Letter From Europe: Is Europe Falling Apart?

In my previous “Letter from Europe” (C in C, July 1984), I briefly recalled the early initiatives towards European unification taken in response to the postwar totalitarian challenge. As it then appeared, the ideal of a federal European state seemed to serve a variety of purposes such as: the safeguarding of democracy, the overcoming of nationalism, the promotion of peace in Europe, and the strengthening of an alliance against the Communist threat. This apparent convergence of purposes in the postwar federal movement, however, had been the product of circumstances rather than the fruit of political agreement. It was the circumstances of the division of Europe that temporarily muffled the disputes between those who saw federation building as a step towards a new international order, and those who looked at it as the means to create a larger self-contained nation-state: or between those who liked a stronger Western alliance and others who saw “Europe” as a third power between America and the Soviet Union.

The circumstances were not compelling enough, however, to overcome the disputes or formulate a common purpose. The Council of Europe, created in 1949, essentially was little more than an organization for continuing the debate. Schuman and Monnet sidestepped the problem by proposing the merger of industrial interests in coal and steel as a means to facilitate later agreement on a federal state and the purposes it was to serve. In the wake of serious disagreements over a European Defence and Political Community in 1952-54, the incremental approach to unity was re-launched in 1955-57 with the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC) and Euratom. Many proponents of this approach at the time confidently predicted that European political unity would come about before the end of EEC’s transitional period on December 31,1969.

This did not happen and is unlikely to happen before the end of this century. In fact the “myth of the nation-state” has been restored to prominence in Western Europe, the ideal of a federal state is “as dead as a doornail” and Europeans are more uncertain and more divided on the destiny of Western Europe than ever before in the postwar era.

For a long time it was thought that the incremental approach to unity would facilitate ultimate agreement on the destiny of Western Europe. Economic integration was thought to be a dynamic process leading by necessity to stronger European institutions, political unity and a common sense of purpose. The initial success of the Common Market in particular concealed the growing divergence if not incompatibility of purposes pursued. When rapid economic growth, the motor of integration, came to an end in the early seventies. European governments and their people discovered that economic interests are more likely to exacerbate differences than to merge policies. This is all the more so in Western Europe with a postwar tradition of substantial governmental interference in economic life. The functioning of national market forces is more heavily controlled by government than is the case in the U.S. The European “Common Market” as a consequence is very different from the federal American market. It is the product of intergovernmental political compromises arrived at with great difficulty. Its functioning can be easily upset by adverse economic developments. The very extent to which governments interfere in economic life, has made the promotion of the welfare society — and its protection in time of economic decline — a salient political issue.

In order to protect the welfare state, governments thus have manifested a tendency to seek national solutions first, to resist further economic integration, and to limit themselves to consultation on a European level. Wherever national solutions to current economic problems are as diverse as those tried, e.g., by Britain under Mrs. Thatcher and France under Mr. Mitterand, one should not be surprised to see economic interests exacerbating differences rather than promoting unity. In such a situation, national governments are more likely to curtail the powers of common European institutions than to strengthen their jurisdiction. Plans for strengthening these institutions are either disregarded or deprived of their substance if accepted.

An instructive example of the latter is provided by the agreement in the late- seventies to transform the Parliamentary Assembly of the European Communities into a directly elected European Parliament. As a parliamentary institution, the Assembly suffered both from a lack of political power and a lack of popular interest. Ever since the late fifties, parliamentarians sought to increase the Assembly’s power of political control over policy-making and to enhance the Assembly’s stature by regular direct and European-wide elections. The governments — France in particular — resisted the former and finally agreed to the latter on condition that the powers of the European Parliament remain unchanged.

Direct elections to the European Parliament were first held in June, 1979 amidst expectations that this “new” parliament could achieve by its greater visibility what governments had refused to grant it. The expectation has proven so far to be another European illusion.

In June of this year, the citizens of member states were called to cast their votes for the second time in elections for the European Parliament. By all accounts, it was a distressing performance. The turn-out of voters was well below 60%, with the exception of Italy, Greece and Belgium (where it is compulsory to present oneself at the voting booth). In Britain it was as low as 32%. From the eight parliamentary groupings represented, only three are European in character (the Socialists, the Christian-Democrats and the Liberals). Only two of them were able to produce party programs. In all member states, the election campaigns were fought over national issues. Opposition parties gained votes and some of the more extreme fringe-parties saw their presence increased in the European Parliament. The great “winners” were the British Labor Party (not exactly a pro-European force), the German Green Party, and the French extreme-right. Not a result to be pleased with! At the same time, the re-nationalization of European politics has also entered the three “European” groupings. Socialists, Christian-Democrats and Liberals are more divided internally and along national lines than ever before.

