The Frenchman leaned across to the German and broke the news softly. “I am thinking of my two sons – they’re 18 and 20,” said Pierre Mendès France mournfully. “I don’t want to see their lives sacrificed in another war between France and Germany.”
Then the French premier came to the point: the National Assembly was about to reject the European Defence Community (EDC), a tentative step towards a European army in an attempt to bring West Germany back into the fold. It was the great integrationist project of the day, and it failed. Konrad Adenauer, the German chan cellor, was thunderstruck. Europe had never seemed so weak. That was in 1954. Within three years the old man had overcome the setback: West Germany became one of the six signatories of the Treaty of Rome, which set out the terms for a European Common Market.
Now Europe is weak again, its institutions crippled by enlargement and bureaucratic overstretch. It makes no decisive contribution to putting out fires across the world. It is becoming a patchily efficient trading entity, significant only because of its bulk. Can it make a comeback?
Angela Merkel thinks it can, just as West Germany pulled itself out of the 1954 crisis. There is an Oskar Kokoschka portrait of Adenauer in her study and she means to live up to her Christian Democrat predecessor by exploiting the dialectic of the European Union: out of weakness comes strength. First, the crisis; then the reinvention. The modern version of the EDC débâcle is the failure of the European constitution, its resolute rejection by the French and Dutch and the near-certainty that the British, Poles and Czechs would throw out any cosmetically enhanced treaty. It is an institutional breakdown that has left Europeans – the Rhinelanders of Cologne, the Cala brians, the Bohemians and all the Continent’s many tribes – wondering about the purpose and the principles of the European Union.
I recently met the Hungarian prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, who warned that a European crescent stretching from Poland to the Balkans was wrestling with a dilemma: whether to modernise quickly or whether to retreat into a regressive nationalism. “Something horrible is happening,” he said, and the implied question was: What is the EU going to do about it? If Europe, if the idea of Europe, is indeed to modernise society, then where do our responsibi lities begin and end? Is the mission of the EU to shape a wealth-creation zone, to secure pros perity, or to redistribute it? We can all agree that the EU needs to deregulate – but many of those regulations were put in place to protect people as well as sectional interests. How far should the EU let people fall in its rush to overhaul and slim down the welfare state? On New Year’s Eve, I was travelling on a coach full of Romanians supposedly heading to London (in fact they all got off in Germany, which is a much easier country to invade). They were middle-class professionals – architects and engineers and teachers – who were willing to work as waiters and carers in the west because of the social upheaval in their country. The Romanian economy is growing by leaps and bounds and the gap between rich and poor has never been so frighteningly wide.
Do we accept this brain-drain migration as a healthy sign of an open Europe, or do we act out of solidarity to prevent a dumbing-down of the western Balkans? Ordinary Europeans are posing these existential questions, yet the EU does not even attempt an answer. As a result, immigration has become the only political passion in Europe and far-right groups are sprouting like weeds in the driveway.
The German-led presidency of the EU is therefore missing the point when it offers an agenda addressing what it identifies as the three central fears of Europeans: climate change, energy supplies and unemployment. These are indeed subjects of discussion over frothing beer in pubs in Bradford and Bochum, but the greening of Europe is likely to remain a sham.
Merkel may be leading the charge, but she does so on a steed that is buckling at the knees. She is a captive of Europe’s increasingly powerful lobbies – the big petrol-guzzling car manu facturers, the aerospace industry – and her Social Democratic coalition partner, which is thwarting her hopes of reviving nuclear energy in Germany. As for energy security, it strikes a chord throughout Europe. The right to a warm room is something that most people can agree on. But Merkel, leading a government that cannot work out whether the Russians should be criticised or cuddled, is probably not the right person to develop an intelligent strategic relationship with Moscow, the primary supplier of Europe’s energy. The EU, in other words, exposes itself by claiming solutions to problems that lie outside its control: it cannot hope to reverse climate change and it cannot stop Russia closing down its pipelines at whim.
Initiatives coming out of Berlin merely chip away at the credibility of the EU. A Europe-wide ban on light bulbs that give out too much heat? A proposed ban on the swas tika? A creeping (and rather sinister) extension of the European arrest warrant?
Yet Merkel is certainly correct that the EU has to have a more pronounced political identity if it is to justify itself, and make itself useful to its citizens. There simply has to be a proper calibration between what the EU can do with its current powers and the needs of the inhabitants of its 27 member states. Until this has been sorted out, there is no real point in reaching for the skies. The founders of the Common Market – Schuman, Spaak, Monnet – were a small elite who imposed a vision on a shattered continent. It worked because West Germany actively surrendered itself to Europe.
As the historian Tony Judt points out, Germany was the only country that stood to recover its sovereignty by joining the Common Market. So it is absurd for Merkel to talk up a European energy policy as the modern version of the European Coal and Steel Community. The ECSC was a historic compromise between France and Germany, devised by a handful of mandarins. An EU energy-security policy would involve a compromise with Vladi mir Putin: not the same thing at all.
Punchy, vague and proud
And so, unable to identify the true issues facing Europe, unable to agree on a basic constitutional credo, unable to give Merkel her Adenauer moment, the EU resorts to operetta. In the coming week, the 27 leaders and their courtiers will gather in the German capital to celebrate the 50th birthday of the Treaty of Rome. A declaration so simple that it can be published in full by Bild and the Sun will be released, declaring Europe’s achievements, values and goals.
