The Great Gatsby as the parable of the European dream
Like the Great Gatsby of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, the European Union is a Nietzschean, ever-changing project. Both Gatsby and the EU are quintessentially modern: “unsettled and unsettling”; never satisfied, always wanting more; insanely rich, yet unable to pay their bills. Moderns are never merely what they are, they are always becoming – re-inventing, re-making themselves, radically, every day. Like Gatsby in the American “Jazz Age” of the 1920s, Europeans grew accustomed to living in a fantasy world, in which everything must be possible. The European dream was to combine the supreme efficiency of capitalist, market-based economies with social justice; it was meant to bring about endless increases in material wealth while stringently upholding environmental protection; and it was to deliver these goods via an apolitical, technocratic rule, which would also be democratically legitimate. Like Gatsby’s enduring love at the end of the novel, the European dream is now in tatters.
The EU: Broken or just broke?
Gatsby lived as if there were no limits to what you can make of yourself. Defying all odds, he devoted his entire life to amass tremendous wealth and influence in order to reclaim the love of his life: Daisy. As so often happens with heartfelt passions, Gatsby fell in love with a fantasy – the woman Daisy had become was very different from what he imagined her to be.
The project of European unity suffered a similar fate. European elites became so infatuated with the vision of “an ever closer union”, that they chose to disregard real-life obstacles to their plan. Particularly over the last twenty years, the EU morphed from a pragmatic project, which pursued ambitious goals of international cooperation in small, carefully calibrated steps, to a hubristic project, the aim of which was a supranational state. For the first three decades of European integration, elites’ supranational ambitions were tempered by their realisation that the political allegiances of most European citizens were still national. In fact, the European project initially strengthened its members as nations. This is no longer the case. The Treaty of Maastricht inaugurated a veritable revolution that sought to consign national boundaries and currencies to the dustbin of history. This revolution has comprehensively failed.
While it is impossible to predict when and how the eurozone will start fragmenting, it is already clear that it has failed to accomplish both its political and economic aims. Politically, rather than cementing Europe’s unity, the single currency has revived old hostilities between European nations, pushing them further apart from each other. Economically, instead of reducing the discrepancies in wealth across the eurozone, the single currency has entrenched disadvantage by making an increasing number of nations on Europe’s periphery less competitive. As for a Europe without boundaries, the freedom of movement has its limitation owing to linguistic diversity and other material limits to labour mobility. At any rate, for young Europeans in 2012 it mattered a great deal whether their homeland was in Northern Europe, with the youth unemployment levels below 10 per cent in Austria, Germany and the Netherlands, or in southern Europe, with the youth unemployment level above 50 per cent in Greece and Spain. Not surprisingly then, different nations had radically different views on the costs and benefits of European integration, with Greeks and Germans being at polar opposites.
In fact, the single currency has resulted in a Europe that is fragmented along a number of new and old fault-lines. As one of the most astute critics of European integration, Giandomenico Majone, observed:
We now have a Union divided into three groups: the members of the eurozone; the de jure (UK, Denmark) and de facto (Sweden) opt-outs; and the member states waiting (with less and less enthusiasm) to be admitted to the eurozone.
Fragmentation is likely to accelerate through the emergence of the fourth group: “countries with a large public debt which in the next five to ten years may have to give up the euro”. If it comes to that, as I believe it will, those countries will be forced to suspend at least some of the four freedoms that came to define the European project: while people, goods and services might continue to move freely, capital controls would have to be imposed. Whichever way the unravelling of the single currency occurs, the process will be chaotic, painful and profoundly damaging to the social fabric of the countries affected. Yet, the struggling nations in the eurozone are set to endure more pain with, or without, their departure from the single currency.
“The worse, the better”: Crisis as an opportunity?
These dire (and deteriorating) material circumstances mean that European elites have as much chance of rekindling popular support for their federalist project of a United States of Europe as Gatsby had for reliving his first love: none. Undeterred, they are determined to push ahead regardless and continue advocating “a post-national revolution in Europe”. Objecting to the pragmatism of small steps, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Guy Verhofstadt argue in their Manifesto:
Reject all slow reforms. The situation is far too serious for that kind of approach. Demand a quantum leap, a big leap into the direction of a truly federal Europe.
