The myth of Europe

Europeans tend to cling to the dream – the idea – of Europe as a matter of political, social and economic theology while all too often ignoring the hard, demanding practical tasks of building the structures and functions that are necessary in making the founders’ vision a reality.

By Steven E. Meyer

When French diplomat and philosopher, Jean Monnet, and French foreign minister, Robert Schuman, pushed for the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1950 they were doing much more than backing an economic and industrial trade pact.  Germany and France already were disagreeing on access to resources in the Ruhr Valleys, so they were searching for a way to get past centuries of virulent nationalism and almost relentless European warfare.  The goal was to construct a supranational structure that would make war “unthinkable and materially impossible.”  The new ECSC was truly an international organization, governed by a “High Authority,” members of the parliaments of the six participating countries and even its own an independent judiciary.

But more was needed.  After all, the fact that pre-World War I Europe also witnessed economic and financial integration that “would make war unthinkable and impossible” made the post-World War II effort more, not less, urgent.  What was needed was a tectonic shift in the philosophical underpinnings of European politics, one that encouraged “democratic, peaceful and cooperative” modes of problem solving.  Certainly the reality that Europe was exhausted and prostrate after the Second World War – a war of immense brutality and racism – and that the age of European imperialism and world power was coming to an end helped force a different understanding of politics, especially the use of force. The founders of post-war Europe understood this and were determined to construct a different reality.  If the systems that followed World War II were not fully Kantian or Hegelian, they were influenced by these giants of German idealism and their disciples more so than any other political thinkers.  The failure of Marxism in Germany, culminating with the Social Democrat’s Godesberg Program (1959), and the eventual collapse of the French and Italian Communist parties guaranteed that Europe’s new political dynamics would hue more to the right of German idealism than to the left.  It seemed that Europe was off and running, and in a direction it had never seen before as the ECSC morphed into the Common Market and ultimately the European Union.

But there were other forces trending in Europe that would challenge the early post World War II vision and lead ultimately to the contemporary European crisis.  Across the decades since World War II we have seen the gradual cultural, spiritual, political and economic decline in Europe that has acted as both the motor of – and seedbed for – the hollowness of the current European political space.  It is much more than an economic crisis.  Arguably, the failure in the Europe of today to produce great literature, music and art are compounded by a declining indigenous population, the anguish and challenge of the immigrant problem and, perhaps most profound of all, the collapse of Christianity and with it the spiritual roots of a moral code.  None of this was foreseen by the post-World War II founders of Europe, but these changes – some of which have their origins deep in history – are no less profound than were the efforts of the post-World War II generation to move Europe into a more supranational direction.  The conflict between the vision of the post-war founders and these trends does not bode well for the future of a “unified” Europe.

But, the Europeans pretend not to notice; they cling to the dream – the idea – of Europe as a matter of political, social and economic theology while all too often ignoring the hard, demanding practical tasks of building the structures and functions that are necessary in making the founders’ vision a reality.  Especially at elite levels, Europeans are caught in a philological narcissism.  All the “right” words are used to construct a myth of European reality. “Yes”, they say, “we have problems, but they are manageable and do not detract from the overall health and vitality of the organization; EU is essentially sound and, anyhow, there is no alternative.” (1) These words are no mere sophism; they are the heart of the myth: to manufacture a saga around which structures and functions (a la Almond and Verba) are imagined, erected and worshipped.  What is going on in the non-mythical world is of little importance.  As Claude Lev-Strauss pointed out in his landmark essay The Structural Study of Myth (The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 68, No. 270, 1955) the myth is the “foundation of ritual” and the foundation of language; indeed, “there is very good reason why myth cannot simply be treated as language if its specific problems are to be solved; myth is language: to be known, myth has to be told; it is part of human speech.”  As the world around changes, the EU perpetuates the myth of European cultural, moral and economic superiority; superiority the EU leaders maintain, that must be observed, acknowledged and, above all, maintained, despite the decline of the organization.

