DEBATE: THE EUROPE PROJECT This House's Foundations are Unstable

Europe has given itself a moral obligation to self destruct, writes Handelsblatt's publisher.
A pan-European storm looms.


The one thing citizens across Europe share is their skepticism. The great dithering started when they began to see the realities of the euro, the billions in bailouts for southern European countries, and life without borders. Today’s Citizen of Europe is a nomad of world history — homeless, dissatisfied, unarmed. He knows where he comes from, but not where he wants to go.

The European idea itself cannot have been the problem. A past painted in blood across Europe’s brutal centuries is a warning to embrace cross-border understanding and unity. Too often, feverish nationalism had left people with the choice only to be maimed, destroyed or forcibly displaced.

In 1945, a Europe in ashes swore “no more war.” It was the zero hour of the European idea, advanced since then with grim determination, as if the positive energy of the new project could somehow neutralize the past.

The European Union was proclaimed, yet Europeans still spoke two dozen languages.

The European idea became the new religion. Not generals, but bureaucrats were now in charge. The diversity of social and economic policies, educational traditions and food cultures was suspended by an elaborate program of Europeanization. Brussels energetically went about the task of harmonizing everything, even everyday life. It even sought to codify common sense: “Ladders must be so positioned as to ensure their stability during use,” instructs Directive 2001/45/EG. What the European Commission did not regulate, it passed on to the European Committee for Standardization, an Orwellian body with boundless creativity. It once proposed an E.U. standard for condoms. The critical nighttime session, in which Italians, Frenchmen and Germans wrangled over the appropriate dimensions, can only be imagined.

Yet the continent’s development was full of contradictions. The European Union was proclaimed, yet Europeans still spoke two dozen languages. An internal market was created that standardized goods, services and vanities. The single currency was born, with no heed to highly divergent economies. Borders were eliminated, but without protecting the E.U.’s external frontiers. Since then, we have shared millions of refugees, trillions in debt, and ill humor in high doses.

And yet it is never enough for the elites in Brussels. They respond to every new crisis with the call for “more Europe” and less national state. The creation of a European citizen is a great work of compression, reshaping and compaction. But just as construction materials crack under ongoing pressure, societies too can buckle. In both cases, the damage appears in unpredictable places.

The cracks breaking Europe do not appear along old national lines. The appeal of xenophobic tirades does not stop at the French border. Some Catholic German conservatives admire their Polish brethren for daring to say out loud what they are merely thinking.

The German left sympathizes with the Greek left; both reject the power of financial numbers as inhuman. “If European policy is only united today by the crisis and the brutality with which it imposes crazy austerity programs, no one should be surprised if many now perceive the European project as a curse,” says the German Left party’s Sahra Wagenknecht. Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis speaks in the exact same terms. Anxiety has become Europeanized.

As the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk puts it, there is no moral obligation for self-destruction.

Attempting to integrate the newly arrived seekers of asylum or a better life into our project represents one stress too many. After an influx of close to 2 million migrants and refugees, mostly from Muslim countries, a fatigue fracture is at hand.

A once-compliant middle class is increasingly unwilling to be thrown into this melting pot. The post-national Europe of the E.U.’s founding fathers is being transformed in plain view into a post-Western Europe, whose concept-car version is on display today in the suburbs of Paris, London and Brussels. Nowhere is Europe confronted with a more alien version of itself than there.

There is just as little desire to add the new arrivals to the local army of underemployed. The Western economy’s rapid bursts of modernization offer poorly qualified immigrants few prospects of employment and self-support. The migration route across the Balkans leads directly into our social welfare systems, only exacerbating their existing strains. As the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk puts it, there is no moral obligation for self-destruction.

Ironically, in this time of crisis it is the much-weakened nation state that is demonstrating the life blood it still has coursing through its veins. Desperate citizens are not looking to Brussels for help, but to their elected governments in Paris, Berlin, Rome and London. But lawmakers there are at a loss, because what’s needed to address the problem of 60 million refugees worldwide — barriers, passport controls and deportation — don’t match the vision of a United States of Europe.

The European house, unwilling to be a fortress, is suddenly becoming unstable. If the house’s external fortifications aren’t stabilized soon, the entire project could be at risk.

What’s scary is not the coming wave of protests, but that many citizens have stopped thinking about reforming the Europe in which they live. They are turning their backs on it without even saying goodbye. Europe is not under attack from populists and lawmakers, but from a standing army of the indifferent. In this revolution, the barricade would fall without having been set on fire.

Today’s Europe needs to be protected from itself. It wanted too much too fast. Perhaps real progress will entail dispensing with administrative progress for a while. Perhaps it would then be possible to recover a building block from the wreckage of the nation state that has not been used in the European house. The word democracy is written on that stone. Anyone who has preserved an appreciation for the beauties of European history will see how much it shines.


The European Union Map-01 EU E.U. euro zone


Gabor Steingart is the publisher of Handelsblatt. To contact the author: [email protected]