A return to national currencies is the only hope – but it won’t be easy or cost-free.
By Bruce Anderson
It is a tragic irony. Dreams are turning into nightmares. High aspirations are crumbling into chaotic outcomes. The idealists who believed that they were rescuing Europe may have encompassed its destruction.
To understand the European dégringolade, we have to go back to the beginning. It was all about isms. The EU was only made possible by the defeat of fascism, that earlier attempt at European integration. The European project was crucial in the generation-long struggle to contain communism, and gained further momentum when the Soviet empire disintegrated. But the founding fathers had made a fatal mistake. In a covert fashion, they declared war on a third ism. They were wrong to do so. Far from being toxic, it was a healthy component of the human condition. The attempt to eradicate it weakened the human frame and made it easier for diseases to spread. The third ism was nationalism and the nation state.
One can understand why the creators of the European project made that mistake. In the early post-war years, Europe was full of the first two isms’ victims. Shattered cities; cold, hungry and frightened inhabitants; millions of displaced people and refugees; millions more, who were hoping against hope to hear good news about missing relatives. It is easy to understand why thoughtful people said “never again”. It is also easy to explain their campaign against the third ism. Why had the others become so potent? Because the continental nation states had either failed or grovelled at the feet of psychotic ambitions. So wise men concluded that civilisation could only survive if Europe moved beyond the era of the nation state.
Those wise men were making a double mistake. They were both underestimating and overestimating their fellow humans. Those who will not learn from history are condemned to relive it. By 1945, Europeans had learned their lessons, in the most terrible of classrooms. The excesses of nationalism had been eradicated in the horrors of war. Europe was ready to live in peace. The alternative was too terrifying to contemplate.
So it proved. In the early post-war years, with the help of the new Common Market, Western Europe recovered far faster than anyone would have thought possible. There was an obvious conclusion. The nation state had been restored to health, in peace. France and Germany would never again go to war over Alsace-Lorraine. But this is the beginning of our tragic irony. Throughout the continent, a cadre of Euro-intellectuals had come into being. For them, Europe was not about pragmatism and prosperity. It was a new religion. These people were not interested in learning from history. They wanted to re-make history. Like the French revolutionaries and the Marxists before them, they intended to transform human nature in order to reshape the human condition. Thus tragedy was incubated.
En masse, human beings need the nation state, just as individual humans need dwellings. However stimulating the life of a great city, there are moments when most people want to close their front door and relax at home. This does not mean that they intend to become reclusive. The same is true of nations. We live in a global and interdependent world, which makes constant demands. It helps to cope with all that pressure if you can live in a nation state, where you speak the language, understand the politics, respect the legal system: where you can hope to be protected: where you can indulge your patriotism. This does not prevent you from competing in free trade and co-operating with your neighbours. On the contrary: it is easier to cope with the insecurity of the global economy if you can draw on security at home.
That was the common-sense approach. But common sense has always been a scarce commodity. Moreover, the war got in the way. In 1945, French and German nationalists both had a problem. The Germans had won too many wars; the French had lost too many wars. No nation can be comfortable in its sense of self unless it can take pride in its history. That created a difficulty for the Germans. As a result, they were ready to renounce their nationalism, as long as everyone else followed their example. The French were different. Although they were ready to speak the language of the European Union, they wanted to use Europe to recover the superpower status they had lost after Napoleon’s defeat. They intended to run Europe: a French jockey on a German horse. Two complementary delusions: thus tragedy gained momentum. Thus the single currency was born.
You cannot use the same interest rate in Dublin and Düsseldorf unless there are fiscal transfers. Monetary union must mean fiscal union. On the basis of no taxation without representation, this must lead on to political union. Instead, the eurozone leaders told the architect to build the roof first. Tragedy has a comic dimension.
In this roofless Euro-house, youth unemployment is around 50 per cent in some countries. If the young are excluded from work, the devil will find occupation for idle hands. There could be large-scale disorder, plus constant emigration from Spain and Italy, with the poor and workless pressing into northern Europe. Splendid news for social harmony.
In response to all this, the eurozone has two alternatives: political union, or a retreat to national currencies. The first is impossible. Throughout Europe, the political elites are discredited. They are in no position to call upon their electorates to renounce sovereignty and submit to a superstate. Even if the attempt were made, it would fail. The government of the eurozone would be weak; its peoples, embittered; its economy, faltering. In a dangerous world where European influence and wisdom could be valuable, no one would be listening. A sour, failing and introspective Europe would face a haemorrhage of prestige. Indeed, there are signs of that already. Is this a moment when we want our continent to forfeit its influence on events?
So there is only one realistic outcome: a return to national currencies. That would neither be easy or cost-free. Although the rigour was excessive, some of the disciplines imposed on southern Europe had merit. The ancient Greeks invented democracy. The modern ones practised kleptocracy. Greece has given corruption a bad name. When the Greeks revert to their old weak currency, the danger is that they will revert to their old bad habits. Spain, Italy and France could also benefit from a drive to deregulate and to eliminate government waste. The danger is that the collapse of the euro would be the excuse for a holiday from economic reality, funded by pretty new notes which would rapidly be heading for parity with the Zimbabwean dollar.
Even so, and with all its faults, the return to single-state currencies is the only hope. But Euro-kind cannot bear very much reality. For months now, the leaders of the eurozone have been confronted by a fork in the road. To be fair to them, they have been clear what they should do. Press straight ahead. They have been set upon kicking the can down the road, despite the fact that there is no more road and they have a broken toe.
“Each man kills the thing he loves,” wrote Oscar Wilde, in a phrase which is more striking than truthful. But when it comes to the inventors of the eurozone, Wilde was dead right.
© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2012