Or was Charles de Gaulle right?

“If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts.” — Albert Einstein

Europe, Europe, Europe. The Old World has finally caught the spotlight. It wanted to be a paragon of peace and stability reigning in the thousand-year era of Europe’s unrivalled leadership across the globe. It became the stalwart promoter of democracy and human rights. It inaugurated a new sort of politics, so different from the harsh times of Realpolitik. It promised its citizens the best of what they could actually dream of.

Charles de Gaulle

Charles de Gaulle

The European civilization and all the fruit it bore from its tremendous outburst were supposed to serve as a guarantee for a smooth transition from insouciant youth to happy retirement. What we see now, and what the Europeans are so surprised to discover, as if nothing of this sort happened in their daily lives as they continued to daydream, is that the European dream is over. It has been mercilessly shattered by the simple but rigorous facts.

The whole world is now talking about Europe. Media brethren are carefully following every smallish remark made by Chancellor Merkel, as words have become of late clearly more powerful and meaningful than deeds. A trait of skepticism, a hint of failure, a tinge of irony, a shade of doubt, a nuance of dissent, a hue of mistrust, you name it. The most authentic article written off the Chancellor’s words was literally about to bring down the markets and make the euro break another depth record. It is the depth of the plunge which is meant here, thus no reason to be proud of it. The European ideal has become so fragile that even a hardly audible whisper may knock it off completely to the stage of its embryonic drafting.

All those who think they have the courage to write about Europe, including the author of this very article, know pretty well that the European decline is already history. It has already been. In literature, cinema, philosophical lucubration. The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler who can barely be understood by an average person wishing to learn more about the roots of the present European eclipse is gaining in popularity with the general public.

Not that the public is so curious about history in the making that it aspires to grasp the moment and make of it a screenshot, until the classic book reveals its inside story in full detail. The European crisis has become so critical and so outlandishly humiliating that no other book written in a modern simplistic tradition of a few hours’ reading may be used to understand the scope of the problem.

Saving the euro, believes Angela Merkel, who has recently spoken to the French daily Le Monde, is equivalent to saving the European project. Sounds strange, if you try to recollect her speeches before the Bundestag made in the wake of the Greek debt crisis, where she wondered, rather rhetorically, why the German taxpayers had to bail out their Greek counterparts. It was a tactical move, of course, as the election campaign in Germany had already kicked off.

Despite or maybe due to the clumsy ambiguity created by a sharp contradiction between the internal and external tactics of Angela Merkel, her party lost control of Germany’s upper house of Parliament, punished by the voters for their country’s upcoming engagement in the Greek debt quagmire. But could Germany have acted differently, given its role in the united Europe from the very day of 18 April 1951 when the Treaty of Paris establishing the European Coal and Steel Community was signed? The obvious answer is no.

Any opposite decision would have provoked the dismantlement of the European Union as such. This is the major lesson that Germany has learned about how precarious it is to be strong, as being strong also means being fatally weak. The European media hastily used this occasion to hype themselves in the face of the apparent discord up there in the invisible corridors of power. The Spanish El Pais asserted that Merkel’s leniency had been secured only after Nicolas Sarkozy’s explicit threat to take France out of the Euro zone, if Germany continued to persist in its non-acceptance. This simple fact makes one think that the European crisis, in whatever form it happens to manifest itself, is seen by some as the best way to attract attention and boost sales – the sales of newspapers, to be exact. Intellectual inflation, that’s the only raison d’être of today’s media fuss.

The European decline is far more serious that one may imagine. There is no need to repeat the gloomy predictions of the past century’s philosophers and the dire warnings of this century’s pundits: demographic decline, lack of flexibility, extreme nonchalance, and bad habits of an overly convenient lifestyle.

The European Union is now the first donor of international aid and the largest contributor to the development of the poorest regions. But can the European Union help itself? Can it get rid of its own indebtedness without seeing its population up in the arms against the last-ditch effort to push through a vital reform of public spending? Although money means something, it is not everything. The problems of Europe originate from its own perception of itself.

