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Works and Days

Europe in the Rearview Mirror

February 12th, 2012 - 9:54 am

The Dream and the Nightmare

The European Union was always a paradox. Its existence was predicated entirely on the notion of German guilt, translating into massive cash transfers east and south. Just as Versailles was supposed to have restrained Germany, then a divided, postwar Germany, then NATO integration and the common Soviet enemy, and then the EU — and now what next?

There was quite a EU veneer placed over the politically incorrect “German Problem.” Most of us listened in disbelief as we were lectured that veritable disarmament, subsidized windmills, reach outs to a Syria or Libya, easy anti-Americanism, and sermons about cradle-to-grave socialism were the way of the new Europe. And always came the grating condescension, that a self-appointed bureaucratic class in Brussels might lecture Neanderthals what was good for them, without worry over democratic checks and balances.

In understandable fear of cannibalizing Europe yet a third time within a century’s span, European academics and elite functionaries had taken a perfectly understandable notion of a European common market and transmogrified it into an anti-democratic, utopian, and utterly unworkable European Union. Was the euro supposed to trump the laws of Economics 1A, simply because it was constructed as something moral?

Was it not ridiculous that Germans would sell their wares to poorer southern Mediterraneans, who would then borrow the money for payment from EU banks, which then in turn would supposedly guarantee the debts by appeals to a transcontinental collective to share risks? (Where did the blown $400 billion plus to Greece actually go? The answer is not hard to find: just look at the new bridges, freeways, subway, airport, vacation homes, hotels, cars, buses, etc., and then look at the manner in which a Greek bank is staffed, cars are driven in Omonia Square, or how construction workers erect apartment buildings — and then again sigh that the latter elsewhere in the world do not lead to the former.)

Gauleiters and Greeks

Who was more culpable, the efficient German companies and banks who tried to draw on the guarantees of an entire continent to legitimize loans that empowered a German mercantilism, or duplicitous Mediterraneans who wished to live like Germans but not to produce like them? After all, two daily commutes, siestas, tax cheating as a national religion, and 9 PM dinners do not otherwise add up to a life of sophisticated brain surgery, Mercedes buses, and Bosch dishwashers. Did the CEOs of Audi and Siemens think that they did? Read the Greek newspapers and Merkel appears as a cartoonish Hitler; read the German and Greeks seem beach-going untermenschen.

From Paradise to Purgatory

Did Euro visionaries not see that the efforts at utopian pacifism on a continental scale were not merely doomed to fail, but destined to a failure of such magnitude that the resulting acrimony would be far worse than had the silly project never been tried in the first place? The Greek and German papers now engage in a level of stereotyping, caricature, and national hatred not seen since the 1930s, and far in excess of anything in the pre-EU days of the 1970s and 1980s. History’s antidote to a failed utopianism is not merely a return to nationalism, deterrence, balance-of-power alliances, and all the ancient methods of keeping the peace, but more to pandemic disgust and eventually to strife. A strong proactive alliance of the United States, France, and Britain in 1934 would have stopped Germany; a weak and pretentious collective League of Nations would facilitate it.

Munich and Athens in California

I drive each week from one of the poorest areas in the U.S. to one of the wealthiest. A man from Mars after walking in west Selma and then downtown Menlo Park could tell you exactly why the gap is not three hours, but more like three centuries. One-quarter mile from my house about 30 people live in wrecked trailers behind a farmhouse with an assortment of barn animals wandering about the premises; about 100 yards from my tiny studio apartment in Palo Alto, Facebook zillionaires bid upwards of $2 million for a tiny house worth about $70,000 in Fresno.

But both these extremes at least share common laws — in theory a common language, the same constitution, and an identical popular culture. In contrast, when I go from the Peloponnese to the Rhine I see about the same vast economic divide, but one in which different histories, languages, cultures, and ethnicities acerbate — not mitigate — the gulf. In fact, if I were to dream up a way of having central, rural California go to war against the wealthier coastal strip from San Diego to San Francisco, I would simply have them first craft a EU-like arrangement for a few years.

Europe is not the EU

But all that said, the EU is not quite Europe; the parts are far better than the sum. Britain, Germany, Scandinavia, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and the rest, for all their elites’ hatred of the U.S., are still admirable places, especially in comparison with societies in most of Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Life is humane, and the poorest in resource-poor Europe are not poor like those in oil-rich Mexico or Venezuela. The food and water do no make one sick; medicine is advanced. The rule of law largely prevails. Competency ensures things work. When I travel, I look for the small irrelevancies that are not so irrelevant: in Libya, dogs looked tortured; in Britain, they are humanely treated. There are no billboards of Great Leaders in Europe in the fashion of the monotonous ubiquity of an Arafat, Mubarak, or Assad on nearly every wall. In Mexico, people toss trash out the car window; in Munich, I see strangers stoop to put someone else’s litter in trash baskets. Getting in line in Egypt or Kuwait is governed by the sharpest elbows; in Holland, there is a system of order. I don’t drive any more in most countries other than northern European ones. As a general rule, if you go to the emergency room south or east of Crete, pray that you are in Israel.

Yes, I know Europe is sick, ill with loud secular agnosticism and atheism, aging and shrinking, wedded to an unworkable redistributive socialism. But it still works because Europeans for centuries have remained highly educated, skilled, lawful, and talented as the creators of our own Western system.

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