“It will be punchy, it will be vague, it will make us proud,” said a German official, not spotting the obvious contradictions. The aim will be to stir popular interest in a new constitution, to tip the mood. So the French, Dutch and English translations had better be very punchy indeed. And vague. In truth, the Declaration of Berlin will just be an oversized birthday card. The celebrations are unlikely to impress anyone apart from the lumpenproletariat of Berlin, which has not hosted such a circus since the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Then, Bismarck, Disraeli and company could be seen bumping into each other in mirrored cafés and the lobby of the Hotel Kaiserhof. Chancellor Merkel can match that spectacle in only one respect: the 27 leaders have been instructed to bring along two birth-day cakes per country, displaying the very best of their confectionary talent. It is a frightening contribution to a continent that already boasts some of the world’s worst coronary heart disease statistics. If federal Europe means boosting cholesterol values to such astronomic levels, maybe the Polish Eurosceptics (slogan: “The Nice Treaty or Die!”) had a point.
It would be churlish to begrudge Merkel her cream cake. The Congress of Berlin was about restraining Russian expansion. This month’s summit is both less and more important than that. Less, because no borders are being changed; no countries are being sliced up; and Russia is off-stage. More, because we are embarking on what can only be clumsily called a “period of definition” for this strange semi-imperial postmodern agglomeration. The cakes are misleading because they are suggestive of a club or, at worst, a bring-and-buy sale. That kind of intimacy may have existed half a century ago; it has long since gone.
Besides, the declaration is misleading, because you could be lulled into believing that the EU knows what it wants. Yet it is at a turning point: the EU, at 50, is affirming that there is more to life than money – that it is once again permissible to entertain a political dream that goes beyond endless enlargement.
Making wars impossible
If a new mission is to be properly defined, however, the current cohort of leaders has to shed the old idea that the EU is quintessentially about preventing war. Mendès France irritated Adenauer when he talked about his sons, but he was sincere. Helmut Kohl justified the introduction of the euro by saying it was a matter of war and peace – the only argument that could trump German fears of inflation.
In 30 years of covering Europe, east and west, I have accumulated a number of ornithological sightings. One, from when I was a young correspondent in Moscow in the 1970s, was of an old apparatchik, crippled with arthritis, being carried up the steps of Gosplan, the Soviet planning ministry. He was a crucial figure, I later found out, in manipulating the budget: a man with a broken body called in to rig the stats.
Later, in 1989, I saw a Romanian rebel liter- ally shoot himself in the foot while giving an interview on live television. I realised then that we were dealing not with a revolution, but with a coup, a handover of power between two sections of the communist elite. The people (as in: “We, the People!”) were extras, unpaid and incompetent.
And then there was the Kohl sighting. Fran çois Mitterrand had crossed the Rhine to see his “cher ami Helmut” and was hamming it up in a speech about the humanity of his German wartime captors. No one believed a word of it. Suddenly I saw Kohl’s eyes fill with tears. His vast, fleshy body seemed to be made of glass. Every physical inflection, his round, tense shoulders, his quivering thighs, showed that Mitterrand had scored an emotional bull’s-eye. Kohl really believed that his Europe was about making wars impossible. You cannot fake that kind of response.
However, to move forward, we have to forget the war as a legitimising factor. In fact, we have to mentally discard the obsession with uniting two arch-enemies, France and Germany, and all the nervous fretting of the European pioneers from Schuman to Kohl. It has served its purpose. We have reunited Europe, with Germany at its centre, with very little bloodshed.
Clinging on to the spirit of the Treaty of Rome and the old statecraft has given us the wrong focus. We have become preoccupied with external borders, when the true concern of citizens across Europe is the internal divisions – the social boundaries that have created immigrant ghettoes, windy cavernous no-go areas on the fringes of our cities. How many riots have there been, from Oldham and Bradford to Paris and beyond? We know the causes – the discrimination, the friction with police, the hidden blockades against immigrants – and we know some of the side effects, from street gangs to Koranic schools.
Europe should heal its cities before it starts to sell itself as an endearing alternative to red-raw American capitalism and corrupt Chinese capitalism. Yet there is no European strategy for dealing with migrant disaffection. The European migrant has become a dynamic part of society in some cities; in others, he is the most frustrated. Integration begins at home, not on the Rhine. The European Union, to be worthy of its name, needs to become more active in its minority policies; it has to target urban youth.
This is not, obviously, the only challenge facing Europe, but it does help order the priorities. If the EU is to assert its political primacy (indeed, if it is to survive another 50 years), it has to build on the principle of intercommunal and international solidarity. We don’t all have to develop at the same speed, or even march in step, but we have to prevent a situation where there are more losers than winners within the EU.
Everything else – a credible European foreign policy, further expansion, an intelligent use of resources – follows from that sense of social cohesion. Here is a suggestion: some time in June, Gordon Brown, Merkel and the new French president should take a walk in the woods and talk about what is really important in Europe.
And when they come back, their hiking boots clogged with mud, they should use the word once copyrighted by the Poles: solidarity.
Roger Boyes is the Times Berlin correspondent