In the early years of the current century, confident predictions about the inevitable rise of Europe to a position of world power and influence filled the air over the Atlantic.  The recent travails of the European Union have undermined that confidence.  The apparent and impending economic collapse of the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain) has not only challenged the economic viability of the euro as a common currency but has raised fundamental questions about the long-term prospects of European economic and political integration.  The collapse of the euro, or even of the European Union itself, is still unlikely in the immediate term.  Nevertheless, the current crises have shown that the European Union, for all its layers of organization, is at heart still a fair-weather union.  The arduous and ultimately joyless compromises that have allowed its members to paper over the cracks and put together bailout packages for Greece and Ireland still leave Brussels facing an existential crisis.  Europe has a long way to go before it can respond effectively as a unit to the challenges of the future.

One could hope that the current problems will inspire both further discussion of the concrete political weaknesses of Europe and interest in the historical development of European institutions that have brought us to where we are today.  Any such discussion, though, will have to begin with the simplest of questions: Why should the European Union exist at all?  At various points—the failure of the European Defense Community in 1954; the collapse of the Fouchet Plan for European political cooperation in 1962; Denmark’s rejection of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992; French and Dutch rejection of the European Constitution in 2005; the initial rejection of the Nice Treaty by Ireland in 2008—the European project has suffered setbacks.  It has always recovered, however, mostly because the member states have always shrunk back from the ultimate decision, to break up the union altogether.

Why?  One reason is that, for all of the European Union’s weaknesses, a return to a nonintegrated Europe holds little practical appeal.  Only the outer fringe of Euroskeptics advocates a complete abandonment of integration and a return to national barriers to trade and commerce within the Continent.  Once in the club, no member (not even Thatcher’s Britain) has wanted to risk losing the advantages of membership, and no amount of obstructionism has resulted in a member being expelled.  Larger states such as Germany are reluctant to give up the advantages of a common external tariff, and smaller states would be even more at the mercy of their large neighbors than they are within the European Union.  Finally, there are the simple power of inertia and fear of the unknown; it is not that easy to imagine fundamental change.

Described in this way, however, the European Union of today relies more on lack of imagination than on any positive enthusiasm for its continued existence.  Which brings us to the crux of the problem.  Simply put, economic advantages, however real they may be during good times, have not in the end been enough to create enthusiasm for the European project that can be counted on to rally the public in bad times, and it is a profound mistake to assume otherwise.  A generation of technocrats, unwilling or afraid to make direct public political arguments for European unity, held out the hope that economic cooperation would inevitably create a sense of common European identity.  In that way they were similar to the “postpolitical” Europhiles of the last 20 years who have disdained plans for political integration and actively rejected any efforts to give Europe a clear cultural or geographical definition.  Together, those constituencies, allied with a political class reluctant to spend political capital in favor of Europe, but willing to use Europe as the scapegoat or distraction from domestic problems, have helped create a European Union that expands without clear purpose, lurches from crisis to crisis, and relies on vague claims of future world influence to hide its repeated actual failures.

This is the European Union that many Americans love to hate, and readers of this journal probably need no further encouragement in their disdain for it.  But it adds little to the current crisis to leave things at that.  The single-largest misconception among both Euroskeptics and Europhiles is the belief that a commitment to European integration is identical to approval of the European Union as it is.  A close second is that the European Union is by its nature an excessively idealist left-liberal project, which makes Euroskepticism appear to be a natural position for realists.  Both are historically false and philosophically pernicious.  For whatever one may think of the European Union as it currently exists, there are solid practical reasons for wanting to see European integration succeed, and it is time that thoughtful Americans and Europeans take a moment to consider those reasons.

The notion that European integration is a woolly idealistic project is historically false because many of the founders and current leaders of the European Union—from Robert Schumann, Konrad Adenauer, Alcide De Gasperi, and Charles de Gaulle to Helmut Kohl, Nicolas Sarkozy, and even Angela Merkel—were and are practical people.  They believed that Europe had a political and cultural mission that could not be fulfilled if the peoples of Europe continued the fratricidal rivalries that had culminated in two horrific world wars.  Motivated by a combination of realism and idealism—recognition that individual European states could not hope to act on a global scale in competition with continental superpowers, combined with a belief in the existence of a distinctive European identity that required active preservation—they wanted to encourage political as well as economic integration.  That did not mean that they always agreed on the proper steps to take, but it did mean that they refused to allow disagreements on details to lead them to abandon the larger project.  The current shortcomings of the European Union should not obscure the historical significance of that original vision.

Any effort to restore that vision also requires addressing the philosophical barriers that keep self-styled realists away.  The highest barrier is the belief that the nation-state alone can be the legitimate source of political authority, and that any broader European visions are postmodern fantasies.  Faith in the nation-state has deep roots in Europe’s history, of course, back to the fragmentation of Christendom into individual sovereignties in the late Middle Ages, reinforced by the wars of religion and then sanctified by the rise of nationalism as political religion in the 19th century.  At the same time, however, the concept of Europe as a distinct cultural and political space has an even longer pedigree, beginning with the Romans and continuing through the tradition of Europe as Christendom to its secular reconfiguration as the Cold War West, which Continental intellectuals remember much better than their Anglo-American counterparts.  One can continue to debate the practical advantages of either position, but it is fundamentally wrong to assume that the nation-state is the only possible alternative for the future.

