Our Stake in Europe

Do we have a stake in what is happening in Europe? Some countries, particularly in southern Europe are having trouble paying their debts in a recession. It shouldn’t be a surprise – taxes shrink in a recession. Of course in some places it is pathological – Greeks refuse to pay the taxes they owe in such large numbers that they are bankrupting their country. But the problem is wider, with deep roots in the recession.

As a result other countries have been reconsidering their participation in the Euro and even in the European Union itself. Should we care? George Washington famously told the country that we should avoid entangling alliances and promptly ignored our Treaty with France, which was by then embroiled in a bloody revolution which led to a reign of terror, Napoleon as emperor and restoration of the monarchy. So shouldn’t we obey Washington’s advice and stop worrying about Europe?

Actually the reason that Washington wanted us to avoid entangling ourselves in Europe was closely allied to support for the new Constitution and the creation of the U.S. as we know it. Europe had been involved in a long series of very costly wars. Our Founders wanted to create a country so that our states would not become combatants and would not be tempted to look for the support of European allies. Indeed England and Spain continued to control major territories on our borders, while France had only recently been ousted. The individual states would have had to reach accommodations with those powerful neighbors and those alliances could have threatened other states. As Lincoln would later put it, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

At the time, England and France were the major European contenders. In the 19th century, Germany and France became the major antagonists. The Crimean, Franco-Prussian and two World Wars created enormous havoc on the continent, especially across the Franco-German line.

Against that background, the gradual establishment of European institutions, beginning in 1950, was designed to bring France, Germany and the rest of Europe under the same umbrella, to unite their futures, while subsuming their armies under NATO. The Union was a major act of statesmanship and geopolitical vision. Indeed the vision was very much the vision that created our nation – united we stand; divided we fall.

Germany had constitutional doubts about its loss of independence but its Constitutional Court decided that the joint institutions were sufficiently democratic to permit German participation. France had its reservations and President de Gaulle temporarily pulled back on some aspects of the European détente. But the pan-European project survived and got stronger.

Europe has become strong enough that it reaches its own policy decisions – sometimes in conflict with American desires. But European strength is also important to America. A Europe able to defend itself eases the burden on us. Much more important, a united Europe lessens the likelihood that we will ever again be drawn into continental upheavals.

So should we care about Europe? Yes we should care. Its unity and strength are tremendously important for us. We must wish it well and cooperate intelligently toward a strong, united Europe.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 6, 2012.


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