The elections for the European Parliament this summer were not the only event to serve notice that “Europe” is dangerously falling apart. In the Netherlands, political debates were focused on the long awaited governmental decision on the deployment of cruise missiles. As might have been expected in a country where the major coalition party is internally divided, the decision amounted to a decision to postpone a decision. Unfortunate as it is in the face of a mounting Soviet threat, the decision to postpone actual deployment even further nevertheless has a few positive elements. First, the government announced its intention to decide whether to deploy cruise missiles before the end of its parliamentary term of office (in November 1985); second, it linked its future decision — somewhat belatedly — to the continuing deployment of Soviet SS-20 missiles. (Only if Moscow would stop its own deployment as of June 1, 1984, would the Netherlands refuse deployment); third, the Dutch government obtained a narrow parliamentary majority for the compromise; and fourth, it caused great confusion and disarray among the anti-nuclear movements. By all accounts, it was a typically internal Dutch affair, difficult to understand for its European and Atlantic allies.

In France, massive popular resistance against govern-mental plans to bring private schools under state control created an acute political crisis. It is a very old and typically French problem, but this time it may well affect political stability. Mitterand’s efforts to make France’s system even more presidential were thwarted by the opposition in the Senate. The newly installed government now is a minority socialist one (representing less than 25% of the voters), for which the support of the Communist party (no longer in the government) is less than assured. Communists are known to pay lip-service to a government, while at the same time fostering social and political unrest by other means.

The prolonged coal-miners’ strike in Britain is a very British affair in its resistance against industrial modernization. No other European country needs modernization more than Britain, if it is to play a constructive role in Western Europe. Yet no other country is so hampered in doing so by the old-fashioned and backward looking trade union arrangement. The strike also has clear political overtones and may well turn out to undermine political stability.

A few remarks now on the German Democratic Republic, which over the last few years may well have become the principal problem from the point of view of Atlantic cohesion and European cooperation. The talk of the day this summer has been the coming visit of the East German Party leader Erich Honecker to Bonn. By the time you read my letter, it may have taken place or it may have been cancelled by Mr. Honecker. Whatever happens, it should be obvious that Mr. Honecker is not in a position to significantly diverge from his Soviet masters in his policy towards the German Federal Republic. He may gamble on disagreement inside the Kremlin, as have previous East European leaders. As in the case of Poland and Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, the outcome would be quite predictable. It is more likely that Honecker and the Kremlin see the need for continued West German financial and economic support, and judge that to play up presumed differences among themselves helps to further alienate the West Germans from the United States and Western Europe. The longing for reunification is strong in the Federal Republic, and many Germans have concluded that accommodation with the East is more promising than cohesion with the West.

The return of “the myth of the nation-state” in Western Europe has not been helpful for the effort to regain a sense of purpose and an awareness of a common destiny. Still, cooperation among the European and Western democracies has survived the French dreams of national grandeur, the British “across-the-channel” syndrome. Dutch tendencies to withdraw from responsibility, and Mr. Papandreou in Greece. If, however, the myth is restored to prominence in Germany, Europe and the West will be in great trouble. Since its creation in 1949, the German Federal Republic maintained a careful balance in pursuing its three principal foreign policy objectives: close allied cooperation, especially with the United States; West European unification; and bearable relations with the East, and with East Germany in particular. The first assured German security and re-assured the Western allies that the German problem would be solved only in the framework of an eventual European settlement. The second protected West Ger-man democracy and re-assured its European partners about the republic’s reliability as a democratic partner. The third assured the federal government of enough popular support for its Western oriented policies in a situation in which reunification would remain a far-away possibility.

In a situation of strained German-American relations and stagnating European unification, the East German overtures may well induce the Federal Republic to give more emphasis to restoring the identity of Germany as a nation, than to upholding the cohesion of the Western democracies. If so, freedom, democracy and the rule of law are bound to be the first casualties in Germany itself and in Western Europe at large.


  • Frans Alting von Geusau

    Frans Alting von Geusau (born in 1933 in Bilthoven) is a Dutch legal scholar and diplomat. When he wrote this article he was affiliated with the John F. Kennedy Institute in Tilburg, the Netherlands, and was also professor of international and European organizations at the Catholic University of Tilburg.

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