Devotees of the nation-state continue to style themselves as practical realists compared with European dreamers.  But realism should also demand that international actors realize that their interests can change and recognize that obsessive attachment to anachronistic structures is far from realistic.  In the 1960’s Franz Josef Strauß, at the time one of the leading conservative politicians in Europe and one of the strongest advocates of European integration as part of a broader strategy of strengthening the West, put it best when he said,

some things simply no longer make sense, such as the idea that any European state—no matter its name, no matter how glorious its history, no matter how impressive its traditions—will be recognized in Moscow as an equal partner.  One cannot ignore the laws of mathematics.

Substitute “Beijing” or “Washington” for “Moscow”—or leave it as it is, for that matter—and the statement is truer than ever.  Europe can celebrate its historical variety and still recognize the need for common action, but only if the acolytes of realism are willing to look realistically at the world as it is and draw the necessary conclusions from the mathematics of power.  Strauß also rejected a limited vision for Europe that reduced integration to its economic advantages.  Europe, he declared, is not a “corporation, in which one can buy stock,” but a community that should develop common political goals.  His statements should resonate today.

The current crisis should also lead realists to consider their understanding of the relationship between functioning markets and legitimate political authority.  Recent events have led to something of a bipartisan consensus on the failure of the European Union to develop enough legitimacy to manage the economy effectively.  Extreme-left organizations have attacked the European Union for imposing austerity budgets on Greece and Ireland without democratic legitimacy, essentially applying to Brussels the criticisms they have honed for decades of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.  More surprisingly, left-liberal commentators such as Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman have joined the chorus.  Krugman blames the euro for the depth of the crisis, since the common currency has robbed the PIIGS of devaluation, the one tool they could use to manage their debts, and recently he has suggested that states should consider withdrawing from the common currency.  There is great irony in seeing Krugman embrace arguments against the euro that free-market economists have always made.  It is certainly true that the common currency, whatever its advantages in facilitating trade and exchange, places serious limitations on the monetary wiggle room of member-states in times of crisis, even as it fails to provide reliable instruments to rein in the fiscal irresponsibility of those member-states.  The only way to balance that weakness would be if the European Union included sufficiently legitimate federal institutions that could manage the community’s fiscal and monetary policies.

Herein lies the rub.  Euroskeptics have famously resisted steps toward federal political structures in Europe, even as they complain about the democratic illegitimacy of the Eurocrats in Brussels.  For their part, progressives like Krugman have, especially in recent years, tended to celebrate the decentralized nature of the European Union, to the point that recent commentators have celebrated the postmodern “networks” of the “Eurosphere” as superior to old-fashioned federal sovereignty.  Many such works cite the internet as their favored model, with its multidirectional web and absence of a single center.  Both of these visions overlook the inconvenient truth that the internet, like any apparently decentralized market, required a strong central authority under whose guiding hand it could grow.  In the case of the internet, that guiding hand was the U.S. government (more precisely, the Pentagon).  Once up and running, the internet outgrew that original frame, but it would not have existed without it.  Thoughtful people may disagree on the proper extent of government influence, but sober historical analysis leads to the unavoidable conclusion that to imagine the European Union functioning indefinitely, especially in times of crisis, without a legitimate central authority is fanciful at best and irresponsible at worst.

A final philosophical objection comes from those who question whether an integrated Europe is really in the U.S. interest at all.  When they imagine Europe, they see Gerhard Schröder and Jacques Chirac resisting the call for war in Iraq, or just a collection of hypersecular welfare states that appears to contradict all they hold dear.  They reject the idea of a Europe with one voice in favor of a Europe of multiple voices, so that Washington can pick and choose its friends when it suits, and ignore them when it does not.  This attitude, honed during the zenith of American “hyperpower” after the Cold War, is dangerously out of place in a world of relative American decline.  These positions mirror the often-facile Europhilia on the American left that vaguely embraces Europe as a blue state, while demonstrating little knowledge of, or interest in, stronger political integration, and they are just as dangerously provincial and shortsighted.  Europe, after all, needs to be recognized as something more than simply a projection of American political prejudices.  Furthermore, if all those pious statements from both sides of the Atlantic during the Cold War about Atlantic partnership and Western civilization ever had any meaning, there should be some faith that the United States and a unified Europe can find common ground in a partnership of equals.  Of course, there will be the risk that Europe could use that one voice to say non, as did Chirac and Schröder, but constructive disagreement is essential to real partnership.  Besides, how many readers of this article would say that the Europeans were wrong to be skeptical about invading Iraq?

Once, when pressed by a reporter on the European reaction to American policy, Henry Kissinger sarcastically asked what phone number he should call to speak to “Europe.”  Today more than ever, it is in the interest of both Europeans and Americans to answer Kissinger’s question, to see that the European project regains its élan and lives up to its promise.  A Europe that possesses legitimate and effective federal organs, speaks with one voice in the world, and is represented at its pinnacle by respected and democratically legitimate leaders (instead of earnest bureaucratic nonentities) would strengthen the West.  As she confronts a much more complicated world, where increasing power is in the hands of undemocratic forces, the United States needs an equal democratic partner, not a collection of semi-ineffectual sidekicks.  A strong, confident, integrated Europe can be that partner.

Such a Europe will not emerge automatically, certainly not in the face of the current economic and political malaise.  Building it will require a reinvigorated discussion of both the means and the ultimate ends of European integration among Europeans and Europe’s allies that does not shy away from confronting difficult questions about the size and shape of Europe, and about the sacrifices that building Europe will require.  Nevertheless, it is time to reexamine cherished habits of thought and to shore up both European integration and the Atlantic partnership.  Muddling through could continue, but the result will simply be more muddle.  Europeans and Americans should want to do better.