Europe is covered in monuments to wars with invaders, neighbors and ourselves, and littered with peace treaties that failed. Thursday’s meeting of the European Union’s leaders in Ypres, the Flemish town that became a synonym for the slaughter in World War I a century ago, may take on an additional symbolic burden. Ypres might become a footnote in the story of the union’s great unraveling — the place where, after more than 60 years of peace, our leaders underestimated a threat, and gambled with the lives of millions.
It’s essential to understand history, but more crucial to know where we stand today, to grasp the importance of decisions we will make.
The European Union started out as a framework for cooperation among six coal- and steel-producing countries — France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg — with the Treaty of Paris in 1951, less than six years after their latest efforts to dominate one another. It was successful beyond all dreams. In Ypres on Thursday and in Brussels on Friday, the leaders of 28 countries will discuss issues ranging from economic growth, competitiveness and job creation to the dangers stemming from the crises in Ukraine and (presumably) Iraq. They will also consider candidates for top jobs in the European Union’s institutions.
What they should focus on, though, is how to keep the union intact as it confronts the greatest problems in its history.
How will members be competitive in the global economy without provoking political fragmentation? Will Britain remain? How will a weakened France affect the balance of power at the union’s core? When will policies reflect clear priorities rather than ambivalence and narrow national interests? Can the leaders focus on the principle that their nations’ prosperity depends on a successful union just as much as the union depends on each country’s contribution? How will governments share power with European Union institutions without either side’s losing legitimacy? Will the union ever manage to marshal the total of its power in terms of people and wealth?
Britain’s drift toward the exit is another crippling problem. One of the pillars of postwar Europe, with its often contrarian but fruitful ideas, its aggressive trading and its strong military, it contributed decisively to the European Union’s strength.
Now it is trapped by Prime Minister David Cameron’s tactics. In trying to outmaneuver British euroskeptics by proposing a referendum on continued membership by the end of 2017, his calls for a looser union have come across as desperate and dangerous — especially when the clearest lesson of the economic crisis has been the need for closer cooperation.
Mr. Cameron faces a dilemma: press on, regardless of the damage to Britain’s position in the European Union, or back down and seal his political fate at home. The muddled compromises that so often allowed the union to stumble onward will not work.
A more immediate problem is France’s loss of stature and influence. The cooperation between France and Germany, the Continent’s two most powerful countries and age-old rivals, was the reason the union was born, and has been its driving force.
Fearing the social and political cost of reform, France grows weaker, leaving wealthy Germany as the European Union’s undisputed leader. This contradicts the principle of a union of equals working for the common good, and opens the way for opportunistic alliances at the expense of the whole. History is full of alliances that turned into empires.
The crisis has strengthened Berlin’s position. Loss of competitiveness in other countries, capital flight toward the safe haven of Germany and a (relatively) weaker euro have resulted in Germany’s being flooded with cheap money at the expense of other members.
But Germany’s policies have often been shortsighted. And the European Central Bank, the only institution that appears focused on saving the common currency and the European Union as a whole, has couched its policies in vague language, and so avoided bumping up against Germany’s fiscal disciplinarianism.
Clearly, years of raising taxes while cutting spending and incomes do not lead to recovery, as we have seen in Greece. Yet the union pressed on with this policy until it appeared that Italy and Spain would follow Greece, Ireland and Portugal in needing bailouts from their partners and the International Monetary Fund. European Central Bank promises, not German policies, stopped the domino effect. (Some countries are too big to rescue, while others are too big to censure: In 2003, the European Union held off on an investigation into German and French finances when the two ran up large deficits.)
Greece has an intimate view of the European Union’s strengths and failings. Without our partners’ help, we would have collapsed. With their know-how, we are reforming the economy and the public administration as we struggle with deflation, unemployment at nearly 27 percent, unsustainable debt and increasing numbers of people unable to pay their taxes and loans, while the political system fragments.
New European Union mechanisms, like a banking union, a more active European Central Bank and the push for greater flexibility in fiscal and monetary policy, suggest that the focus can now be on survival and growth. The crisis forced the European Union to make great strides, yet there still seems to be a lack of leadership and direction.
The union’s survival is too important to be left to politicians whose primary concern is re-election. It needs ideas. Perhaps it is time to call in the dreamers, intellectuals, academics, entrepreneurs, pensioners, workers and unemployed from all corners of the union, even from beyond its borders. We need a grand convention on the future of what is, above all, a beacon of humanity. Something like a peace conference without a war.
Nikos Konstandaras is the managing editor and a columnist at the newspaper Kathimerini.