Lessons from the past are key to Europe’s survival

by Mark Mazower – January 22, 2016

The Financial Times

The historic scale of the crisis facing Europe is dawning on its elites. In Davos a series of political leaders lined up to proclaim the gravity of the situation. For Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, the refugee exodus from Syria poses an existential risk to the EU; Mark Rutte, his Dutch counterpart, warned that it may be only a matter of weeks before the Schengen era of border-free travel collapses. Wolfgang Schäuble, German finance minister, called for a Marshall plan for the EU’s neighbours.

Away from the alpine mountain top, the rise of the Law and Justice party in Poland, coming on the heels of the far-right National Front’s strong showing in France, has prompted the European Commission to propose an unprecedented investigation into Warsaw’s media and judicial policies. Both critics and supporters of European integration talk in almost apocalyptic terms about the union and its future.

I was going to write — “critics and supporters of the European dream”. But there is no dream any longer and that is in some ways the biggest problem of all. Today’s politicians are in thrall to a conception of themselves as short-term managers of events rather than as strategists governing for the long term. Crisis mode has become the norm, and events have emerged to fit that model. Stepping back and thinking about the EU’s long-term evolution is now almost impossible. Yet never has it been more needed. If 200 years ago, for the architects of the post-Napoleonic peace, Europe was a slogan, a set of principles in search of institutional form, today it is a set of organisations in search of guiding principles.

A longer-term assessment would start with the founders of (western) European co-operation in the late 1940s. They did not contemplate integration as a way to supersede nation-states; rather they welcomed the revival of nation-states and saw co-operation as a way to help them flourish. Integration was not only unprecedented but also modest in scope. Economies flourished: growth was high, unemployment low and exchange controls curtailed cross-border capital flows, enabling governments to support managed capitalism through fiscal policy and strategic investment. It was in this era, so different in its core values from today, that the political capital was laid down for Europe, which the union is now spending so fast.

This phase ended in the mid-1970s. In the past 30 years, European institutions and law expanded even faster than membership. The European Communities (later the EU) acquired a flag, and began to worry about political legitimacy. New institutions such as the Court of Justice and the European Central Bank acquired sweeping powers with little public discussion.

The driving events were German reunification and a new conception of democracy, in which national parliaments were carefully monitored by judges and central bankers as supposedly independent guarantors of fiscal probity. The creation of a common currency, the euro, intensified this mistrust of parliaments, but nobody cared much before 2008 because growth was good and there was enough to go round.

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