As the EU’s leaders gather today in Brussels for their last summit in 2018, I am once again reminded of a conversation I had years ago that was as amusing as it was insightful. I was in the Eurocrat ghetto of Brussels, talking to an “old EU hand,” an irreverent, pithy, and cheeky Briton. This was our game: Explain – in one line per country! – why each member state had originally joined the European club.
1950s, the six founding members: The West Germans, happy to be part of any club again, were eager to atone for invading everybody by proving what great post-nationalist Europeans they now were. The French, having recently been trounced by the Germans and (possibly worse) rescued by Yankees, and having then lost an empire, were thrilled to keep projecting global French power via a new “Europe.” (The deal was that the Germans, even with a mightier economy, would always play second fiddle to the French in diplomacy.)
The Italians, reeling from one collapsing government to another and mired in corruption, were trying to outsource governance to the cleaner north. The BeNeLux three were overjoyed to be, finally, at the table with the French and Germans at all.
1973: After long dithering, the Brits, still chuffed about their “splendid isolation” but also chafing at their waning empire, pragmatically re-defined “Europe” as no more than a customs union, and dipped in a reluctant toe, to buy and sell more stuff. (Besides, the French were running that club, so better keep an eye on them!) If the English were in, the Irish felt they should be more in. The Danes, in their continental appendage, opted to tag along at a safe distance (although Greenland, 12 years later, would stage the first Grexit).
1980s: The Greeks, Portuguese and Spanish, having got rid of their dictators only in the 1970s, couldn’t wait to re-join the rest of Europe, and thus modernity. 1990: The East Germans hadn’t even thought about it; they just wanted to join the other Germans. 1995: The Swedes and Finns, seeing that the Danes were in and the Norwegians not, decided to check it out. The Austrians wanted to show that they could do Anschluss right. (During golf and ski season the border delays between Munich and Kitzbühel had been such a nuisance!)
2004, 2007, 2013: The Iron Curtain was gone, hurrah, so it was about time for the Poles, Hungarians and other easterners to get the heck away from the Russians and into the West. (But they had for so long been part of empires -- Ottoman, Austrian, Russian, German, Soviet -- that they now wanted to build their own nations, not slide into a new Eurocrat empire.)
These disparate mental universes form the backdrop of every EU summit even today. What’s more amazing: That the 28 keep bickering, and one even wants to exit? Or that they’re still talking at all?