About a decade ago, when the Euro was just being introduced as the new currency of a united Europe, Silvio Berlusconi sent every taxpaying family in Italy a pocket calculator along with a note in which he bade a fond farewell to the country’s “beloved lira.” The calculator, of course, was to aid in converting the “old money” – the lira dates to the time of Charlemagne – to the new Euro, but despite expressing such wistful sentiments, Berlusconi made it clear that his sympathies were with the future. Embrace the Euro, he told the Italian people, and get on with it.
How odd then to watch this past week as the Euro-driven debt crisis, having already ended the political life of Greece’s prime minister, George Papandreou, effectively claimed another political victim, Berlusconi himself. Indeed, if he weren’t so repulsive – Berlusconi’s life of sleaze has been a tabloid editor’s dream — you could almost muster some sympathy for the about-to-be former Italian prime minister.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. The Euro was meant to usher in a new era of European prosperity, one in which the Old World would compete effectively with the New World – the United States – and the new, new world, the Far East. It would be “Mega-Europe,” an entity composed of 450 million citizens, larger than any population mass except for that of China and India, and an economy of more than $9 trillion. But if you look carefully, the story of the disaster the European Union now faces was amply foretold in its origins.
The most obvious conclusion, the one being made throughout Europe now, is that by tethering 17 nations to a common currency without at the same time binding them to a common fiscal policy, the Eurozone was doomed to fail. That may be true. But the deeper message is a constitutional one. Since the end of World War II, as Europe has tentatively and then more aggressively come together, it has used America as a model. When, a few years back, Valery Giscard d’Estaing chaired the convention looking to establish a new constitution for Europe, the former French president enjoyed making comparisons to the American Founding Fathers. They were creating, he said, a “United States of Europe.”
Who could blame him for having such enthusiasm? The American Constitution is one of the greatest achievements in human history and like the Articles of Confederation that our constitution was drafted to replace, the treaties forging the old European Union suffered for being too weak, requiring agreement only through unanimous votes and offering too much protection of the sovereignty of the individual states to allow for an effective single governing identity. Following on the establishment of the Euro, the proposed new European constitution (which evolved, finally, to become the less commanding Treaty of Lisbon) was meant to counter provincial loyalties in the same way that our Philadelphia Constitution asserted a strong national government with supremacy over the states.
But Europe is not America, and America is not Europe. While their borders may have shifted multiple times over the centuries, today’s European states are much more diverse than the 13 former colonies were in 1787. And while migration between states in response to new economic opportunities has always been a part of the American demographic (“Europe has its nobility,” said Abigail Adams, “America has its mobility“), Europeans are much less likely to flee their homeland for a job in a country where they have no ancestors and where they do not speak the language. Europe may be a single “market” by some definition, but it is still an amalgamation of different languages and different cultural traditions among peoples who have warred with each other for centuries. Indeed, while the American identity was burnished in a war of independence from a distant and inhospitable power, the notion of a united Europe grew among the survivor states of World War II as a means of avoiding war with each other and, in particular, the rise again of an overly powerful Germany. It was, in a sense, a unity born in the goal of prevention rather than, as in the American case, the goal of creation.
When the Euro was established, its early success masked the degree to which this old sectionalism still defines Europe. Then came the recession followed by this year’s Euro-debt crisis, and the flaw in the theory of European “union” was laid bare. The frustration that Americans once voiced with a remote, unaccountable institution is now being mimicked in Greece and Italy as they subsume their economies to the strictures demanded of them by the more robust economies, like Germany’s.
Ironically, the “Euro” gets its name from Esperanto, an “auxiliary language” created more than a century ago by a Russian-Polish ophthalmologist named Ludovic Zamenhof who hoped it might lead to harmony among the various ethnic groups of Europe and consequently an end to war. Esperanto gained a small following in the pre-World War I idealism of the early twentieth century, and for his efforts at finding an inventive way to world peace, Zamenhof was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1910. But his dream of one world language never really took hold. He died in 1917, in the midst of World War I, and roughly twenty years later his three children all perished in the Holocaust.
It would be sad, and wrong, to conclude that any attempt to unify Europe is doomed to failure, but it would equally wrong to minimize the challenge portrayed by the continent’s bloody history.
Todd Brewster is the Director of the National Constitution Center’s Peter Jennings Project and the Center for Oral History at West Point.