This article was first published on the Stratfor website.
The author, George Friedman, is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the
world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence.
The European financial crisis is moving to a new level. The Germans
have finally consented to lead a bailout effort for Greece. The effort
has angered the German public, which has acceded with sullen reluctance.
It does not accept the idea that it is Germans’
responsibility to save Greeks from their own actions. The Greeks
are enraged at the reluctance, having understood that membership in the
European Union meant that Greece’s problems were Europe’s.
And this is not just a Greek matter. Geographically, the problem is
the different levels of development of Mediterranean Europe versus
Northern Europe. During the last generation, the Mediterranean countries
have undergone major structural changes and economic development. They
have also undergone the inevitable political tensions that rapid growth
generates. As a result, their political and economic condition is
substantially different from that of Northern Europe, whose development
surge took place a generation before and whose political structure has
come into alignment with its economic condition.
European Unity and Diversity
Northern and Southern Europe are very different places, as are the
former Soviet satellites still recovering from decades of occupation.
Even on this broad scale, Europe is thus an extraordinarily diverse
portrait of economic, political and social conditions. The foundation of
the European project was the idea that these nations could be combined
into a single economic regime and that that economic regime would mature
into a single united political entity. This was, on reflection, a
rather extraordinary idea.
Europeans, of course, do not think of themselves as Mediterranean or
Northern European. They think of themselves as Greek or Spanish, Danish
or French. Europe is divided into nations, and for most Europeans,
identification with their particular nation comes first. This is deeply
embedded in European history. For the past two centuries, the European
obsession has been the nation. First, the Europeans tried to separate
their own nations from the transnational dynastic empires that had
treated European nations as mere possessions of the Hapsburg, Bourbon or
Romanov families. The history of Europe since the French Revolution was
the emergence and resistance of the nation-state. Both Nazi Germany and
the Soviet Union attempted to create multinational states dominated by a
single state. Both failed, and both were hated for the attempt.
There is a paradox in the European mindset. On the one hand, the
recollection of the two world wars imbued Europeans with a deep mistrust
of the national impulse. On the other hand, one of the reasons
nationalism was distrusted was because of its tendency to make war on
other nation-states and try to submerge their identities. Europe feared
nationalism out of a very nationalist impulse.
European Union was designed to create a European identity while
retaining the nation-state. The problem was not in the principle, as it
is possible for people to have multiple identities. For example, there
is no tension between being an Iowan and an American. But there is a
problem with the issue of shared fate. Iowans and Texans share a bond
that transcends their respective local identities. Their national
identity as Americans means that they share not only transcendent values
but also fates. A crisis in Iowa is a crisis in the United States, and
not one in a foreign country as far as Texans are concerned.
The Europeans tried to finesse this problem. There was to be a
European identity, yet national identities would remain intact. They
wrote a nearly 400-page-long constitution, an extraordinary length. But
it was not really a constitution. Rather, it was a treaty that sought to
reconcile the concept of Europe as a single entity while retaining the
principle of national sovereignty that Europe had struggled with
for centuries. At root, Europe’s dilemma was no different from the
American dilemma — only the Americans ultimately decided, in the Civil
War, that being an American transcended being a Virginian. One could be a
Virginian, but Virginia shared the fate of New York, and did so
irrevocably. The Europeans could not state this unequivocally as they
either did not believe it or lacked the ability to militarily impress
the belief upon the rest of Europe. So they tried to finesse it in long,
complex and ultimately opaque systems of governance that ultimately
left the nations of Europe with their sovereignty intact.
When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, there was no question among
the Germans that East and West Germany would be united. Nor were serious
questions raised that the cost of economically and socially reviving
East Germany would be borne by West Germany. Germany was a single
country that history had divided, and when history allowed them to be
reunited, Germans would share the burdens. Ever since the 19th century,
when Germany began to conceive of itself as one country, there was an
idea that to be a German meant to share a single fate and burdens.
This was the same for the
rest of Europe that organized itself into nation-states, where the
individual identified his fate with the fate of the nation. For a Pole
or an Irishman, the fate of his country was part of his fate. But a Pole
was not an Irishman and an Irishman was not a Pole. They might share
interests, but not fates. The nation is the place of tradition, language
and culture — all of the things that, for better or worse, define who
you are. The nation is the place where an economic crisis is inescapably
part of your life.
Greek financial crisis emerged, other Europeans asked the simple
question, “What has this to do with me?” From their point of view, the
Greeks were foreigners. They spoke a different language, had a different
culture, shared a different history. The Germans might be affected by
the crisis — German banks held Greek debt — but the Germans were not
Greeks, and they did not share the Greeks’ fate. And this was not just
the view of Germany, the economic leader of Europe, by any means.
