Ties That Bind

There actually is a great deal that makes Europeans distinctive.


Gareth Harding (“The Myth of Europe,” January/February 2012) bases his analysis of the European Union on his impressive credentials as a native European. I would suggest, however, that he has spent too long on the inside and cannot see the forest for the trees. There is no question that the European Union today faces the biggest crisis in its history, and it can indeed appear difficult to define what it means to be European. What we see, however, depends on where we look, and to suggest that the difficulties of the euro are not so much about economics as about the absence of a clear European identity is misguided.

The real meaning of a society cannot be found in its constitution, as Harding suggests, but in the actions and beliefs of its people and its leaders. In this regard there is a great deal that makes Europeans distinctive. In addition to the belief in democracy and human rights that Europeans share with Americans, the modern European experience can be defined by its secularism, welfarism and belief in the collective society, multiculturalism (but not tolerance of Islam or racial diversity), cosmopolitanism (the idea that humans belong to a community that transcends state boundaries), and support for civilian and multilateral responses to international problems.

In his EU critique, Harding focuses on examples of the lack of solidarity within the union, ignoring the numerous achievements of the cumulative European experiment: its role in encouraging peace and prosperity, its promotion of democracy and free market ideals, and its successes in a wide range of policy areas, from trade to competition, the environment, regional development, and, of course, the single market. Many mistakes were made with the euro, but they will be addressed. And the EU will emerge from this experience both chastened and reinvigorated.

Jean Monnet Professor of EU Politics
Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis
Indianapolis, Ind.

Gareth Harding argues that the current European debt crisis encapsulates a “broader breakdown of Europe’s dreams of a united future” and is on the verge of tearing the peoples of Europe apart. Only time will tell whether he is right, but there can be little doubt that the euro’s troubles do indeed pose an unprecedented challenge to Europe’s leaders. On the other hand, EU enthusiasts can point to an unprecedented stretch of peace in Europe (admittedly with the bloody exception of the brutal breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s). It’s now more than 70 years since one European nation invaded another — and that’s something for which many Europeans are prepared to give the European Union some credit.

Perhaps, as Harding suggests, historians will look back and conclude that the creation of the euro was a step too far. They might ask why Greece, with its notoriously rocky economy and unreliable finances, was accepted as a member of the eurozone in 2000. If sheer political willpower was sufficient to get the euro up and running, though, it is at least arguable that a similar degree of political determination will keep it afloat as it rides out the current storm.

The key question may be whether Europe’s voters will blame the European Union and the political leaders who were central to its development for the economic crisis, which is costing so many millions of jobs and such painful cuts in government spending. As defeated governments in Ireland, Portugal, and Spain have already discovered, the ballot box can be a powerful tool in an argument.

Presenter, The World Tonight and Newshour
London, England

Gareth Harding replies:

Apart from its concision, what I most admire about John McCormick’s excellent textbook Understanding the European Union is its analytical approach to the European Union. Far from accepting the myth that Europeans are one people with clearly defined characteristics, he admits: “The idea of Europe is so hard to pin down. Its political and cultural identity is hard to define (beyond being an accumulation of national identities), its geographical boundaries remain uncertain, and there is little agreement on what ‘Europe’ represents.”

So why is McCormick making such a wildly optimistic — and scarily deterministic — prediction that the EU will emerge from its current crisis “both chastened and reinvigorated”? If the European Union does emerge from its self-inflicted mess with the single currency intact, it will do so more divided than ever and without the support of the very people on whom its legitimacy depends.

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