What makes the self-deception of European federalist elites easier is the fact that in the past the European project has indeed thrived on crisis. Thus, some observers go as far as to suggest that the crisis was even intended: “we” knew the single currency was an incomplete project, they claim, “we” expected the problems, and now, at long last, we are turning past failures into future successes. To be sure, the people in Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain are suffering and will suffer more still, but there is no other way. What is at stake is Europe’s future – peace, prosperity and the political stability of the entire continent. The fact that these aims have been undermined by the very policy instrument that was meant to deliver them is simply ignored, or explained away. Whatever the hurdles, the goal is and remains clear: an ever closer union of Europe’s people.
Readers, particularly from the former eastern block, will recognize this pattern of thinking – “the worse the better”. It serves as a convenient justification for the necessity of making sacrifices today to have a better, Europe-wide society tomorrow. However, how many people in Greece, Portugal and Spain still find such a narrative plausible? Whatever the federalist political elites may believe, more and more citizens view the European Union and its institutions “less as potential sources of solutions for problems that cannot be solved at the national level, than as causes of many of those very problems.” Be that as it may, repeating the mantra of Europe needing more Europe is not going to save Europe. It will destroy it.
Because of the crisis, the European political class came to rely too much on what Joseph Weiler aptly described as “political messianism”. He explains how “the justification for action and its mobilizing force derive not from process, as in classical democracy, or from result and success, but from the ideal pursued, the destiny to be achieved, the promised land waiting at the end of the road.”European integration, in Weiler’s reading is,
A political messianic venture par excellence, the messianic becoming a central features [sic] of its original and enduring political culture. The mobilizing force and principal legitimating feature was the vision offered, the dream dreamt, the promise of a better future.
Weiler’s diagnosis resonates with Majone’s critique of “a political culture of total optimism”, which serves to partly explain the bold actions of EU leaders. According to Majone, the introduction of the single currency was characterised by the “complete disregard, not only of expert opinion, but also of such basic principles of crisis management as the timely preparation of contingency plans, and careful attention to signs that may foretell a crisis”. As the currency is more and more endangered, the rhetoric of EU leaders switched from one of “total optimism to catastrophism”.. The eclectic mixture of optimism and catastrophism was evident after the announcement of the EU’s Nobel Peace Prize in October 2012. EU leaders hastened to rekindle their messianic rhetoric. Angela Merkel, for example, stressed in the German Bundestag:
In a time of crisis this decision is far more than just praise. It is more than just a reminder of the starting position of the European ideal of unity after the centuries of killings and dying on European slaughter fields. The decision is so important, because it comes exactly now. It is because of this timing that it is to be understood as a warning.
The chancellor re-affirmed the single currency as a peace project, overlooking the way in which the euro has fanned strife in Europe. In fact, the project of European monetary unification was predicated on a peculiar misunderstanding of, if not disregard for, European history. The only wars in Europe after the Second World War took place in former federations, such as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, which shared a common currency. Conversely, the First World War was not prevented by the fact that Europe already had a de facto common currency, owing to the gold standard that underpinned its monetary system. Thus, unity (or too much of it, particularly when it was enforced from above) far from preventing conflicts, might end up exacerbating them. As Jerry Muller has convincingly argued, the enduring peace in postwar Europe was less the result of supra-nationalism, but rather of restrained nationalism: “European stability during the Cold War era was in fact due partly to the widespread fulfilment of the ethnonationalist project.”As is by now obvious, merging EU member states into one currency area resulted in a dramatic reduction of political and economic instruments at a national level that further eroded national sovereignty.
State of emergency: “Grasping the seriousness of the threat”
Until recently it was plausible to think of Europe as embodying Jean Jacques Rousseau’s ideal of the “Commonwealth of Europe”, or Immanuel Kant’s “perpetual peace”. The concern with national sovereignty was considered outdated. Instead, the ideals of cosmopolitan citizenship (Ulrich Beck) and constitutional patriotism (Jürgen Habermas) were meant to ensure “peace through conversation”. No longer. Rather than Rousseau and Habermas, our times might be better served by the likes of Thomas Hobbes and Nicolò Machiavelli, that is philosophers who understood politics as conflict. These savvy critics knew that when political leaders talk about the common good and higher interests more often than not they hide sectoral, or personal interests – there is no such a thing, in fact, as a common good that would make politics dispensable. Politics is all about dealing with irreducible conflicts.
