Thursday, December 1, 2011


In several days, I will depart a Europe that is on the brink of falling to pieces. It is nearly impossible to predict the specifics of the break-up of the Eurozone and the effect that will have on the European Union and the social cohesion of Europe's countries. But we are headed towards a disaster. Germany and the European Central Bank may still have the power to come to the rescue (Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski gave a great, impassioned speech addressed to Germany on Monday), but it appears it may be a matter of days before something snaps. It's a scary and depressing situation. The failure of the euro was not assured from the start, despite the EU not being an optimum currency area, etc. This could have been avoided, even as late as the last few weeks. I pray it still can.

Some talk of war. I worry about resurgent nationalism, I have worried about that for years. Does a major economic crisis make the election of a radical like Newt Gingrich or Marine Le Pen more likely? Yes. Is actual violence in Europe likely? Europe's suicide in 1914 and the carnage of the two world wars have probably extinguished the likelihood that western Europe will erupt into violence between states anytime soon. Also, most countries are embedded in NATO and have sold most of their tanks and planes. More likely is riots along the lines of what we saw in London this year.

But things can change quickly in times of upheaval. And even without violence, politics in a crisis could rip Europe apart. And that would be an unspeakable tragedy. 93 years ago, the armistice ending the Great War came into effect between the Allies and Germany. November 11 is a holiday across the European continent. It fell on a Friday this year, and I happened to be in Paris for a long weekend.

At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, by the Arc de Triomphe, surrounded by troops, tanks and dignitaries, President Nicolas Sarkozy stepped out of his vehicle to the pomp of "La Marseillaise," comically short next to a tall general in uniform. But the ceremony was completely somber. The head of state acknowledged a series of different groups of veterans, represented by guards with flags. He stood with the mothers, widows, and children of fallen soldiers from the past year, as an announcer read the names one by one, each punctuated by "Mort pour la France." The head of state laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc and gave a solemn speech. Only when the ceremony was over and he had walked past my vantage point on Av. Hoche did he reach out and shake the hands of his people, the politician rather than the national patriarch.

Two weeks later I visited Ypres, the Flemish cloth town resembling Bruges and Ghent which was absolutely demolished during the war, as it lay just on the Allied side of the front line for years. I lived this year with a former captain in the British Army's Royal Irish Regiment, Patrick Bury, and we had been planning a visit for months (he and my other roommates made it to another blood-soaked piece of Belgian soil, Bastogne, in Belgium's southeast corner where the German counter-offensive in early 1945 struck hard, for Armistice when I was in France). The supposedly can't-miss In Flanders Field Museum is unfortunately closed until June 2012, but the town was gorgeously restored, the huge and beautiful Cloth Hall looks much older than it really is.

We visited the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Messines, unveiled in 1998, months after the Good Friday Agreement, in tribute to all the Irish who died in the Great War. The German Soldier's Cemetery in Langemark, a few miles north, was the most haunting site. Small square stones are laid in the ground in a plot surrounded by a short wall and trees, each has a few names on it, many also say "10 [or 15 or 20] unknown German soldiers." We arriving in the dying light of the sun. I stood in front of a mass grave where another 24,917 German soldiers are buried. This is the site where I found my own surname among the names of the dead.

At 8 p.m., we came to Menin Gate, an imposing white marble arch at the eastern entry into town honoring the dead who have no known grave, who vanished into the muddy hell of the Ypres Salient. Churchill wanted to buy the entire town of Ypres; the Belgians declined, but they gave Britain the town gate. By the end of the 1920s the gate was constructed with about 55,000 names inscribed. The remaining 35,000 Commonwealth missing are honored at another nearby memorial, as they had run out of room on the gate. Every night at 8, buglers from the local fire brigade sound the Last Post to a gathered crowd. We looked at the names for a while, finding the Irish on the outside of the arch, then drove back to Brussels.

Decades of European integration have brought peace to the continent, along with prosperity and made most of its countries firmly democratic (there are always exceptions: Russia, Belarus, Liechtenstein, and the Vatican are not democracies and some of the democracies are pretty flawed). Western Europe in the past several decades has had about the highest standard of living of any place ever.

At the center of the European project stands the bilateral relationship between Germany and France. As I said, if the Eurozone and European Union fall to pieces in the next months over this crisis, instead of moving forward into deeper integration, it is very difficult to predict how it will happen and into what they will transform. But one scenario that seems likely it a more tightly integrated core Europe. Germany does not want to stand alone, and I would be shocked were it to give up on France. France will lose its AAA credit rating soon, but I expect it to retain a joint currency with Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and others. And though its debts are among the worst, Belgium will not leave the core either. Brussels is the capital of Europe, Belgium is economically healthy enough to grow. In a silver lining, the worsening euro crisis has led to a Belgian government after a world record 535 days - everything was agreed yesterday, and the new government will be sworn in on Monday.

The places where the fall of Europe will be most catastrophic, if it occurs, are on the periphery. Italy, one of the original six member states of the European Community, risks plunging out and into economic and political chaos. Greece's misery will continue. Portugal and Spain could be taken out by contagion. Further east, the EU's newer member states will have their economies damaged; Austria and Germany have already restricted lending to the east. Germany's other key bilateral relationship is indeed with Poland, and it would be devastated if the EU shrinks and excludes members who have done nothing wrong. The treatment of the Central and Eastern European member states is one of the real unpredictables of the crisis. And with a shrunken, inward-looking EU, the European dream could die in places like Belgrade, Sarajevo, Skopje, Pristina, Chisinau and Kyiv.

The crisis is scary and confusing. We can only hope that political leaders, particularly Angela Merkel, show braver and more enlightened leadership in the next days then they have in the last 20 months.

No comments:

Post a Comment