The ECSC started out as a genuine effort to break the tragic routine of the past, but its successors have failed it.  The EU is cracking under the weight of regional and national differences, declining world influence, economic structural problems, excessive introversion, sheer size and an unwillingness to engage in the kind of hard work needed to meet the challenges of a globalizing world.  But mostly what is being shattered is the structural myth of European moral, cultural and political supremacy that underpins the EU.  And, while the elites who control the EU do not notice, the myth of Europe is being shattered and ultimately will be replaced.  In the introduction to the essay by Strauss, Franz Boas notes that “…mythological worlds have been built up only to be shattered again, and that new worlds were built from the fragments.”

Despite the myth-shattering changes that are taking place, Washington and Brussels continue to tell the world and their own people that the Cold War, pre-globalization structures and functions are still right for today.  In effect, they are saying that little has changed.  The EU – based mostly on the Treaty of Maastricht (1992), the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997), the Copenhagen Criteria, the Treaty of Nice (2001) and the Treaty of Lisbon (2007) – remains the paramount rhetorical economic and political map in the European understanding of reality and NATO remains the rhetorically-dominant security organization.(2)  The problem, of course, is that neither NATO nor the EU is what they were even five or ten years ago because Europe and the larger West, are not what they were five or ten years ago.  Ironically, just as the EU receives the Nobel Peace Prize, it is in the deepest trouble of its history, and it is not just the euro zone that is in crisis mode.  The EU has become so large and cumbersome that it is now impossible to control the organization’s political, economic or military future.  It has neither the authoritarian command structure of an empire nor the necessary organic or mechanical capabilities of a democracy.  It is, rather an unwieldy behemoth that is unsure of its own future – even its own survivability.  But, in the final analysis, it is not primarily the size and cumbersomeness of the EU that is the problem.  It is perhaps more important that the “idea” of Europe – the lingering notion of cultural and moral superiority – has become more important than the work required to implement the agreed upon financial and structural agreements that have been laid out in the underlying treaties and documents of the organization.  The EU leadership has ignored its own rules and has become smug and arrogant in assuming that nothing could undermine the growing wealth and power of the EU.  Although the financial and structural problems have become most serious in Europe’s southern tier, the wealthier countries of northern Europe (including Germany) routinely have ignored and violated some of the union’s most basic financial rules.

For example, the Maastricht Treaty lays out clear financial requirements and remedies, which virtually every member of the union – including Germany – has ignored when those rules have been too economically demanding or politically risky domestically to follow.(3)  The Treaty of Amsterdam was intended to clarify rules for citizenship and human rights, to establish the working mechanisms for a common foreign and security policy and to lay the groundwork for the soon-to-be new members of the EU in Eastern and Central Europe.  But, a common foreign and security policy has floundered into irrelevancy – as witnessed by the varying policy differences among the members states concerning such issues as Iraq and Afghanistan (and others), plus the failure to establish even the fiction of a useful European military.(4)  When EU leaders also failed to include the intended requirements in the Treaty of Amsterdam concerning the accession of Eastern and Central Europe, they had to be spelled out quickly in the 2001 Treaty of Nice.  And, while a few parts of the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon will not been fully implemented until 2014, most of the treaty went into effect in 2009.  The most significant aspect of this “reform” treaty is to introduce qualified majority voting and double majorities to most votes in the EU Council, a move that will give the larger countries greater clout and, therefore, actually limit meaningful change.  Moreover, the entire document is a fascinating example of circumvention of the democratic process.  In 2005 French and Dutch voters rejected a proposal to establish an EU constitution and European leaders, not to be disobeyed, wrote the Lisbon Treaty in place of the “constitution” and established approval mechanisms designed where ever possible to bypass voters.  It may be the first example in EU history of a “post-democratic” procedure.