The controversial political theorist Carl Schmitt subscribed to this understanding of politics and pondered the basic contradictions of liberal democracy in the time of its most profound crisis to date: the Weimar Republic. There are good reasons why contemporary political thinkers eschew Schmitt’s intellectual legacy, particularly in Germany. Schmitt started his career defending liberal democracy only to become its mortal enemy. He was a brilliant constitutional scholar who ended up employing his unsurpassed legal sophistication to support Nazism. He was cosmopolitan in his outlook, yet created the justification for the narrow, even racially-defined extreme nationalism of Hitler’s Germany. Yet, for all his appalling lack of judgment in 1933 and after, Schmitt thought deeply about some of the fundamental problems that Europe needs to urgently address now: What are the relationships between law and politics; between liberalism and democracy; between authority and sovereignty? How can we prevent technocracy?
Needless to say, a number of Schmitt’s substantive arguments are objectionable. Many of his “solutions” to the problems of liberal democracy were simply appalling. This is not an attempt to rehabilitate the “crown jurist” of Nazi Germany. It is rather an invitation to think with Schmitt against Schmitt. To ponder Europe’s fundamental challenges head on, not shirking away from any uncomfortable questions. Schmitt was the philosopher of the state of emergency. He thought normality was boring. He was more interested in the exception.Does anyone doubt that Europe faces exceptional challenges?
We are all Schmittians now. Whether it is the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz; German chancellor, Angela Merkel; the Irish Prime Minister, Enda Kenny;the president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi; the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso; the aforementioned MEPs Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Guy Verhofstadt; or the leading public intellectuals, such as Ulrich Beck, Jürgen Habermas, or Bernard-Henri Lévy – at one point or another over the last three years, they all felt compelled to invoke the argument about the exceptional times demanding exceptional solutions. None of them went as far in their enthusiasm for the eurozone crisis as the celebrated Austrian writer, Robert Menasse: “I am thrilled about the crisis”, declared Menasse, predicting that it will push Europe forward towards more unity. Menasse dismissed the “childish optimism” of the crisis-as-an-opportunity rhetoric:
No, the crisis is not an opportunity, the crisis is compulsion. Facing the threat of Europe’s downfall, the crisis is going to force the reforms of the European constitution, which were hitherto impossible owing to the parochial, petite nationalist spirit.
And what if Europe’s citizens do not share Menasse’s enthusiasm for this new beginning? Never mind, this is no longer primarily about democracy, or at least not yet. Menasse calls for the destruction of democracy in Europe in the name of a radically new democracy that is yet to be imagined. What we need is to free ourselves from the last taboo, Menasse argues, the taboo of suspending, or even abolishing democracy. The European project, or so Menasse believes, was from the outset about superseding the nation-states. The crisis is to be comprehended and accepted as an irresistible force that will lead to the abolishment of national democracies in Europe in the name of a postnational democracy. Menasse’s reasoning exemplifies Weiler’s notion of political messianism. He dismisses the idealization of democracy as a sacred good, only to supplant it with the European project:
For the European project to succeed, we have to overthrow what is about to fall anyway. We have to break the last taboo of an enlightened society: that our democracy is a sacred good. And we have to invent a new democracy. A democracy that is not bound to the nation-state..
Whoever stands in the way of this daring vision for the “entirely new, globally innovative, bold European avant-garde project” is dismissed as a narrow-minded nationalist and a reactionary populist. Such criticism is not directed only against those openly anti-European and xenophobic political forces that have proliferated partly as the result of the eurozone crisis (like the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party in Greece); Menasse even questions the political legitimacy of the British Prime Minister, David Cameron in European affairs and suggests that national parliaments could be dissolved in the medium turn.
In a similar way, Ulrich Beck waxes lyrical about the reawakened “dream of a new Europe”. Taking solace in Hölderlin – “wherever there is danger, the capacity to rescue grows too”. – Beck proposes “a transnational model of social democracy”.. Eloquently, Beck disimisses all possible criticisms about the impracticality of his design. The crisis does not merely justify unorthodox political measures, it demands “a re-evaluation of realism”, a radically new way of thinking:
What was until recently considered “realistic”, becomes naive and dangerous, because it allows for the possibility of collapse. And what was considered naïve and illusory becomes “realistic”, because it attempts to prevent a catastrophe and, in passing, creates a better world.