The European integration started as a brilliant idea propelled by a number of intellectuals. It was designed to cope with post-war shortages, malnutrition, deficit and misery. It was aimed at getting closer to the reconciliation of two great nations – France and Germany who had been at war just a few years before. The idea worked out. Benefiting from the American nuclear umbrella that the United States had generously extended across NATO members, Europe received an unprecedented opportunity to see itself catapulted into an ersatz of past glory.

As the European integration ratcheted up its steady course, the whole world came to terms with the revival of Europe’s triumphant knowledge of its own past, present and, more importantly, future. No need to recall the whole process of cultural, economic and finally political rapprochement which paved the way for Europe to become a union of nations smoothly aligned and peacefully accepting. With the Ode to Joy as the official anthem, the European Union is taking delight in knowing that, unlike many others, it still has time to rejoice.

It seems almost impossible to criticize Europe for its unqualified liberalism and love of freedom. All the institutions it set up down the road are filled with mutual respect and delicately stenciled tolerance. The European Parliament was staffed with popularly elected members in 1979, due to the efforts of Léo Tindemans[1] and his team, and became as democratic as every national parliament should be.

The European Commission is composed of 27 Commissioners, one for each member state. Though the first version of the Lisbon Treaty signed in 2007 opted for the reduction of the Commission’s composition with the accession of new sovereign states, the second Irish referendum of 2009 made it impossible to introduce the principle of rotation. Thus, the European executive will remain as egalitarian in its formation as it is now.

The European Council uniting heads of state and government is henceforth a permanent body and has as president a conciliatory personage who tends to be respectful of all viewpoints. The European Court of Justice and Court of Auditors have gradually obtained powerful leverage and are free to punish or reward (which is equivalent to the absence of punishment) in line with their guiding principles, which are collectively European.

Finally, the European Central Bank is entrusted with the supervision of overall financial and monetary stability and can use considerable resources to predict and prevent crisis situations. What is not in the picture yet? The Council of ministers – it is absolutely fine too. It is also worth mentioning that with the entry into force of the new Lisbon Treaty on 1 December 2009 the European Union became, at least according to the thinking of its current leaders, more visible and coherent on the world stage.

The EU’s High Representative for foreign affairs and security policy, baroness Catherine Ashton, as technocratic as her colleague from the European Council, was already spotted at the State Department standing to the right of Hillary Clinton and promising aid to Haiti on behalf of the whole Union. The picture looks idyllic or… It just seems idyllic to an over-optimistic observer who is convinced that what is written on paper can be easily put into practice. This paper optimism has dominated the European political culture for half a century and now has the appearance of an inculcated tenet.

If the European Union’s legal framework is so sophisticated that every aspect of life remains totally under control, why did Greece conceal for such a long time its huge debts and shockingly high deficits, always unscathed? How was it possible for the European institutions not to get a clear idea of what was happening in some EU countries which lived primarily on extensive loans and let their citizens retire earlier than any reasonable person would do, if provided such a possibility? That means that despite the brightness of the picture, carefully framed and proudly displayed to the rest of the world still under the impression, things did not go as smoothly as they were supposed to. It took a long time for the united Europe to recognize its mistakes and finally open whole-hearted discussions on how to redress them. But the house of cards, so tall and at the same time so fragile, had already crumbled, tearing down with abrupt elegance the articles of faith that once crowned the fascinating construction.

What is important to note is that the current crisis cannot be overcome by means of urgent cash inflows claimed by those EU member states who have found themselves all of a sudden in Queer Street. This is the identity crisis that strikes the last – and most vehemently. Since all preceding signals have been light-headedly ignored, the European elite are now confronted with a far more serious task of saving the people who vested their trust in them. But, as recent developments demonstrate, the salvation of Europe from its deep-rooted evils will take more time and, what is rather important, a certain portion of personal and collective courage to steamroll the unpleasant reforms.

Even if one assumes that Europe will manage to recover and again climb up the wall of the well on the bottom of which it is now groping for the light, the face of Europe will change. It is already in the process of a drastic and irreversible transformation. The current crisis in Europe has hit the very ideals of European integration the hardest, and therefore no one is in doubt over the inadequacy of just mere rapprochement, as it is enshrined in the European treaties of all sorts. Once there is a problem, a fissure grows wider, dividing those suffering and those being pleaded to come up with a solution, those definitely poor and jobless and the other ones looking at things in a detached technocratic way from the heights of their sun-blazing offices. A clear sense of one’s defenselessness in the face of great challenges reminds one of all the futilities of high-flown speeches and empty promises. If there is a crisis knocking on your door, open it and confront your present with lucid eyes. Lest you should be squeezed dead under the debris of the big dream that never came true.

