To better understand the European Union and its likely prospects for the future, it is important to delve into the relationship between its two main players: France and Germany. In many ways, their relationship since the founding of the E.U. has seemed like a happy marriage. But as in some marriages, there are a number of irreconcilable difference percolating below the surface that could well lead to trouble down the road.
The most significant point of divergence is perhaps how each country views the meaning of "Europe." The Germans – and not just their elite, but much of the general public as well – are sold on the idea of a Europe free of nationalism. Such an attitude is no doubt highly influenced to the unhappy ending to their WWII experience. According to Wolfgang Streeck of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne, the concept of "Europe" has a sacred aura to it in Germany where it connotes "all that is virtuous and pleasant – from peace, human rights, tolerance, and an openness to international labor marker and convenient travel across borders."
German pro-European sentiment is the vehicle whereby Germany intends to lose its national sovereignty by blending into a Greater Europe and become respectable. At some subconscious level, this is an escape mechanism from the country's Nazi past. Such a mood has so affected German thinking that they view anyone who is less than enthusiastic about a deeper integration of the E.U. as proof positive of a moral defect. Psychologically speaking, the Germans are projecting their feelings onto others who do not necessarily share their views. That can be dangerous.
France's view of Europe is diametrically different. The French are always hyper-sensitive to any encroachment on their national sovereignty. Since the end of WWII, their prime objective has been to bind Germany's economic power to French interests. The united Europe that the French espouse is actually an extension of the French national state, just as the Brussels Commission was conceived as a sub-department of French technocracy.
Streeck sums of the difference between the German and French visions of Europe as such:
From a French perspective, there is no conflict between a 'sovereign France' and a 'sovereign Europe,' as long as Europe is properly constituted on universal, i.e., French principles and governed out of Paris, as an extension of French sovereignty. While in Germany a sovereign Europe is the desirable termination of national, including German, sovereignty, in France it is a condition, or a contemporary vision, of a sovereign France.
That being the case, it sounds as though a unified Europe is a French empire by another name. Observing the situation, Streeck writes:
For a long time, differences were papered over by the German's happy acquiescence to the French habit of ritualism, including nuclear testing, and the conjuring up of their imperial tradition.
But this can't go on. Adding to the latent instability of the E.U. is the fact that other countries in the E.U. do not have a desire to submerge their national identities and sovereignty into a unified Europe, as does Germany, and none wants to be subjugated to French "universal" values. This is especially true for the countries in eastern Europe which have only recently escaped domination under the communist USSR.
The European Union project has gotten as far as it has for two reasons. (Actually, there's a third reason: the U.S. covering much of the defense bill for Europe and allowing unfair trade practices to exist between America and the E.U. This has been going on for longer than most people have been alive, and it has allowed Europe to attain a level of wealth and prosperity that it never could have obtained otherwise. But for the purposes here, the focus will stay on the internal dynamics within Europe.)
First, whenever the "European idea" came up for discussion among the Europeans, it was always defined in vague and bureaucratically ambiguous language. This was deliberate, for it allowed all parties to read whatever they wanted into the pronouncements. And so they did. This worked as a unifying tactic, but it's hardly a way to build a solid foundation that can stand the test of time.
And secondly, upfront money and benefits helped foster the delusion that many member-states had of what to expect from the E.U. The E.U. was sold on the idea of peace and prosperity; prosperity would flow to all who signed on forever and ever. But that promise has already rung hollow in the Mediterranean area of the E.U. And whether Europeans chose to acknowledge it or not, the fact is the peace the Continent has enjoyed since 1945 was conditioned on U.S. protection and not so much on wise polices by the European elite.
The euro was introduced in 1999 to bring the countries in the E.U. closer together. But it didn't work out that way. Rather, due to it, a significant part of southern Europe's industrial base was sucked up into the German industrial machine. Accordingly, the Germans are the ones who have reaped the bulk of the advantages from the common euro currency. This has left countries like Greece, Italy, and others with high unemployment rates and debts that can never be repaid. And because of the common currency and the European Central Bank, these laggard countries are without the monetary means to ease their suffering. To use the vernacular, such countries are screwed.
To address the debt and unemployment problem, the Germans first prescribed strong doses of austerity. Greece is the poster child of this intra-E.U. abuse. This in turn has led to strong anti-German feelings throughout the southern part of the E.U. In response, countries heavily in debt claim that the E.U. should cover their liabilities. "We're all one family," they say. This discontent has fueled the rise of populist parties throughout Europe. To try to counter this trend, Angela Merkel made certain informal and off-the-record promises to the E.U. elite that Germany would aid in "structural repairs to the European edifice."
Ambiguity strikes again. Whatever Merkel might have had in mind when she made her non-public promises, many interpreted her as saying Germany would be willing to cover the debt of others one way or another. As Herr Streeck notes, this is both politically and economically not possible. Ominously, he adds: "Nothing is so destructive in international relations as unrealistic expectations."
Another unrealistic expectation that leaders in the E.U. had is that the United States would continue to tolerate in Bush-Clinton-Obama-like fashion the intolerable status quo between us and Europe in terms of defense and trade. With the ascendancy of Donald Trump, that bubble has popped.
So where are we? Any Good Time Charley can tell you that all parties eventually end. Or as Barack Hussein Obama's longtime spiritual adviser would put it, the chickens are coming home to roost in the E.U.