The aims for a better Europe, and, “in passing”, for a better world, are to be pursued and accomplished through a Europe-wide revolution that will bring about the demise of the nation-state. “A European Spring”, that is “a European social movement that will fight on the streets for a new social contract”, will defeat “neoliberal Europe”, which has lost all legitimacy. To be sure, Beck acknowledges that there are no signs of a European public sphere emerging, but this can be accomplished by a “voluntary European year for all”. Once citizens of all ages and from all walks of life get to know each other across national boundaries, they will overcome their narrow-minded nationalism and develop pan-European solidarity.
What this project ignores is the simple fact that intermingling does not always lead to a better understanding, let alone mutual responsibility. What is described in ordinary parlance as “proximity breeds contempt” has been analyzed in social psychology as a problem of ethnic tensions arising in situations when boundaries between groups are difficult to draw and maintain. As the author of Lob der Grenze [In praise of boundaries], Konrad Paul Liessmann recently argued: “The opening of borders is less an expression of a political program and more an effect of a crisis of politics.” Borderless Europe has not led to more transnational solidarity; it has generated the opposite. Supporters of redistribution understand the importance of boundaries. As the late Tony Judt put it, “space matters. And politics is a function of space – we vote where we live and our leaders are restricted in their legitimacy and authority to the place where they were elected”.
As for Beck’s desire to build a more social Europe, the plan ignores the limits of the welfare state obvious even to historians sympathetic to the cause of social democracy. What’s more, where the existing and growing economic disparities manifest both territorial and ethnic dimensions, the result is less likely to be the emergence of a European public sphere, but rather a vicious cycle of suspicions reinforcing prejudices. This is the problem encountered within multi-ethnic states of Europe that face the challenge of politically explosive struggles for redistribution against the background of excessive sovereign debt, such as Belgium and Spain, as well as in Europe at large, especially between the creditor and debtor states of the eurozone. In fact, one of the most distressing aspects of the crisis is the growing anti-German sentiment across Europe, particularly in Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain. The problem Claus Offe identified more than a decade ago is more pertinent than ever: “Entgrenzung als Selbstentpflichtung”, or the removal of boundaries as the removal of self-responsibility. Offe understood the formidable challenge of a Europe without boundaries. The massive expansion of the political community one is meant to feel solidarity towards, paradoxically results in individuals freeing themselves more and more from any sense of responsibility. The more is expected of us the less we end up doing.
To sum up, both Menasse and Beck object to a German Europe and advocate instead a political project that is truly postnational and democratic in ways yet to be imagined. The danger is that their proposals undermine the remnants of democratic control at national level without supplementing them at European level.
From a constrained democracy to a democratic default
From a broad historical perspective, the undemocratic aspects of these bold proposals are not unusual. Despite Europe’s enduring rhetorical commitment to democracy, the European project was from the very outset driven by the elites, rather than the peoples of Europe. Europe’s postwar democracy is predicated on the idea that people cannot be trusted. They are too fickle. As Jan-Werner Müller demonstrated in a compelling study, what emerged in continental Europe after the Second World War, particularly in Germany (and to a lesser extent also in France and Italy), was a constrained democracy which found ways to suppress pernicious populist instincts. Having learned from the failure of democratic institutions in the interwar period, the elites constructed political systems with powerful institutions, such as the constitutional courts, which imposed serious restrictions on the rule of the people. After the upheavals of the first half of the twentieth century, the overarching aim was to ensure political stability:
Party leaders, no less than jurists and philosophers, sought to build an order designed, above all, to prevent a return to the totalitarian past. The past, in their view, had been about limitless political dynamism, unbound masses and attempts to forge a completely unconstrained political subject – the purified German Volksgemeinschaft. In response, Western Europeans fashioned a highly constrained form of democracy, deeply imprinted with a distrust of popular sovereignty – in fact, even distrust of traditional parliamentary sovereignty.
