Last week, the Chautauqua Institution dedicated its programming to “Redefining Europe.” Then, last Friday, amid all the Europe talk, both the Greek parliament and the Eurozone finance ministers approved a bailout to keep Greece in the Eurozone. European Commissioner Jean-Claude Junker acknowledged that EU leaders have “looked into the abyss” of a Eurozone breakup this year, suggesting that they are now back from the brink of it. Eurozone leaders, once again, showed their intent to preserve the Euro and have chosen to take politically difficult actions to defend the credibility of the European Union. But Junker’s abyss is still there, even if the Eurozone has backed away from it. Europe still must be “redefined.” Part of that “redefining,” as the past few months have shown, will involve concessions to keep Europe’s perennially weaker economies in step with its stronger ones. Beyond that, how does Europe need to be “redefined”?
It is far from an academic question, and the Chautauqua speakers had some ideas. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen defended the EU as the 20th century’s “dullest miracle” for preserving peace during its tenure despite continually wrestling with budgetary and immigration issues. The EU has achieved its fundamental aim: preserving Europe’s stability.
To buy into the argument that EU expansion in any way pushed Russia into its current aggression in Ukraine, Cohen suggested, was to accept a myth that serves Putin. Meanwhile France and Italy, he argued, are powers to be taken more seriously than America currently sees them. In response to the Charlie Hebdo shootings in early 2015, France has explored enhanced intelligence capabilities to address domestic terrorist threats. Italy, meanwhile, under the leadership of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and with Mario Draghi leading the European Central Bank, has assumed a greater role in EU affairs than it did under former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Finally, German Chancellor Angela Merkel finds Germany in the EU’s captain’s chair, a state of affairs the EU itself was designed to prevent. America has prodded Merkel to lead Europe, in a manner that she, her fellow Germans, and many of her fellow Europeans (Greeks, in particular) find discomforting. Reluctance towards German leadership stems from a firm historical base, and the best that can be hoped for, Cohen argued, is a Germany that does just enough to keep Europe stable. Proactive leadership, particularly in the realm of defense, is asking too much.
Constanze Stelzenmuller, Robert Bosch Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, painted a different picture. German leaders, she argued, hold both the lessons of their nation’s past and the need for its contemporary leadership concurrently in their minds. In her view, Germany is intent on playing all of the leadership roles — economic and strategic — that its economic weight begs of it.
Stelzenmuller spoke of her advisory role on a current German Defense Ministry initiative to reassess the role of the German military in light of the renewed Russia threat. Tellingly, this initiative includes town hall meetings with German citizens to calibrate what level of support to expect for a more assertive strategic stance. Germans have balked at such efforts in the past; attempts to re-establish a standing army in West Germany early in the Cold War met with ambivalence among politicians and protests among citizens. Stelzenmuller suggests that decades-long tide is turning. Still, Germany’s leaders preserve the anti-Nazi graffiti that was placed on Berlin’s Reichstag by that cities’ liberators for a good reason. Germany’s role in Europe’s defense will change only after careful and public consideration.
It was not a coincidence that the writings of the late Tony Judt were discussed repeatedly. Judt, a former New York University professor and author of the classic Cold War history of Europe Postwar, analyzed the fundamental differences between the development of democracy in Europe and the United States. Building off the pre-World War II example of the Fabians in Britain, the role of democratic government in Europe had less of a free market character than America. Even before the rise and fall of the Nazis underscored the connection between economic and strategic stability, a broader belief prevailed in Europe than in America that government should maintain backstops for basic human needs.
As a result, taxes that were high enough to provide universal health care and stronger unemployment and social insurance have a level of support in Europe they do not, and likely will not, have in America. But Judt’s point is broader: Apples-to-apples comparisons of American and European democracy, while tempting, are not possible. Having endured the horrors of war on their own soil, many European countries see government as a force that stabilizes society. More insular and self-sufficient than most of Europe, many Americans still see government as a financial drag and creative constraint on its citizens’ inherent dynamism. When another post-World War II generation comes of age, the gap between the two may close. For now, it remains.
The EU’s latest actions towards Greece demonstrate an enduring commitment to the European project. Without minimizing its challenges, “redefining,” or even “reforming” Europe is a simpler job than rebuilding it. That is a blessing, and a mark in the EU’s favor during a challenging time in its history.