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Europe: after the endgame

The eurozone crisis reveals the exhaustion of the post-1945 model of Europe-building. This poses a historic challenge to Europe's current leaders, says Nick van Praag.
Nick van Praag
6 December 2011

Jean Monnet’s approach to building Europe by common policy is in the emergency-room. The Euro crisis has revealed a fatal flaw in the European master-builder’s "stealth" theory of integration. The result of the summit in Brussels on 8-9 December 2011 - but the latest of many since it became apparent that the scale of the crisis threatens the entire project - is in the balance.

Yet even if the summit produces a consensus on the essentials of a fiscal union - and that remains a large "if" - what might be called Europe’s functionalist trajectory has taken a major hit. So big that in these tough circumstances, it will take far more than mollifying the markets to re-engage the hearts and minds of disillusioned European citizens.

What will that "more" be? The nature - and the limits - of Monnet's achievement in the formative period of the early 1950s may provide a clue. The series of pan-European initiatives that developed under his tutelage began with the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), which was both a practical way for former enemies to manage post-war production of these vital commodities (also the raw materials of conflict) and a means to bind its six members together as they worked on common challenges.

The genius of Monnet’s functionalist method lay in this astute compromise. In face of opposition from Europeans who were far less enthusiastic about building a united Europe than he, Monnet sought to regenerate the destroyed nation-states of Europe while forging a community of pooled sovereignty.The logic of Monnet's ingenious course was that "ever closer union" would - one common policy at a time - eventually become inevitable. It was Europe by the back door.

It worked well for many years. The ECSC was soon followed by the broader "common market", and that in time became the single market. Alongside, a broad range of sectoral policies was introduced, from the common agriculture policy to fisheries and transport. "Europe" was soon far more than the sum of its many parts. The step-by-step approach to building Europe continued apace, including a succession of enlargements that eventually brought membership to twenty-seven countries (with more in prospect). The results of the process, it is too easy to forget, include making war between member-states, the main driver of European unity in the early days, unthinkable today.

The road to crisis

The introduction of the single currency in 1999 marked the high point of the softly-softly integration pursued by Monnet. For more than a decade, the euro - despite early concerns about locking many disparate economies together - looked like functionalism’s crowning glory. But when the push-back came, the limits to Monnet’s incremental Europeanisation surfaced.

The most important source of opposition was European citizens, who felt a growing sense of distance between themselves and those at the helm of unification. They saw policies and regulations being promulgated in the name of some ill-explained greater European good, and decisions being taken in Brussels to harmonise things most of them wanted to keep just as they were. The outcome of this alienation was that the union’s legitimacy was undermined.

Brussels became increasingly remote as multiple forms of cooperation spawned bureaucracies and governance arrangements that seemed out of touch with the everyday concerns of people in Lille or Livorno. As popular support ebbed, the circle of Europe’s enthusiasts gradually narrowed.

In this longer-term perspective, the euro crisis of the last two years has revealed that the functionalist approach charted by Jean Monnet in the early 1950s has now run its course. The point is made by the spectacle of frantic leaders rushing from one summit to the next, pointing fingers while failing to reassure the markets - palpably neither in control nor united by a common strategic view of where they are heading.

But if the Monnet approach to the construction of Europe has reached its endgame, what will follow? The shape of the compromise deal now being prepared for the 8-9 December summit will reflect Angela Merkel’s view that fast-forwarding fiscal and political union is both the only way to save the euro and necessary to convince the markets that all will eventually be well. But the German chancellor faces a huge challenge in convincing a sceptical public that "more Europe" is the solution rather than the problem.

Time is not on the side of such a mighty leap forward. It will take months and even years to persuade European citizens that more of the kind of technocratic union now on the table offers the prospect of shared gain rather than yet more pain - much of which will fall on those sections of the population that in the past have been among the strongest supporters of Europe.

Jean Monnet helped to forge European union from the ruins of a defeated Europe. That cycle is over. This time, the summiteers in Brussels should rise to another historic moment: by looking beyond the financial markets for a moment and focusing on how to build a Europe that speaks to and for its citizens. This may indeed be their last chance.

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