The European project reinforced this tendency. Endowing supranational institutions with powers insulated from democratic control was meant to cement democratic regimes at national level and ensure that Europe would never again succumb to the temptations of competing nationalisms and dictatorships. These arrangements worked remarkably well as long as both European and national political institutions (and major political actors too, not just the Volk) were also subordinated to stringent rules. Importantly, European unity was made possible through the creation of a supranational community of law (Rechtsgemeinschaft).
The project of European integration was exceptional, if not revolutionary, from the outset. It occurred against the background of the unprecedented destruction caused by the Second World War and the inconceivable horror of the Holocaust. It attempted not just to rebuild Europe economically and politically, but to restore the credibility and viability of European civilisation. Just as elites were right to be suspicious of the people, nations were understandably suspicious of each other. It took decades for Germans to accept their defeat – and the humiliation of unconditional surrender – as their liberation. It took longer still for nations that suffered under the German occupation to see Germans as trustworthy partners: think of the lengthy process of Franco-German reconciliation. Postwar leaders, such as Konrad Adenauer, Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet, were both bold and prudent by pursuing European unity in defiance of popular sentiments. Theirs was a top-down political transformation, in which the somewhat erratic progress in Europe’s economic and political integration was accompanied by a steady progress in legal integration.
The process is now in reversal. Economic disunity leads to increasing political tensions between member states. The supranational Rechtstaat is being eroded through measures that are considered necessary for the rescue of the eurozone, even though they are incompatible with the existing rules, such as the no-bail-out clause in the Treaty of Maastricht, or the prohibition of the state financing by the European Central Bank. In short, the architects of European unity feel compelled to do what “is demanded by the danger, but forbidden by laws.”
This development is ominous. Take the rules away and apolitical institutions can be turned into arbitrary authorities. This makes the spectre of a technocratic tyranny more real. Christian Joerges does not exaggerate when posing a very Schmittian question: “Are we dealing with a state of emergency, in which it is time for a dictatorship by the commissars?”
How did it come to this? The first decades of European integration produced what Thomas Mann advocated already in the 1950s: a European Germany in a politically unified continent. This achievement notwithstanding, the post-1989 prospect of German unification frightened European partners so much that they believed it imperative to reinforce Germany’s commitment to Europe through the single currency. It is profoundly ironic then that what we face today is a challenge of a German Europe. This transformation occurred because Europeans chose to ignore, or drew the wrong lesson, from their recent history.
A literary intermezzo: Gatsby and Daisy
This takes us back to F. Scott Fitzgerald and his novel. Gatsby, of course, lives outside the common rules. He is happy to do anything to reclaim his former lover. Gatsby is not just madly in love; he is mad. To be sure, in order to reinvent himself he has to remake his own history, but that is not enough; he is also determined to remake Daisy’s past. Gatsby demands from her to disown her husband:
“Daisy, that’s all over now,” he said earnestly. “It doesn’t matter any more. Just tell him the truth – that you never loved him – and it’s all wiped out forever.”
Forgetting is insufficient: she must deny that she ever loved him and all will be “wiped out forever”. In Europe and its past, it is not so much about love, but mistrust, if not outright hatred between nations. That’s a paradox of European unity: though the project was decisively shaped by the experience of the devastating wars in the first half of the twentieth century, its success was only possible – at least initially – if the nations of Europe forgot about their mutual hostility. And then even this was no longer enough. Europe’s federalist elites started to act as if European nations never distrusted each other. How else could they have pushed through the project of the single currency, the euro, which would sooner or later necessitate nations abdicating control over their destiny? How else can they continue to advocate a postnational Europe?
The bold assumption informing the Treaty of Maastricht was that Europe no longer needed national boundaries or even national currencies. This led to a steady and seemingly irreversible erosion of national sovereignty, but not to the disappearance of nations and their differences. What’s more, this development ended up privileging the very country in Europe that has made its commitment to democracy and Rechtsstaat its reason of the state: Germany. Europe’s economic powerhouse, Germany, was bound to become even more powerful in a single currency area where its less efficient partners were not allowed to regain ground in terms of competitiveness by devaluating their own currencies. And, in the absence of EU institutions, processes and rules that are up to the task of dealing with the crisis, it is the German government who is calling the shots. The fact that its ultimate aim is a German-style Rechtsstaat to be constructed across Europe as well as within each participating member state adds another layer of irony, but does not make that aim any more realistic, desirable or viable. On the contrary. European citizens will reject German solutions to their problems, because they will perceive them as foreign impositions.
