The great success story that is Europe

As news of Europe’s wrenching economic crisis dominates the headlines and skeptics call into question the future of the European Union, we tend to forget that the creation of a united, albeit imperfect, Europe is one of the great triumphs of the post-World War II era. Indeed, it is one of the signal achievements of the past millennium and a half.

Europeans had been at war, with the exception of a few sporadic periods of peace, since the collapse of the Roman Empire. Wars of territorial expansion, dynastic succession and religion, and colonial wars (even a war over Jenkins’ ear) punctuated their history.

Finally, after the unimaginable horrors and stupefying slaughter of the two world wars, which shattered successive generations on the continent and elsewhere, the Europeans decided to take action to end their interminable conflict.

Led by France and Germany, ancient enemies that had bloodied each other in three titanic wars over the previous 80 years, six European nations created the Coal and Steel Commission in 1951. They chose these two commodities because they were essential to modern warfare — coal to fire the factories and steel to manufacture the tanks, planes, ships and guns.

A few years later, the commission became the European Economic Community, which facilitated trade and commerce of all sorts, and then, in 1967, simply the European Community, a name that implied more ambitious intents. In 1973, Ireland, Denmark and Great Britain joined, followed by Greece in 1981 and Spain and Portugal in 1986. The community approved treaties that abolished customs and immigration controls among the member states and encouraged other measures that would lead to a stronger European identity.

Then, in 1993, the Maastricht Treaty created the European Union. Europe had gone from war to a coal and steel commission of six nations and then to a common market, a community and finally a union in the space of 50 years. Today, there are 27 member countries that comprise 500 million people and generate almost $18 trillion in goods and services each year, about 20 percent of the world’s production.

Confident in their success, comfortable in their wealth, the Europeans went on to create a common currency — the euro — in 1999, which 17 of the 27 members adopted.

As someone who had lived in Europe off and on since my student days in 1969, and had observed the evolution of a European polity as a diplomat living in London, Athens and Rome, I used to marvel as I traveled from Berlin to Brussels, or Vienna to Madrid, with no passport and no need to visit a currency exchange. I had only euros in my pocket.

But, it would now seem, the European Union may have overreached, may have been too hasty, in launching the euro. It established monetary union without standardized fiscal policies. The euro encouraged poorer, more indebted countries to borrow at lower rates and continue to spend profligately. It gave rise to property bubbles and bank speculations. Combined with the reluctance of many member governments to reform labor laws and pension programs, it has led to Europe’s current economic mess.

Given the hardships imposed by austerity and recession, it is not surprising that some Europeans have begun to blame each other. A joke now making the rounds reflects how one country sees it: A Greek, an Italian and a Spaniard go into a bar and eat and drink all night. Who picks up the tab? The Germans.

Although the Europeans have made remarkable progress in coming together over the past half-century, they most certainly have not jettisoned their national identities and, by extension, their age-old biases. Ask the British about the French, or the Germans about the Italians, or the Greeks about anyone, and you are likely to hear them deal in the same stereotypes — the bullying German, the aloof Englishman, the arrogant Frenchman, the perfidious Italian — that have been current for centuries.

Still, despite their 23 official languages and distinct cultures, the members of the European Union are working to resolve the crisis through negotiations, compromise and common sacrifice. Unlike in centuries past, they are not rattling sabers. They are not mobilizing armies. Committed to the idea of a unified Europe, tied together through a series of treaties and agreements, they recognize that their welfare depends on the fortunes of their partners as much as on their own exertions. There is no going it alone.

If the Europeans have not yet made a United States of Europe, even if they never build a truly national state, they have brought enduring peace and shared prosperity to a region that for centuries had known precious little of either. History has few parallels to so great a success accomplished over so brief a time.

They deserve praise for their achievement.

Robert J. Callahan, a retired diplomat and former Chicagoan, served as U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua.

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