In effect, the euro crisis is a serious subset of the problems the EU is facing as a whole.  In addition to ignoring the clear rules and regulations of the EU’s underlying treaties and documents, basic structural issues also are key to the euro crisis, especially high labor and production costs and slipping productivity that make it difficult for the EU to compete with Asian producers.  The EU Fiscal Compact, signed in March 2012, reaffirms provisions already in force in other EU documents.  It remains to be seen whether the new Compact will be any more successful in holding the euro zone members to the standards they already had pledged to uphold.  In addition, in the fall of 2012 the European Central Bank announced a plan to buy the national bonds of countries in financial trouble (i.e. much of the southern tier of the EU/euro zone) and last September the EU ratified the European Financial Stability Mechanism/Facility, which also is designed to prop up the sovereign debts of failing economies.  Taken together, these efforts are signs of failure, not success, because each one of them constitutes an effort to rush relief to financial issues that were amply covered earlier agreements.

Given all of this, what then is the future of the EU?  It is by all accounts a troubled future if the myth cannot be broken in favor of an honest and determined decision to work and abide by the agreements established over many years.  There are three basic reasons.

First, history and heritage are stumbling blocks.  Despite the success of the ECSC, the EU is a construct of many cultures, languages, political, economic and social systems as well as a history of conflict and a heritage of ethnic, religious and racial antagonism.  Consequently, the EU has a sort of Tower of Babel mentality that makes it unsure of where it wants to go.  It is likely – but not guaranteed – that Croatia will accede to full membership in 2013, but beyond that there is serious doubt that the EU will invite any other countries to join for very long time, if at all.  Countries such as Serbia, Macedonia and Albania live in hope, but they are far away from meeting elements of conditionality or closing important chapters of the Acquis Communautaire.  It needs to be remembered that conditionality is used as much as a way to keep countries out of the EU as a means to secure their membership.  To be sure, the Balkans exhibit problems that make those countries “different” from their masters to the northwest, but there also is a built an antipathy toward the “backward” Balkan states that has been a staple of European history for centuries.  And, now, this antipathy has been re-energized in the case of Greece, which once again is a true, backward Balkan country – for the first time since the fall of the Colonels in 1974.

Second, we also are witnessing what might be described as “fractured” membership which has led to increasingly serious tiering of EU and Europe.  It is possible to identify at least four major tiers, each containing several feudal-like sub-tiers; they tend to follow the north to south patters of power and wealth that developed in post-industrial revolution Europe: northwest; southeast (including Italy); east and central; and, the Balkans, which likely always will remain the poorest part of Europe.  But, fractured membership also includes individual countries that have “violated” the sensitivities of their more powerful colleagues.  The most striking examples today are Bulgaria, under sanction for corruption issues, and Greece, an anathema for its financial misdeeds.  The euro crisis has exacerbated the fracturing of the EU, not only because of a general downward economic spiral, but because it is leading to a significant shift in the labor market.  As the southern economies continue to struggle, EU labor and social policy allows workers to move north to more prosperous markets, especially to Germany which has seen a growing influx of Spanish, Portuguese and Italian laborers.  Not only will this amplify the economic crisis in the south, it is likely to lead to growing pressure to renationalize economic and immigration policy.

Third, are the “outcasts” and “near outcasts.”  The clearest example of a true outcast is Turkey, the bête noir of many of the largest and most influential members of the EU (especially Germany and France).  Turkey has been struggling for 25 years to become a member of the EU with no success.  Consistent with the myth of Europe, EU officials repeat the mantra that Turkey’s failure to become a member is totally Ankara’s fault.  Certainly, the Turks have not satisfied EU conditions, especially in the arena of human rights.(5)  But, the inability of Turkey to satisfy the EU does not rest entirely with Ankara.  Many Europeans object to Turkey’s Islamist credentials and to the prospect of even more Turks living and working in Europe, which plays to the European myth of cultural and moral superiority. Two members, Britain and Finland, are moving toward outcast status.  Britain has played an outsider role since it joined the EU in 1973 and British prime minister Cameron is under pressure, mostly from within his own Conservative Party, to hold a referendum on EU membership.  Moreover, there has been growing anti-British sentiment in Germany and especially France because of Britain’s increasingly independent economic line and because London is the euro’s financial center, an especially galling phenomenon since the UK refuses to adopt the euro.  To the north, the EU-skeptical True Finns party, which did extremely well in Parliamentary elections last year and municipal elections last October, has changed the nature of the debate in Finland and become a lightning rod for growing anti-EU sentiment throughout Scandinavia, where bailout programs for Greece and Spain are extremely unpopular.