This is also true of the audacious, postnational alternative proposals developed by Beck and Menasse. In fact what both authors propose is also a German Europe, but one in their own image. As Thomas Nipperdey observed in 1990:
It is impossible to overlook that the rejection of the nation is something very German and contains the fatal inclination to “educate” others, who are dismissed as all too backward. The world is to be saved (once again by the Germans) who are more progressive, postnational and better than the rest – this anti-nationalist position is rather arrogant. We should not elevate ourselves.
Beck’s and Menasse’s criticisms of current German European policy notwithstanding, it is clear that even chancellor Angela Merkel’s position is informed by the peculiar German commitment to a postnational Europe. The Fiscal Compact, for example, envisages the possibility that a country’s budget would be controlled by the EU institutions, particularly if the nation in question fails to live up to the stringent fiscal rules about permissible debt levels.
This measure was controversial even in Germany, leading to a formidable challenge of the Treaty before the German Constitutional Court, which in a number of prior rulings established that budgetary sovereignty constituted an indespensible part of the German democratic order, covered by the so-called “eternity clause” of the Basic Law. In its ruling on 12 September 2012, the Court declared that this does not present any problem to Germany because the Federal Republic will never get itself into such a situation. After all, the German Basic Law prohibits incursion of unsustainable debt.
Indirectly, this interpretation cements Germany’s leadership of Europe. There can be little doubt that other nations might find themselves in breach of the Fiscal Compact, regardless of whether the rule is incorporated into their respective national constitutions. Although the German Constitutional Court would be reaching beyond its jurisdiction if it was to comment on the quality of Greek democracy under the current tutelage of its “Troika” of creditors (the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank), the ruling implicitly accepts the claim that in a meaningful democratic system the national parliament has to retain control over its budget.
The way in which the EU’s major actors and institutions responded to the judgment testifies to the importance of Germany as the leading power within the EU’s cumbersome system of governance. The European Parliament, for example, interrupted its sitting and spontaneously rose to applaud its announcement. Governments in Rome and Madrid, as well as the leader of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, all expressed their relief that there were no obstacles to implementing the Fiscal Compact; by assenting to this agreement, the Court was seen as having averted a catastrophe. If, as Carl Schmitt famously argued, “sovereign is the one who decides on the state of emergency”, then the German Constitutional Court appeared to behave as one, even while reasserting the power of the German Bundestag, by imploring it to maintain political control over further management of the eurozone crisis.
There is little doubt as to which nation has attained economic and political preponderance in Europe. As Timothy Garton Ash observed (echoing a number of commentators), “Germany did not seek this leadership position. Rather, this is a perfect illustration of the law of unintended consequences”.. Unintended this outcome might have been, but it was entirely predictable and predicted.
The British Spectator magazine was right in the 1990s (and in 2010-12)
English conservative critics of the federalist European project critical of the leap to a single currency have been proved prescient. Writing for the Spectator, Alan Massie, for example, urged the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the French President Mitterand to study Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France in order to better understand British objections to their plans:
The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a priori […] Very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions […] The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature, or to the quality of his affairs.
“But history made our continental friends inveterate constitution-mongers”; commented Massie, “this is why, disregarding Burke, they are prepared to embark on audacious schemes, like the introduction of a single European currency, with what seems to us a wilful disregard for possible adverse consequences”. What Majone identified as a “culture of total optimism” in 2010, English eurosceptics saw as one of the fundamental weaknesses of the European project already in 1990. Their criticisms apply even more to the recent “very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements”.
The Spectator magazine, alongside a number of daily newspapers, ran a veritable campaign against the single currency, viewing it as a threat to both British sovereignty and democracy in Europe. An editorial on 14 July 1990 observed the blatant inconsistency of arguments deployed in favour of the single currency. They were centred on the role of reunified Germany and whether Germans could be trusted. Two contradictory assumptions were made: “one implying that the Germans are peculiarly vicious, the other that they are peculiarly virtuous”. Thus, the Germans were firstly assumed to be “intrinsically bellicose” and the only way to keep them under control after the collapse of the Berlin Wall was to subject them to the single currency. Just at the time when German national sovereignty was formally to be restored owing to the end of its enforced division between the East and the West, it was going to be restrained by “a rapid tightening of European integration”. This wasn’t just the fear of, say, French President Mitterand; the anxiety was shared by a number of German intellectuals (i.e. Günter Grass, Jürgen Habermas, Stefan Heym). Secondly, the federalist proponents of further integration also assumed Germans were “uniquely virtuous” and trustworthy, so much so that the British had nothing to fear from the idea that their monetary policies would be entrusted eternally to an institution modelled on the German Bundesbank and based in Frankfurt.
