THERE’S SOMETHING peculiarly apt about the fact that the current European crisis began in Greece. For Europe’s woes have all the aspects of a classical Greek tragedy, in which a man of noble character is undone by the fatal flaw of hubris.
Not long ago Europeans could, with considerable justification, say that the current economic crisis was actually demonstrating the advantages of their economic and social model. Like the United States, Europe suffered a severe slump in the wake of the global financial meltdown; but the human costs of that slump seemed far less in Europe than in America. In much of Europe, rules governing worker firing helped limit job loss, while strong social-welfare programs ensured that even the jobless retained their health care and received a basic income. Europe’s gross domestic product might have fallen as much as ours, but the Europeans weren’t suffering anything like the same amount of misery. And the truth is that they still aren’t.
Yet Europe is in deep crisis — because its proudest achievement, the single currency adopted by most European nations, is now in danger. More than that, it’s looking increasingly like a trap. Ireland, hailed as the Celtic Tiger not so long ago, is now struggling to avoid bankruptcy. Spain, a booming economy until recent years, now has 20 percent unemployment and faces the prospect of years of painful, grinding deflation.
The tragedy of the Euromess is that the creation of the euro was supposed to be the finest moment in a grand and noble undertaking: the generations-long effort to bring peace, democracy and shared prosperity to a once and frequently war-torn continent. But the architects of the euro, caught up in their project’s sweep and romance, chose to ignore the mundane difficulties a shared currency would predictably encounter — to ignore warnings, which were issued right from the beginning, that Europe lacked the institutions needed to make a common currency workable. Instead, they engaged in magical thinking, acting as if the nobility of their mission transcended such concerns.
The result is a tragedy not only for Europe but also for the world, for which Europe is a crucial role model. The Europeans have shown us that peace and unity can be brought to a region with a history of violence, and in the process they have created perhaps the most decent societies in human history, combining democracy and human rights with a level of individual economic security that America comes nowhere close to matching. These achievements are now in the process of being tarnished, as the European dream turns into a nightmare for all too many people. How did that happen?
THE ROAD TO THE EURO
It all began with coal and steel. On May 9, 1950 — a date whose anniversary is now celebrated as Europe Day — Robert Schuman, the French foreign minister, proposed that his nation and West Germany pool their coal and steel production. That may sound prosaic, but Schuman declared that it was much more than just a business deal.
For one thing, the new Coal and Steel Community would make any future war between Germany and France “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible.” And it would be a first step on the road to a “federation of Europe,” to be achieved step by step via “concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.” That is, economic measures would both serve mundane ends and promote political unity.
The Coal and Steel Community eventually evolved into a customs union within which all goods were freely traded. Then, as democracy spread within Europe, so did Europe’s unifying economic institutions. Greece, Spain and Portugal were brought in after the fall of their dictatorships; Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism.
In the 1980s and ’90s this “widening” was accompanied by “deepening,” as Europe set about removing many of the remaining obstacles to full economic integration. (Eurospeak is a distinctive dialect, sometimes hard to understand without subtitles.) Borders were opened; freedom of personal movement was guaranteed; and product, safety and food regulations were