The European Union was built atop the rubble of so much bad history, meant to build democracy and keep peace among neighbors. But something came undone, and the union itself is now in mortal peril.
BERLIN — Greece vs. Germany: What a drama! Any Hollywood screenwriter would delight at the brutality of this particular marriage. One launching accusations of fraud and theft, the other responding with calls for World War II debt repayment and reparations. Flags and depictions of the German chancellor have been burned. Cruel jokes circulating about the indebted south, with visiting politicians from the north requiring added police security.
How is this all going to end?
Unfortunately, this is not fodder for a fictional screenplay but a political reality in Europe since 2008. It seems that while this aggressive marital drama plays out, its protagonists are unaware of just how much damage has been done to the foundation of the European Union. Is all that's left of Europe the rubble of the past?
When the European idea took its beautiful and potentially healing shape after 1945, it was indeed built on rubble. Nowhere else in the world was there more to be found. Nowhere else was there more European common ground than at Auschwitz, where people of all European nationalities were murdered.
Among the ruins of Caen to Nuremberg, from Rotterdam to Milan, the national fight of everyone against everyone else, which had raged in Europe since the downfall of the Roman Empire, was to be discarded onto the dung heap of history. This was to be a bulwark against the anti-democratic Soviet Union, and economic pragmatism was to be the cure-all.
Instead of Napoleon, Bismarck or Hitler, there were mild, wise and mostly Catholic political veterans such as Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle and Alcide de Gasperi, who managed to disperse international problems by forming new commissions.
Slowly but surely even the worst wounds of the most recent past closed and became scars whose pain was bearable without national sovereignty ever having to be discussed. Europe was not decided upon openly but was bargained in secret with debates about fundamental principles.
But somehow something went wrong in the factory of compromises formed in Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg. Later, historians may identify the tipping point as being somewhere between the introduction of the euro (1998-2001) and the failed 2005 attempt at a European constitution. With a common currency and constitution, the project of the millennium was to be tied up neatly and crowned with glory. Although the euro only failed with the Greek bailout, the European constitution failed to take off before it could even sprout wings when it was rejected by the European founding nations of France and the Netherlands.
If the EU is seen as a common market, bringing together what can't actually be united, the euro contributed to this disaster in creating a social centrifuge.
But it gets even worse: The democratic deficiencies that had been tolerated due to the advantages of a common market and porous borders have become unbearable to EU citizens. The black hole that once was European responsibility has obediently swallowed binding legal contracts on national debt arrangements, and freedom of travel and refugee treatment, these now being worth less than nothing from the UK to Greece.
That which we once called the European spirit has been annihilated in the process.
Putin-like behavior in Athens
But if this isn't scary enough, now the last bastions of international courtesy are crumbling after decades of a common market and shared laws. Greek officials, led by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, are demanding reparations dating back to World War II and threaten to enable Islamic terrorists to travel to Berlin by allowing illegal immigrants in Greece to travel northward unless the eurozone backs down on austerity demands. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn't gone that far. And never has a common social calamity, an international showdown, been treated with more cynicism and defamation.
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Soviet photographer at the battered Brandenburg Gate, 1945. Photo: War Office
Now is when Germany's well-practiced methods of democracy should bear fruit: a summoning of the Greek ambassador, a parliamentary statement and discussion in Berlin, countermeasures undertaken, publicly published calculations and balance sheets, and a statement regarding the German position. But though every citizen has a right to proper representation, this particular branch of national policies is nonexistent within the machinery of EU tactics. No debate, no international lawsuits, no clarification. European unification has failed when two states are embroiled in hatred and silence. Is there any common European ground to be found?
The same reasoning has prompted many Greeks to ask whether European institutions were asleep when the euro was introduced. Was there no section within the Central Bank that could see through the window dressing of the Greek balance sheets? What were German diplomats in Athens doing, as, apparently, there were no reports sent to Berlin about the completely unreliable financial partner that Greece was at the time. Maybe all of this was supposed to disappear in the opaque swamps of the EU back offices?
Helmut Kohl — German chancellor from 1982 to 1998 — said in 2002 that he had to introduce the euro "like a dictator." And that truly seems to be the case. In a dictatorship, citizens aren't entitled to demand their government justify its actions, especially when 369 billion euros are being demanded in reparations, when their property is in danger of being impounded, and when acts of terror are used as leverage against them. The Post-War European experiment has indeed sunk lower than ever. What kind of unification is it when no one agrees anymore?
Is the state of affairs so confused at this stage that an honest divorce and division of assets is impossible?
The most recent election of the European Parliament resulted in parties of the extreme right and left gaining a record number of seats. But it's hardly surprising. EU citizens are simply more concerned with their own nation's security than that of a confederation of states. Where present and future seem grim, nostalgia naturally blooms. It is exactly this neo-patriotism that European unification was supposed to mitigate. But nothing is being done to face this down.
The dismantling of Ukraine and the destroyed landscapes of the former Yugoslavia have demonstrated what smoldering hate in a weak confederation of states can do. Not even 70 years after the Treaty of Rome launched what would become the EU, a generation of people associates Europe's big project with slapstick and manipulation, debt and austerity. But by the time people realize what catastrophes await should the EU disintegrate, it will already be too late.