I’ve spent most of the last two years in Germany, and in fact, am going back there again this weekend. So I’ve been exposed to a great deal of press and thought about the European economic situation as it relates to Germany. If you want to understand the complexity of the problem, this article by Christopher Caldwell is probably the best summary you could read.
I have come of the belief that the EU is a union of intractable problems held together for the time being by the glue of German guilt. That glue, however, is decaying with the loss of the older generation. Ultimately the EU must either subordinate centuries of different cultures, languages, and customs to itself, or it must fail.
This may be hard for Americans to understand, as our perception of regional and cultural differences is colored by our own, which are, by comparison, not that different. When Americans travel Europe they see it as akin to traveling through New England. Moving between European nations today is seemingly no different than driving through four or five very similar states on the way from Connecticut to Maine. The money is the same. The language is the same. (English is virtually every European’s second language). And so long as you confine yourself to the usual tourist haunts, even the experience is often the same: castles, old churches, and gelato.
But European nations are not the same as states. I was in a multi-national planning meeting a few months back when the discussion turned to the subject of one NATO nation training with its forces in another NATO nation. Sheepish looks overcame several faces. Finally, one foreign officer said, “We are all military professionals here, so we understand the necessity of this, but our people might have difficulty . . . “ Another officer interjected more succinctly, “This is Europe; we have history. Europe is not North America.”
History in Europe has a way of reasserting itself. As the older German generation goes away, those historical differences will again come to the fore. Germany is very different from Italy, and as Caldwell correctly points out, even Italy is very different from itself. Sicilians and the citizens of Sudtirol might as well be on different planets, and yet they’re are ostensibly both Italian. One doesn’t even have to travel far from Europe’s capital, Brussels, to see such differences in action. Belgium, itself a nation cobbled together from three cultures who quarrel with each other, is an ungovernable mess. And that’s just in one European country not much larger than Massachusetts.
Europe has all the trappings of union: a common currency, a central government, a de facto language. But its trappings are just that: traps. Europeans are confined. And confinement breeds resentment.
Last year on a transatlantic trip I watched Life As We Know It. It is the story of two incompatible people thrown together into the same house to raise the orphaned daughter of their mutual friends who died in a car wreck. The two had all the trappings of a couple: house, child, common friends. Hollywood gave the unlikely plot a happy ending. But Hollywood is half a world away from Europe. And in the real world, the European marital union of 27 incompatible countries is confronting increasing resentment. Ultimately there will be a messy divorce.