Why Does the EU Still Look Good in Many American Eyes?

The United States offered crucial backing to the European integration cause at its postwar inception. It has mainly been silent when the EU has gone down harmful paths as with the decision to create a flawed currency union largely on political grounds. It has often shown composure when European leaders have lashed out at American ‘hyper-power’ in a bid to find synthetic unity for a European unity project lacking  the  solidarity and coherence which has driven forward the American one for several centuries.

American sponsorship of the EU during its difficult formative years is forgotten because it is not in the interests of the EU to give it prominence. No concrete edifice in the sprawling EU quarter of Brussels is named after any post-1945 U.S. leader, (Dwight Eisenhower, Dean Acheson, or John Foster Dulles) who were ardent proponents of a post-national European order. During the Republican presidency of Dwight Eisenhower from 1953 to 1961, constant encouragement for accelerating the integration drive came from the United States. Major funding for transnational initiatives continued to be available and backing for European trade liberalisation continued despite its harmful effects on American steel exports to Europe. The USA facilitated the creation of Euratom against the interest of its own atomic energy industry. European gratitude was simply too onerous a burden to bear.

It is doubtful if American officials would have desisted from backing European cooperation if they had known of the store of future resentment and suspicion that would accrue from major EU figures from Charles de Gaulle to Jacques Delors and Valery Giscard d’Estaing. Pan-European cooperation was the condition for the release of funds in war-shattered Western Europe not only because it seemed sensible and there was a predatory Soviet Union to keep out. Memories were still vivid in Washington about the national rivalries at the end Of World War I which swiftly curtailed U.S. efforts to be a stabilising force in a post-imperial Europe.

The only nation left standing in Europe was Britain. Imbued with the republican spirit, many American decision-makers found the British Empire to be an objectionable anachronism. They had the financial means to hasten its demise and used their hold over their bankrupt British ally to pursue that end. Today, this anti-imperial spirit illuminates the White House. President Barack Obama could not bear to have an image of Winston Churchill in the Oval Office. Instead, he lauds the European Union perhaps because and not despite the fact that it has turned into a hoarder of state power bound to make any believer in the efficacy of the American separation of powers a little nervous.

In 2009, at his first overseas summit, Obama declared: ’There is a united Europe. I believe in a strong Europe, and a strong European Union, and my administration is committed to doing everything we can to support you’. Much of the EU was already staring into a financial crisis as indeed was the USA. While the USA was prepared to allow insolvent financial institutions to go down and take steps to revive economic activity through stimulus measures, the response of the EU was very different. Its priority was to defend a failed monetary experiment and its main beneficiary the financial sector. Debt was piled on citizens and austerity measures were imposed that tilted some of the worst-affected countries towards full-scale depression.  Ideology, and the need to safeguard various insider interests, took precedence over upholding the well-being of citizens reeling from a financial emergency, one that continues unabated in 2014 several years after the USA posted pre-crisis levels of growth.

But what seems to impress an instinctive champion of big government like Obama is the onward march of centralised direction from the EU even as its core economic project comes unstuck.  Social, environmental, and multicultural projects designed to have a big impact on the demographic, energy, labour market, and justice spheres of the 28-member European Union, keep being rolled out. They have to be implemented under EU law which takes precedence over that of member countries. 

Perhaps he dreams of the USA acquiring its own acquis communautaire, the bible of the EU administration in Brussels, comprising thousands of common standards, laws, and regulations that now regulate every facet of daily life and comprising 80,000 pages of text.   Mark Leonard, the head of the European Council on Foreign Relations has described this as ‘the most exciting experiment in the democratic world’. In the heady pre-crisis atmosphere of 2005, when the rejection by French and Dutch voters of a European Constitution was  simply overridden by Eurocrats, he wondered about the lack of enthusiasm of so many European voters for the great experiment.

It is quite possible that Obama, in his turn, either in presidential memoirs or on lecture tours, will chastise the American people for in the main being numb towards his vision of an interventionist American state which, allied with corporate interests and NGOs which are so often a proxy for the state, seeks to micromanage citizens lives in much the same way as is happening in Europe. 

It is hard to know what Obama would have made of Jean Monnet, the chief architect of a post-national Europe. The son of a brandy maker in the Cognac region of France, he never bothered to obtain a university degree and was an arch-pragmatist compared with Eurocrats of today and many of those American intellectuals who admire the EU model. Before reaching thirty, he became a senior administrator responsible for France’s overseas supply during the First World War. Such an experience converted him to the idea of global interdependence.

