to the euro stability pact. An Italian politician says something impolite and all the other countries pile on in disgust. The British keep bringing up the war. We could go on, but our point is this: the EU isn't solid enough to stay together should it get sorely tested. There's not enough allegiance to it.

Enough of the heavy stuff. Two happier things unite us: food and football. Le Goff argues that the beginnings of a conscious enjoyment of gastronomy can be found in the 15th century. The range and richness of European national cuisines is amazing. It's a classic example of the continent's "unity in diversity". Gastronomy can even moderate other passions. One of my favourite jokes about contemporary European nationalism is told of the Basques, who are even more passionate about food than about politics. Question: What are the three most important questions for a Basque? Answer: 1. Where do we come from? 2. Who are we? 3. Where are we going for dinner?

Aside from the troubling implications of Dr Ash's joke (apparently Brussels has banned humor), we would submit that one can't build a nation-state on excellent restaurants. We are sorry, but you need something a bit more binding than that.

As for football: it's the European sport par excellence. Is there a European alive who does not know about Real Madrid? If the French and British governments want to win their referendums on the European constitutional treaty, it's not Chirac and Blair they need on the television spots. It's Beckham and Zidane.

You know, he may be right about Becks and Zidane. That said, we can't understand why Dr Ash thinks soccer is a unifying thing. Good Lord. After all, if soccer is so unifying and wonderful, why does the EU make a point of banning rowdies from traveling during soccer matches?

You may say that some of the features claimed as distinctive to Europe are not unique to it. Latin Americans, for example, outdo even our cult of football. You would be right. But that doesn't mean that these elements do not connect us. A chess club is a group of people, usually living near each other, who like playing chess. There are other chess clubs. The European Union is a club of liberal democracies. There are others; and we want there to be more.

Of course the European Union would like more "democracy clubs" -- except in the Middle East, except those which might like the Americans, and except those which might involve Israel.

You may say I'm ignoring all the bad things about Europe. I'm not. Most of our countries have entrenched establishments of shortsighted, time-serving, often corrupt politicians. Contrary to Eurosceptic myth, the Brussels bureaucracy is rather small - but it makes up for it by being even more bureaucratic. Most of our economies are still woefully uncompetitive. Our native-born populations are declining, and we are bad at making migrants, especially Muslim migrants, feel at home. These problems, too, we have in common.

And the solution for all this would be ... what, exactly? After all, if one's Government is oppressive, making that Government even more distant and less accountable probably won't help matters.

Le Goff's book ends with Europe beginning to take over from China as the avant garde of technological modernity, and setting out to conquer the world, starting with America. Now America is the world's leading power, while China is coming back up again with the force of a rising piston. This relative decline of Europe is another reason for hanging together rather than hanging separately.

It's not just a relative decline, it's an absolute decline. After all, as Denis Boyles has noted, Europeans can't even produce enough Europeans to keep up, much less anything else. That said, Dr Ash would be right -- except that sticking together is likely to make the problems even worse, because the EU has policies that don't help matters. For instance, instead of figuring out how to compete with the new countries in the EU, the Eurocrats keep talking about how the new countries ought raise their taxes and regulatory burdens to par with the long-time members. That doesn't sound like a plan for success to us.

Meanwhile, within our own continent we have an amazing story to tell. It's the story of the most successful peaceful spread of freedom in recent history. Thirty years ago, General Franco still ruled Spain, and my Spanish publisher was battling with the fascist censor. Sixteen years ago, in spring 1989, my Polish publisher was still battling with the communist censor. Last year, the front line was in Ukraine. In each and every case, the causes of Europe and democracy marched together. The EU may not itself be very democratic, but it's the world's most successful promoter of democracy.


Dear God -- is he kidding? Please tell us he's kidding. Look, doc, a big part of why the European Union exists today is because your friends and allies across the Atlantic conveniently kept the Soviets from running roughshod over your half of the continent. While we're at it, must we remind you that our generosity regarding security arrangements meant you didn't have to spend all that much on your defense preparations? Which in turn meant you could spend your money on all those generous social programs? Which in turn meant you didn't have all that much to do with containing the menace on your eastern front?

We simply don't understand how Dr Ash can make such a statement. It is so disconnected with reality it's not funny. We mean, some of the countries which now make up the EU weren't always helpful about America's Cold War efforts. Furthermore, when there were hot wars around (e.g. Serbia beating up on Bosnia), the EU didn't do a damn thing to stop it -- even though that conflict was just a few hundred miles away! How do these things translate into "world's most successful promoter of democracy?"

Change always provokes a reaction. Yesterday, I was answering questions from Polish Eurosceptics which could have come straight from the UK Independence party. These opponents of the EU are as much Europeans as we pro-EU Europeans are. In fact, in their very nationalism they are more characteristically old-European than they know. The difference is this: we new, sceptically pro-EU Europeans have a great story to tell - a story that is about the past but also about the future. Our challenge to these old, doggedly anti-EU Europeans is: we hear your story about the past, but where's your story about the future?

Well, we can think of a few ideas for such a story, but the most important one involves freedom. The European Union doesn't seem to like the idea much -- after all, it regulates speech and it stifles enterprise and it makes it as difficult as possible for its people to get ahead. A future without double-digit unemployment, a future where people can manage their own affairs, a future with wealth -- there's something to be said for it. A pity Dr Ash sees fit to discount it.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at March 24, 2005 11:00 PM | TrackBack