Where, then, is the EU headed?  There seem to be six trends.  First, the importance of the EU as a world body and an internal organizing apparatus for Europe is on the wane.  It probably peaked during the early nineties as the EU was being formed out of the Common Market and hopes were high that some form of united Europe was being born.  But, even then the idea of the EU was an even more powerful force than the reality of a practical, unifying instrument.  Second, the euro zone will survive intact with its current 17 members only with great effort or with a continued practice of ignoring the rules.  It is more likely that the weaker members of the herd in the south will hive off or be hived off by the stronger economies of the north.  Third, the tiers will remain a permanent feature of the EU with the southern members becoming increasingly poor and dependent on handouts and financial support from the wealthier north.  Ultimately, some of the weakest members may be forced out of the EU and others withdrawing voluntarily.  Fourth, in reaction, there is likely to be an increasing renationalization of policy among members of the EU, especially in the north where resentment against the south is growing.  At the same time, an economically driven renationalization will become the default position for several poorer southern members.   Fifth, Croatia likely will be escorted into full membership of the EU because the process is near an end.  But, expansion beyond Croatia is extremely problematic, possibly impossible.  The EU is in turmoil, with little appetite to include countries that almost certainly will cause deeper economic and political problems.  Sixth, evolution of the EU’s foreign and security policy has peaked and is now receding.  It has always been weak, but almost certainly will fade further because of the growing internal disunion and lack of confidence and capability that are taking an increasingly firm grip on the EU.

Steven E. Meyer is a partner in the firm TSM Global Consultants and a Fellow at the Center for Public Justice in Washington, D.C. Before that he worked for many years at the Central Intelligence Agency, where his last position was as a Deputy Chief of the U.S. Government’s Interagency Balkan Task Force during the wars of the 1990s. After leaving the CIA, Dr. Meyer taught national security studies, American foreign policy and comparative politics at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. Earlier in his career, he taught at the University of Glasgow and the Free University of Amsterdam. He received bachelor’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin, an M.S. degree from Fordham University in New York and a PhD from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., both in comparative politics. He has published in several journals and is working on a book on the changing structure of the international system.


1) This sentence is a summary of words used by the Cypriot Ambassador to the U.S., Pavlos Anastasiadeas, during a conference in Washington, D.C. on 6 December 2012. He was speaking in his capacity as an official during Cyprus’ presidency of the EU.

2) NATO essentially lives off its now passé success as an anti-Soviet alliance, but has no relevant security function in the world of today. It has become a useless anachronism that is more of a drain on its members than a guarantee of military or political security.

3) Among other rules, Article 121 (1) requires that inflation rates must be no more than 1.5 percentage points higher for any members than the average of the three best performing (lowest inflation) members states of the EU; the ratio of the annual government deficit to GDP must not exceed 3 percent at the end of the preceding fiscal year; the ratio of gross government debt to GDP must not exceed 60 percent at the end of the preceding year; and, the nominal long term interest rate must be no more than two percentage points higher than in the three lowest inflation member states.

4) Perhaps the most “telling” example of the failure of the EU to establish even the most meager iteration of military cooperation has been the almost total lack of determination to establish and fund the European Rapid Reaction Force.

5) This point was made by Cypriot Ambassador to the U.S., Pavlos Anastasiades, during the conference mentioned in footnote 2.


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  1. Pingback : Albanians play the “Greater Albania” card over north Kosovo | TransConflict

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