It is perhaps not surprising then that some people thought that this was just a clever German ploy to take over Europe again, only this time not by military means, but economically. This was the controversial argument made by the then First Secretary for Industry, Nicholas Ridley, who went so far as to compare the German chancellor Helmut Kohl and his European ambitions with Adolf Hitler. Accompanied by a witty and provocative caricature, the article caused a major upheaval in the UK and beyond. The minister had to resign even though – or rather because of – his views were believed to be close to those held by the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Not surprisingly, many German and even some French newspapers were indignant.
The racist undertone of Ridley’s argument was misguided and unhelpful. It distracted attention from his key political argument, entirely vindicated twenty years later: adopting the single currency amounted to abdicating national sovereignty. This was not simply about some sentimental attachment to British statehood; it was about democratic control and the possibility of national politicians to decide on issues that mattered to their citizens. This even entailed the freedom of citizens and their politicians to get things wrong! Imagine, Ridley urged his readers, if the fate of British workers was to be decided by the officials of the German Bundesbank and the German Chancellor. The latter, Ridley argued, will “soon be coming here and trying to say that this is what we should do on the banking front and this is what our taxes should be. I mean, he’ll soon be trying to take over everything.”
Such predictions no longer sound outlandish, when any sustainable solution to the collapsing Greek economy is tied up with the federal elections in Germany in September 2013. The warning that Ridley issued to his compatriots then, applies to Greeks today: “You don’t understand the British people if you don’t understand this point about them. They can be dared; they can be moved. But being bossed by a German – it would cause absolute mayhem in this country, and rightly, I think.”
The last point is corroborated in Ulrich Beck’s analysis of German Europe. Beck understands the hostility that Greeks, Spaniards and Portuguese people must feel towards Angela Merkel, and by extension, towards Germany. He is also right to point out that this is one of the unintended consequences of the single currency. Ridley was simply wrong to accuse Germany of ill intent. Yet if Ridley’s assessment was wrong in this important aspect, Beck’s account is also incomplete and in that way misleading. The outcome was unintended, but as we have seen it was not unexpected. The problem was – and remains – that policy makers didn’t listen. The conservative criticisms of the single currency were dismissed as parochial and backward looking.
The decisive struggle that Europeans have not yet resolved is the one that they believed was no longer relevant: the locus of sovereignty. This is something that was possible to ignore in good times; until recently the EU was considered a textbook example of sovereignty shared and not attached solely to nation states. Although European federalists still believe that (more) sovereignty needs to move to a European level, sooner or later, Europe will be forced to (partially) re-nationalise sovereignty by returning to a Europe of nations. This tendency is proving irresistible in the UK; other nations will follow. And if mainstream politicians are not willing to deal with the challenge of national sovereignty, more radical ones will, turning the European dream into a nightmare in the process.
As the eurozone crisis intesified in 2012, two visions dominated debates about Europe’s future. On the one hand were the likes of Ulrich Beck, Jürgen Habermas and Robert Menasse who advocated a Europe led by a Germany abnegating itself and demanding the same from other European nations. On the other hand, the German government assisted by the European Commission and its partners, sought to institute a German Europe-à-la-Merkel that cements austerity in a supranational Rechtsstaat. Both visions are foolhardy, repeating the mistakes of the past.The bitter-sweet conclusion to Fitzgerald’s American dream is Gatsby’s tragic death. To imagine him happily reunited with Daisy is implausible. Romantic love seldom makes a marriage work. Similarly, utopian projects are bound to fail in politics. Both try in vain to escape the banality of everyday life. Like Gatsby, Europeans attempted to defy their own history. As Fitzgerald concluded,
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further… And one fine morning –
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
The author would like to thank John Hirst and Adrian Jones for their feedback and encouragement.