The Breakfast Table

United States of Europe?


What struck me about your last comments yesterday–which were about two issues that I have, to be honest, not been tracking at all–is how American they are. That is, what we have in both cases are arguably cultural issues–indeed, in both cases largely religious issues, since it is at least partly the Christian prohibition on suicide that makes Kevorkianism such a charged question–but we try to resolve them not by relying on tradition but by appealing to an abstract legal principle. From the point of view of most countries, it would all seem quite unnatural; but it is how America works, and one of the reasons we have managed to unite such a diverse population into a great nation.

All of which gives me a somewhat awkward lead back into the dominant story of the day, and one of its implications. Beyond the human horror of what is going on in Kosovo, the events there also mark a big setback for the attempt of another large, diverse group of people–namely, the Europeans–to try to find something like an American-style unity in diversity.

The drive for European unity has, after all, been one of the major stories of the last decade. You can’t really make sense of the creation of a common currency as an economic plan–the economic case for the euro has always been ambiguous at best, and the first few months of its launch seem to confirm the strength of all of the skeptical arguments; but the euro was supposed to serve as a symbol of a broader political unity and (though no one would admit it) hasten the day when a true United States of Europe might emerge. And on the face of it, European unity seems quite realizable: All of the governments of western Europe are now, praise be, democratic regimes with a strong commitment to civil liberties; they have even converged to broadly similar economic performance (and “cohesed”–I love Eurospeak–to broadly similar levels of development, which is not the same thing). Why shouldn’t they be able to act as a unit?

But Europe turns out to be quite unable to police genocidal activities by a small nation a few hundred miles away. And by the way, for the Europeans the issue is not “merely” humanitarian: Sooner or later the Kosovar refugees are going to start trying to make their way into Italy and Germany.

You could point out that the United States does not seem to be particularly able to clean up messes near its borders either–witness Haiti. But the European idea is still a fragile one, which needs practical and/or moral successes to give it substance. Suppose that–as seems all too possible–the Kosovo crisis turns into a European moral debacle, with Germany and Italy willing neither to risk the lives of their soldiers to reclaim Kosovo for its inhabitants nor to accept the refugees. What will that do to the moral authority of Europe?