5 Questions With . . . Peter Rutland on the European Union

David PesciDecember 2, 201110min
Peter Rutland
Peter Rutland

Peter Rutland has mentioned in the past that many Americans know little about the European Union (E.U.), and what they know may be more based on myth than fact. With a major debt crisis threatening the E.U.’s very existence, 5 Questions thought it might be a good time to discuss some of these misconceptions with Professor Rutland who is Colin and Nancy Campbell Professor in Global Issues and Democratic Thought, professor of government and professor of Russian and Eastern European studies.

Q: What is one of the more significant myths many Americans believe is a “fact” about the E.U.?

A: That the European Union brought peace to Europe. Many liberals tend to idealize the European Union as an attractive alternative to the United States – a place which is peaceful rather than violent, communitarian rather than individualist, and with a strong social safety net. Many conservatives demonize the Europeans for the same reasons. When all is said and done, the bottom-line defense of the European Union is that it has ended the centuries old proclivity of European states for invading each other. It’s true that most of Europe has enjoyed six decades without war. But this was due to Uncle Sam and Uncle Joe (Stalin) physically occupying the continent and dismantling its armies in 1945. NATO and the Warsaw Pact were in place well before the emergence of European Community institutions. It was the Cold War, and not the Brussels bureaucracy, that preserved the peace in Europe.

There is also the problem of the wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. This was a conflict for which Yugoslavia’s European neighbors share some responsibility, because of their precipitate recognition of the independence of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, followed by their inability to stop the fighting until the US intervened.

Q: What about the often-heard assertion that the European Union has transcended the nation-state?

A: Another myth. European federalists have been proclaiming the end of the nation-state for decades. Far from abolishing the nation-state, the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner of the E.U., was introduced to rebuild and hence rescue the nation-states of Europe that had been destroyed by World War Two. Their economies were in ruins, their political elites discredited, and their societies polarized. Economic integration was the only way for national political elites to rebuild their countries and restore their sovereignty.

In recent years the European Union has actually enabled and encouraged the splintering of Europe into smaller sovereign entities. It has given a home to the small nations that emerged from the break-up of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia; and its existence has emboldened nationalists from Scotland to Catalonia. Moreover, there is no evidence that a federal Europe is evolving over time. Periodic polls of Europeans do not show any trend over time towards closer identification with Europe rather than their national identities.

Q: Even with all this, we often hear Europe’s economic model is superior to ours, especially with regard to quality of life and health care?

A: Europe certainly scores well on quality of life, health and equality indicators. However, the Greek crisis has revealed a design flaw at the heart of the European model. The introduction of the Euro in 1999 meant a common currency for the 17 states now in the Euro-zone, but there was no mechanism in place to enforce fiscal probity, nor to correct trade imbalances. This mismatch between fiscal and monetary policy is a structural design flaw akin to the location of the gas tank on the Ford Pinto, which could blow up both the tank and the car in a crash.

As a result Greece and others were allowed to run huge and persistent budget and trade deficits. Depreciation of the national currency was a time-tested mechanism for correcting such imbalances – one that is not available to members of the Eurozone. In the U.S. states also do not have their own currencies to devalue – but in contrast to the E.U., the states are not allowed to run a deficit, and the rule is strictly enforced.  In the face of a gap in competitiveness between member states, the existence of a common language and culture and a more flexible housing market (at least before the current crisis) make it easier for workers to move between U.S. states than between countries inside the European Union.

Q: Ok, how about another commonly-repeated “fact” that the European Union has abolished borders?

A: Only partly. It is truly a remarkable feeling to sit in a car in Poznan and drive all the way to Brussels without having to show a passport. How many lives were lost, and how much suffering there was, fighting across those German borders in the course of the 20th century. However, mobility within Europe is not as untrammeled as mobility within the US. Each member country still has jurisdiction over citizenship, migration and refugee policy. Regulations for guest-workers from outside the EU also vary from country to country. In the wake of the Tunisian revolution, for example, France reintroduced border controls with Italy to stem the tide of refugees headed their way. Deportations of Romanians from France and other countries, back to E.U. member Romania, have also taken place. Some EU members, such as Britain, remain outside the Schengen free mobility zone altogether.

Q: OK, one more. Europeans are more tolerant than Americans.

A: Not really. For many years Europeans pointed to the sorry state of race relations in the U.S. and the enduring legacy of slavery. However, liberal smugness over the inclusiveness of European national identities has taken a hit in recent years as large immigrant communities, particular those from the Moslem world, have challenged the prevailing Christian or secular model of integration.  France was convulsed by the ban on headscarves in schools, now extended to a ban on the full-face burqa in public. Britain was proud of its multicultural redefinition of British identity – until the subway bombings of July 7, 2005. Three of the four perpetrators had been born and raised in Britain, and polls showed 15 percent of British Moslems supported the use of violence for political ends. Even tranquil Norway saw the insanity of Anders Breivik’s killing spree this past July. In contrast the U.S. model of assimilation is still working well. The United States is home to the largest number of immigrants in the world, and the immigration debates here have not risen to the level of existential crisis that we see across Europe.

Europe and the United States face common challenges and must work together to find common solutions. In times of crisis it is all too easy to resort to finger-pointing and stereotyping: scoring cheap political points at home by denigrating the other. Anti-Americanism has been a standard trope in European politics of the left and the right, while the Iraq war saw the U.S. Congress renaming “Freedom Fries.” But there is more that unites than divides the two economic powers sitting on either side of the Atlantic. Both the American and European models have distinctive strengths and weaknesses, and these have often served to complement each other, if the politicians on both sides approach the relationship with understanding and tolerance for the differences that unite us.