On 19 April 1963, French President Charles de Gaulle proclaimed: ‘It seems essential to us that Europe remains Europe and France remains France’ [Il nous paraît essentiel que l’Europe soit l’Europe et que la France soit la France][2]. What is the significance of these words in the context of what followed them? De Gaulle, the founder of the Fifth Republic, wanted France to remain the center of gravity for continental Europe and to maintain its global political engagement in support of it but separately from other European countries. Though he never commented on the now famous expression Europe of nations that he is believed to have employed for the first time, it is quite understandable that de Gaulle’s Europe was a far cry from what Europe has actually become.

It makes absolutely no sense to try to imagine what the European path could have been if it had chosen to turn its back on the idea of unity in diversity (as the EU’s motto suggests). It might not have been that successful and impressive. Be de Gaulle right or not, the Europe of nations is taking shape. Its lineaments are still very unclear, but its course is distinctly registered in today’s life. Euro-skepticism came as an allergic reaction to excessive optimism that made Europe run for a few long years without a stop, without having the slightest chance to look back and verify if the track was still being followed. It was no surprise that when David Cameron became the new Prime minister of Britain, Gordon Brown was precipitated to vacate 10 Downing Street, as if with his departure all the problems of his country, always half-way between Europe and America, would dissipate together with the morning fog[3].

Britain’s fixation on its internal difficulties also means a sharp turnaround in its relationship with the united Europe, looming in the dark of its glorified decline, ahead of or beside the second “Dark Ages”. Hope they will never come back. Hope is the only thing that millions of Europeans can now rely on.

To be or not to be, this is what today’s Europe may be wondering about. The idea of Europe has been changing so sizably that it seems almost impossible to say whether Europe has ended with the European Union or whether it might end one day with the Europe of nations. Nothing is more uncertain.

As the quotation placed at the very beginning of this article suggests, one may be tempted to change the facts whenever the theory, generally more rigid, ceases to correspond to what it had been designed to describe. Probably, Europe has gotten into the logical trap invented by the great humorist Albert Einstein whose suggestion to regard the world from the point of view of his theory of relativity had caused from the outset a sort of intellectual mess. What to think of the European crisis? Imagine you see it from a different planet, if not the universe. Imagine you have some clownish glasses on, which completely distort the picture. Imagine all the people living life in peace. Oh no, not that stuff. Albert Einstein’s quotation is good only as a metaphor. What we have now is the stark home truth. We have to deal with it. We have to live with it.

The performance is over. The gloomy conductor, who has just fluttered like a butterfly at the top of the orchestra pit, giving his assiduous musicians the right sense of music, packs his baton and leaves without bidding farewell. The stage is empty. A few solitary decorations protrude from the muted backdrop, reminding of the pompous feast. A bunch of musicians, already out of the pit, change their dresses in the dressing room, looking sullenly into the dark of their individual closets. They want to be back home. They are too tired after a long tour. The intimacy of their bedrooms – that’s what they are dreaming of. You guess what I mean? It is time to say hello to the Europe of nations.

[1] Léo Tindemans was Prime Minister of Belgium from 1974 to 1978. In December 1975, the Tindemans report was presented to the European Council. It suggested creating a monetary union, reinforcing the authority of European legislature, establishing the European Armaments Agency (now incarnated by the European Defense Agency) and inaugurating the common European foreign and security policy. One of the achievements of the working group headed by Mr. Tindemans was the popular election of deputies to the European Parliament, considered to be a major breakthrough for further democratization of Europe.

[2] See extracts from Charles de Gaulle’s speeches in French at: http://www.gaullisme.fr/politique_europ_cdg.htm

[3] See the article by David Kenner, How Did the Brits Kick Gordon Brown so Fast?, Foreign Policy, May 13 2010, accessible at: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/05/12/how_did_the_brits_kick_gordon_brown_out_so_fast