BERLIN -- “The message is this: The muddling through will continue.”
The speaker was Markus Kerber, head of the German Federation of Industries, responding to a question over whether Europe’s leaders can find a way out of the economic crisis that threatens to destroy decades of postwar efforts to build a united Europe. These days, “muddling through” is what passes for optimism on the continent as it faces its biggest economic and political crisis since the end of the Cold War.
Recently, a group of American and German journalists brought together by Germany’s Bosch Foundation and the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University had a chance to meet with German and European leaders to see whether the euro can survive.
In Germany, seen by needy countries as the potential but reluctant savior — a “bad Samaritan,” in the words of one pundit — the answer is a resounding Yes. But no one knows when, nor how. Germans feel resentful over being cast as the bad guys, even as anxiety rises in other capitals with each new declaration of one more bank or treasury facing insolvency and one more meeting of statesmen and bankers comes up empty-handed.
The big fear is that a failure to “muddle through” would lead to the collapse of the common currency and bring about the unraveling of the 17-nation Eurozone and, eventually, the larger, 27-nation European Union, the great postwar project designed to create a network of common interests and consign the rivalries that bred centuries of chronic warfare to the history books.
As an economic entity with a common trade policy and a single market, the EU has been a grand success. In 2011, it generated a gross domestic product of $17.578 trillion, surpassing the United States as the biggest economy in the world. But the dream of the EU’s founders and the implicit aspiration of its current leaders has always been something greater — a true political union consisting of separate countries with their own cultures and traditions (and 23 official languages) but sharing a common bond and some sort of strong central government.
Pipe dream? At the moment, it seems more unrealistic than ever. Yet to understand what’s at stake it’s worth recalling why the European Union was created in the first place and why nerves are strained as Europe slogs unhappily through its summer of malaise.
Ninety-six years ago this month, the balloon went up on the great Somme offensive of 1916 in northwestern France. It was designed to break the stalemate of trench warfare in World War I but it proved to be one of history’s greatest military follies. When it was over as winter set in, the battle had produced little except slaughter on a grand scale. Of the 100,000 British soldiers who entered no man’s land on the first day, 20,000 did not return. The renowned military historian John Keegan estimates that by the end, 1.2 million German, British and French soldiers had been killed and wounded at the Somme. Despite these staggering losses, the front lines hardly moved.
The Somme was the culmination of more than a thousand years of bad history across war-ravaged Europe. In The First World War, Keegan writes that the battle became a turning point in history: “The Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered.” Much the same can be said for Europe as a whole.