05/07/2013 12:21 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2013

A Fading Vision of "Europe"?

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A great historical tide appeared to support the progressive integration of Europe from the first breakthroughs in the years after World War II through the deepening embodied in adoption of the euro and the widening embodied in the inclusion in the European Union (and NATO) of Central and Eastern European countries that had been trapped behind the Cold War Iron Curtain. That historical tide integrating Europe now appears to have stalled and gives some signs of beginning to recede. Why is this happening and what will the future bring?

Multiple visions helped propel the integration of Europe in the second half of the 20th century. Out of the suicidal wars of the first half of the 20th century, the integration of "Europe" would bring peace. Out of the economic collapse of the Great Depression and the rubble of World War II, integration in Europe would bring economic recovery and greater potential for long-term economic progress. Out of the collapse of democratic governance in many European countries, integration in Europe would help secure and sustain democratic governance in European states. The vision of a border-less "Europe" imagined free movement of citizens across national borders.

More particular visions helped propel the larger states. For France, "Europe" offered a grand project to which to apply French political leadership and restore French grandeur. For West Germany, "Europe" offered a given framework within which to quietly re-emerge from the disaster of the war. For Italy, "Europe" offered a secure democratic future and an international role. "Europe" had much less profound significance for Britain, but -- after an initial French veto and much internal debate -- Britain became a member of the then European Economic Community in 1973.

While these visions provided a largely supportive context, European integration proceeded according to a "low" politics model associated with the practical visionary Jean Monnet. As David Marquand, among many others, has written: "Integration was supposed to spread, irresistibly and irrevocably, from one economic field to another... Economic success, facts on the ground -- market freedom, economies of scale, rapid growth, rising living standards -- would be enough to embed the project in the public culture... The 'low politics' of economic integration came first; 'high politics' would follow later, in... good time."[1]

But in recent years the visions have weakened and the latest stages of integration -- particularly monetary union -- have unavoidably become matters of high politics.

Peace and free movement of citizens are now largely accomplishments taken for granted, not unsecured goals that require deeper integration. While "Europe" is still seen as reinforcing democracy in most newer member states, demands flowing from the euro crisis are impressing national political leaders and electorates with limits to their capacity to make their own decisions. While "Europe" is still associated with prosperity, it is also becoming associated with grinding austerity in a number of members of the eurozone.

It is harder for France to maintain the sense that it is in the driver's seat in Europe. Current circumstances are requiring Germany, uncomfortably, not just to follow but to lead. The beacon of Europe is burning less bright for Italy and the British government talks of renegotiating the terms of its membership and putting the option of withdrawal to a referendum.

Two great projects of the last decade have not provided the grand affirmations of an "ever greater union" in Europe that they were supposed to provide. One was the planned Constitutional Treaty for the European Union, drawn up in a convention sometimes likened to the convention that wrote the U.S. Constitution in 1787 and supposed to generate a great debate across Europe likened to the debate over ratification of the U.S. Constitution. The long-winded Constitutional Treaty did not generate a great debate across national borders in Europe and it was eventually rejected -- unanimous approval of all member states was required -- by voters in two countries at the heart of the whole European enterprise, France and the Netherlands. The watered down Lisbon Treaty was eventually passed in the wake of the Constitution's defeat.

The second great project is monetary union, embodied in the Euro and the European Central Bank. It was assumed that the discipline of the common currency would automatically bring about convergence among the eurozone economies, a grand affirmation of European integration, but this has not happened. If anything, the last decade was a story of quiet divergence - of competitiveness, of budget and current account deficits, of debt levels - until the crisis broke. At a time when unemployment ranges from 5 percent in Germany to 27 percent in Spain, the complications of a single monetary policy for all eurozone members are brought into stark relief. All this has raised enormously the political stakes involved in sustaining the eurozone and European economic advancement. How can the needed sustained political heavy-lifting be accomplished if members no longer share a vision of political union in the long term?

We lack a political vision of a future united Europe. There are plans for a banking union, a fiscal union, an economic union, even vague plans for a political union; but none of these can be accomplished with "low politics" and the political vision needed to accomplish them is cloudy at best.

1. David Marquand, The End of the West: The Once and Future Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), pp. 106-07.