Monnet was immersed in the Anglophone world until he had almost reached the age of sixty. By the end of the 1930s, according to a French aide, Jean-Louis Mandereau, he wrote French poorly [having] completely abandoned the French milieu . . . Frankly, when I was working with Monnet in the United States, he was an American who was defending the interests of France. We only spoke English. He was more at ease among Americans than Frenchmen.'

He was also an unabashed Anglophile who had helped prepare the text on Anglo-French union agreed by the British war cabinet in May 1940 (a reference to Britain and France adopting a common currency being struck out). Certainly, Monnet had acquired the reputation of  ‘the Frenchman that Washington trusted most’ by the close of the world conflict. He won the confidence of top U.S. officials in the administration and across the political spectrum in Washington, DC. His commitment to functional integration, involving the transfer of more and more governmental functions from national to a European-level administration, made plenty of sense to leading Americans. Monnet was active at a time when the U.S. federal government had acquired almost unprecedented power over the future states of the union due to the way in which America had mobilised in the world emergency from 1941 onwards.

Initially, Monnet had invested much hope in a transnational Europe guided by France and Britain. But Britain was still a country used to limited government. A close link-up with France where centralized management of the citizens by a bureaucratic elite was the norm, was unlikely to have worked. Instead, by the start of the 1950s, he began to view Franco-German cooperation as being capable of promoting the synergy for a new European political framework.

Both Monnet and the USA were discomfited by the rise of Charles de Gaulle, who was firmly in control of France by 1958. De Gaulle concluded that the EU need not be a curb on the French nationalism which defined his own ruling philosophy. He was able to use the nascent European institutions as a platform for French influence. For a long time the EU embodied the French desire for a ‘strong Europe with weak institutions’ that could easily be managed by a lead EU player like France. The West Germany of Konrad Adenauer usually acquiesced, mindful of the major imperative of using Franco-German reconciliation to restore a democratic German state to a respected place in European affairs.

Nationalism has continued to determine the allocation of resources and posts within the EU thanks to the example set by France. West Germany was too self-effacing to vigorously promote a genuinely federal Europe. When, after unification in the year 2000, German foreign minister Joschka  Fischer, made such an approach to Hubert Vedrine, his French counterpart (also on the political left), he was told his idea was unrealistic.

Fifteen years later, French power has waned inside the EU but only for a new national imperative to arise, that of Germany. At each stage of a crisis that is now in its fifth year, its primary concern has been to protect particular German economic interests. A short-term and defensive perspective  which enjoys trans-party backing in Berlin, shows that any wider European loyalties may be  fast receding.

In September 2011 at a particularly difficult stage in the crisis, the U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner arrived for a regular summit of EU finance Ministers. His aim was to persuade the Eurozone chiefs to move away from rigid austerity and embrace fiscal stimulus as had happened in the USA. But several participants criticised his attendance and Germany’s finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, was emphatically opposed to his ideas: ‘That has never been the European model and it won’t be.’ Several months later, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing issued a statement clearly blaming ill- intentioned American interests for the crisis:

‘It is a crisis manufactured from without. We find ourselves in a destabilised monetary configuration, where the European currency is the subject of a deliberate and organised attack by the financial markets, particularly the Anglo-Saxon ones’.

The EU is increasingly a preserve of special interests and a shrinking number of nations which benefit from the application of its rules. There is a dangerous disconnect between an EU-oriented ruling group and a disgruntled society in a large number of countries, as the success of anti-system parties in this May’s European elections showed.

The EU is not a union guaranteeing liberty and promoting a diffusion of power and opportunity which large numbers of citizens can avail themselves of. Instead, it is a polity hungry for ever more powers but lacking the means or inclination to exercise them fairly and efficiently.

French and German state leaders colluded to change the governments of Italy and Greece in 2011 when they impeded the latest EU crisis moves. The resemblance with past European eras when high-handed behaviour shaded into outright absolutist rule is simply too awkward for some to ignore.

It is hard to see the continuing allure of the EU in America unless the career goals of leaders like Obama offer a justification. Too often the EU has embraced the easy option of blaming America for its own shortcomings.  Its crisis management since 2008 has been glaringly amateur and has come to place at risk the stability of the global economy in general, not just Europe’s place at the top economic table. The system of governance which the architects of this proto-state seek to consolidate, as a crisis saps the EU’s strength, is at variance with the U.S. model of limited government and carefully separated powers. It is baffling and unsettling that a bankrupt European model continues to have American advocates when it harbors so much disdain for its own citizens and inclines towards the absolutism which America has so far been opposed to in its own affairs.

Tom Gallagher has published twelve single authored books on European politics and society including the recent Europe’s Path to Crisis:   Disintegration via Monetary Union ‘(Manchester University Press, hardback and paper editions) and is Emeritus Professor of Politics, at the University of Bradford in Britain.

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