In the past, Mexico has had several economic crises in which the
United States intervened to stabilize Mexico. This was done because it
was in the American interest to do so, not because the United States and
Mexico were one country. So, too, in Europe: The bailout of Greece is
designed not because Greece is part of Europe, but because it is in the
rest of Europe’s interest to bail Greece out. But the heart of the
matter is that Greece is a foreign country.
The Question of European Identity
During the generation of prosperity between the early 1990s and 2008,
the question of European identity and national identity really did not
arise. Being a European was completely compatible with being a Greek.
Prosperity meant there was no choice to make. Economic crisis meant that
choices had to be made, between the interests of Europe, the
interests of Germany and the interests of Greece, as they were no
longer the same. What happened was not a European solution, but a series
of national calculations on self-interest; it was a negotiation between
foreign countries, not a European solution growing organically from the
recognition of a single, shared fate.
Ultimately, Europe was an abstraction. The
nation-state was real. We could see this earliest and best not in
the economic arena, but in the area of foreign policy and national
defense. The Europeans as a whole never managed to develop either. The
foreign policies of the United Kingdom, Germany and Poland were quite
different and in many ways at odds. And war, even more than economics,
is the sphere in which nations endure the greatest pain and risk. None
of the European nations was prepared to abandon national sovereignty in
this area, meaning no country was prepared to put the bulk of its armed
forces under the command of a European government — nor were they
prepared to cooperate in defense matters unless it was in their
The unwillingness of the Europeans to transfer sovereignty in foreign
and defense matters to the European Parliament and a European president
was the clearest sign that the Europeans had not managed to reconcile
European and national identity. Europeans knew that when it came down to
it, the nation mattered more than Europe. And that understanding, under
the pressure of crisis, has emerged in economics as well. When there is
danger, your fate rests with your country.
The European experiment originated as a recoil from the
ultranationalism of the first half of the 20th century. It was intended
to solve the problem of war in Europe. But the problem of nationalism is
that not only is it more resilient than the solution, it also derives
from the deepest impulses of the Enlightenment. The idea of democracy
and of national self-determination grew up as part of a single fabric.
In taking away national self-determination, the European experiment
seemed to be threatening the foundation of modern Europe.
There was another impulse behind the idea of Europe. Most of the
European nations, individually, were regional powers at best, unable to
operate globally. They were therefore weaker than the United States.
Europe united would not only be able to operate globally, it would be
the equal of the United States. If the nation-states of Europe were no
longer great individually, Europe as a whole could be. Embedded in the
idea of Europe, particularly in the Gaullist view of it, was the idea of
as a whole regaining its place in the world, the place it lost
after two world wars.
That clearly is not going to happen. There is no European foreign and
defense policy, no European army, no European commander in chief. There
is not even a common banking or budgetary policy (which cuts to the
heart of today’s crisis). Europe will not counterbalance the United
States because, in the end, Europeans
do not share a common vision of Europe, a common interest in the
world or a mutual trust, much less a common conception of exactly what
counterbalancing the United States would mean. Each nation wants to
control its own fate so as not to be drawn back into the
ultranationalism of a Germany in the 1930s and 1940s or the indifference
to nationalism of the Hapsburg Empire. The Europeans like their nations
and want to retain them. After all, the nation is who they actually
That means that they approach the financial crisis of Mediterranean
Europe in a national, as opposed to European, fashion. Both those in
trouble and those who might help calculate their moves not as Europeans
but as Germans or Greeks. The question, then, is simple: Given that
Europe never came together in terms of identity, and given that the
economic crisis is elevating national interest well over European
interest, where does this all wind up?
The European Union is an association — at most an alliance — and not a
transnational state. There was an idea of making it such a state, but
that idea failed a while ago. As an alliance, it is a system of
relationships among sovereign states. They participate in it to the
extent that it suits their self-interest — or fail to participate when
In the end, what we have learned is that Europe is not a country. It
is a region, and in this region there are nations and these nations are
comprised of people united by shared history and shared fates. The other
nations of Europe may pose problems for these people, but in the end,
they share neither a common moral commitment nor a common fate.
This means that nationalism
is not dead in Europe, and neither is history. And the complacency
with which Europeans have faced their future, particularly when it has
concerned geopolitical tensions within Europe, might well prove
premature. Europe is Europe, and its history cannot be dismissed as
obsolete, much less over.