Mon, Dec 12, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Is the European dream over?

There is a need for greater democracy inside the EU if its financially healthier members are to be persuaded to share the burden of troubled eurozone states

By Ian Buruma

Illustration: Yusha

Were the euroskeptics right after all? Was the dream of a unified Europe — inspired by fears of another European war, and sustained by the idealistic hope that nation-states were obsolete and would give way to good Europeans — a utopian dead end?

On the surface, Europe’s current crisis, which some people predict will tear apart the EU, is financial. Former European Commission president Jacques Delors, one of the architects of the euro, now claims that his idea for a single currency was good, but that its “execution” was flawed because the weaker countries were allowed to borrow too much.

However, fundamentally, the crisis is political. When sovereign states have their own currencies, citizens are willing to see their tax money go to the weakest regions. That is an expression of national solidarity, a sense that a country’s citizens belong together and are prepared, in a crisis, to sacrifice their own interests for the collective good.

Even in nation-states, this is not always self-evident. Many northern Italians fail to see why they should pay for the poorer south. Affluent Flemings in Belgium resent having to support unemployed Walloons. Still, on the whole, just as citizens of democratic states tolerate the government that won the last election, they usually accept economic solidarity as a part of nationhood.

Since the EU is neither a nation-state nor a democracy, there is no “European people” to see the EU through hard times. Rich Germans and Dutch do not want to pay for the economic mess in which the Greeks, Portuguese or Spanish now find themselves.

Instead of showing solidarity, they moralize, as though all of the problems in Mediterranean Europe were the result of native laziness or its citizens’ corrupt nature. As a result, the moralizers risk bringing the common roof down on Europe’s head, and confronting the nationalist dangers that the EU was created to prevent.

Europe must be fixed politically as much as financially. It is a cliche, but nonetheless true, that the EU suffers from a “democratic deficit.” The problem is that democracy has only ever worked within nation-states. Nation-states need not be monocultural or even monolingual. Think of Switzerland or India. They need not be democracies, either: China, Vietnam and Cuba come to mind. However, democracy does require that citizens have a sense of belonging.

Is this possible in a ----supra-national body like the EU? If the answer is no, it may be best to restore the sovereignty of individual European nation-states, give up on the common currency and abandon a dream that is threatening to become a nightmare.

This is what the more radical euroskeptics in Britain think, having never shared the EU dream to begin with. It is easy to dismiss this as typical British chauvinism — the insular attitude of a people living in splendid isolation. However, in Britain’s defense, its citizens have had a longer and more successful democratic history than have most continental Europeans.

Still, even if disbanding Europe were possible, it would come at enormous cost. Abandoning the euro, for example, would cripple the continent’s banking system, affecting both Germany and the affluent north and the distressed countries in the south. Moreover, if the Greek and Italian economies face difficult recoveries inside the eurozone, consider how hard it would be to repay euro--denominated debts with devalued drachmas or lira.

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