As Germany rises, Europeans begin to rethink their unity project

The post-war quest for a 'United States of Europe' is likely to change as the economic divide grows between German-dominated northern Europe and the rest of the Continent

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    Cars pass the Checkpoint charlie memorial. A Soviet soldier’s image faces east; on the other side, an American soldier faces west.
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If you traveled through Europe between the late 1940s and the late ’80s, you no doubt felt gathering gloom the farther east you went. Western Europe was open and lively, but just over the horizon were watchtowers, barbed wire, and the gray repression of Soviet-occupied lands.

On a visit I made in 1988, by which time the east-west division of Europe was waning, one could sense something new stirring. There was a buzz in the cafes of Paris and Brussels. Everyone knew that the Iron Curtain’s days were numbered. Students, businesspeople, and government officials talked excitedly about being Europeans. The idea of a united Europe, which has surfaced and sunk and surfaced again over the centuries, was on the rise.

United Europe has always been part romantic dream and part imperial ambition. Shouldn’t all those little countries with the same cultural heritage be under one flag? An assortment of worldly powers – whether under the SPQR of Rome or the standards of Charlemagne, Napoleon, or Hitler – killed millions trying to force the issue. That last attempt left the Continent divided and in ruins. But in postwar years, a new strategy was hatched.

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Quiet and businesslike, French diplomats Jean Monnet and Robert Schu­man worked to knit together old rivals through economics, infra­structure, and cooperation. From the European Coal and Steel Community (1950), the European Economic Community (1957), and finally the European Union (1993), a federated Europe began to emerge.

Bottom-up unification inched along until a critical mass was reached. By 1988, with the Soviet hold on the east loosening, “Euro-optimism” was in the air. Yet even in those heady days, the limits were evident. Only minutes away from the multilingual unity laboratory that was the headquarters of the European Community, for instance, was Woluwe St. Stephens, one of Brussels’s 19 ethnic communes. There, the Flemish mayor had tried to shut off French-language directory assistance as a way of forcing Walloons in her district to assimilate.

While her scheme did not succeed, it typified the identity issues that keep individual European communities apart. The flaw in the “United States of Europe” is that the corners of Europe are much more distinct and independent than the states of the US. Texas and Massachusetts may sometimes seem to be from Mars and Venus, but their differences are small compared with those of Norway and Greece. Divergent languages, cultures, economics, and histories remain powerful underlying forces.

The traditional strength of Germany – its work ethic, fiscal discipline, and attention to overseas markets – has been unmatched in southern Europe. Germans are now wondering if an ever-more-united Europe is a good idea.

This does not mean Europe is in danger of returning to the bad old days. Federation can take many forms. Even the oldest continuous federation, the United States, has swung over the years between strong central government and strong state governments. For Europeans, this may simply be a moment when the unity project is rethought – perhaps in a broader context.

The German, Scandinavian, and Baltic north may orient toward the former Soviet bloc. Mediterranean Europe might look south. Britain, which has always stood apart, might again see itself in a more global role, or at least a transatlantic one.

Europe may or may not become a superstate. The crucial thing – the lesson born in the rubble of World War II – is that it evolve gradually, not by military force.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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