The European Conundrum

Once upon a time, Europe was the most audacious idea politicians had come to forge and put in practice. In less than 50 years — hardly a beat by historical standards — the European Union became the richest, most numerous democratic area in the world. The process was not easy, and harmony would seldom prevail. There were fights, compromises, night-long bickering and negotiating, face-saving options, theatrical gestures (few heads of state could bang a handbag like Margaret Thatcher), but, on the whole, Europe would go forward.

First came a generation of visionaries, men who had survived wars and were so convinced their goal was right that they saw no need in explaining it to their people. Was that not the way, Jean Monnet thought, the Founding Fathers had invented America? Then came the statesmen — heads of state and government who could still think of long-term issues, not yet harassed by the electronic pace of markets and media. They did not always do right, of course. Citizens were told little about Europe — short of the usual charade that their national leaders were protecting them against evil Brussels technocrats. At the helm of the European Commission there were at times great leaders in their own right — the most towering figure, to this day, being Jacques Delors. Eventually governments would be thrown out of office for domestic reasons, and Europe would continue its haphazard, crab-like way, going backward, then forward, to the delight of experts who would debate endlessly about its intricacies. There was no emotion. Public opinion was not well informed — the basic assumption among politicians being that Europe would not bring them votes and among journalists that Europe was boring stuff that did not sell.

It was true. Except that the refusal to explain complex issues in times of global crisis, the exaltation of national interests, the choice of short-term solutions to enduring problems all have eventually taken their toll. Creating a common currency without harmonizing economic and fiscal policies has come to a dead end, as predicted.

Europe has stopped midway. Citizens rebel. They do not trust their governments and prefer to whistle to populist tunes. They believe their leaders are more sensitive to the plight of bankers than to their own. They think presidents, prime ministers and the like are indifferent — in fact, they are impotent.

Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, for all their display of energy and mutual affection last Tuesday, have failed to restore confidence. How could they? Did they seriously believe that announcing a mild institutional reform would do the trick?

Economic and finance ministers will meet twice a year to discuss harmonization, and Herman Van Rompuy will be their spokesman. Without contesting his skill at haiku, does anyone care at this stage? The Franco-German engine is rusted. Too much has been made of its efficiency, especially in the eye of the 25 other member states. Britain has reached its long-time goal: an enlarged Europe with no more regulatory steam, so that London can pick and choose. Berlin is looking eastward, Paris inward. Both France and Germany are preparing for elections. Our politicians are trapped in their own pretenses: They are supposed to bring instant solutions at the national level, and no one believes them anymore.

We all endure a kind of democratic fatigue, which paves the way to the most absurd proposals: Kill the euro, print money, devalue like in the good old days, put in trade barriers, restore protectionism … That is indeed the way to go if we want Europe — and France in particular — to be turned into a museum.

We Europeans should think the Asian way: Crisis should be turned into an opportunity. Let us forgo the old, stale discussions. Let us tap new energies, bet on the globalized generation — people who travel, who know there is no solution at the national level to any of our problems. Let us convince those young people craving for another form of political activism that the environment is a common European cause, and so is immigration. Let us prove that our brains, our cultures, our particular mix of market economy and welfare system are useful to the world. Let us demonstrate that Europe is a force to be reckoned with.

The only way to go is to pursue more mutualization and harmonization of our policies. Federalism may be a foul word to some, but we need more Europe, not less. We have almost killed it. If Europe dies, what will we have left? Time is of the essence. Federalism should be our goal — as it was indeed the ideal of our Founding Fathers.

Christine Ockrent, a journalist based in Paris.

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